1963 is not an end, but a beginning…
—Martin Luther King
There are places I remember
All my life,
Though some have changed…
Some are gone and some remain.
Oh, these places have their meanings…
—John Lennon and Paul McCartney from In My Life
There are places I remember; some are gone and some remain. Ten years ago I returned to one of those places that remains—the Lilly Hall of Life Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I’d been invited there to be part of an academic discussion with faculty from the Department of Agronomy at Purdue. As I entered the building that Wednesday and climbed the wide stairway leading to the third floor where the discussion was to take place, I passed a number of undergraduate students moving from one class to another. Their youthful faces prompted a flood of memories for me of my own undergraduate student days at Purdue—and also of other times I had climbed those stairs even earlier.
I recalled walking them for the first time in June of 1963 at the beginning of an eight-week National Science Foundation-sponsored Summer Program in Life Sciences for High School Students, which was hosted by Purdue that year. Now, as I entered the room where my meeting with the faculty was to be held, I immediately recognized Dr. Jim Ahlrichs. He had been an assistant professor at Purdue in 1963, and more importantly for me he had also served then as the director of that same Summer Program in which I participated. I realized that this meeting was taking on a whole new level of meaning for me.
Gerstmeyer junior Steve Simmons has been chosen to attend the Summer Program in Life Sciences held at Purdue University from June 17 to August 9. The Program is sponsored by the National Science Foundation…[and] consists of both instructional and research activities. Students attend seminars, discussions and lectures conducted by full-time members of Purdue’s scientific staff. Each student will also be given time to do individual research and experiments in their chosen field… Steve’s field of study is botany.
—from Terre Haute Tribune newspaper article, May 1963
I’d just completed my junior year in high school when I arrived on the Purdue campus that Sunday, June 16, and checked into Cary Hall, the dorm where I would be living for the summer. My high school biology teacher, Merrill Carr, had urged me to apply earlier that year for the Summer Program in Life Sciences, and to my surprise I was selected. I was one of just forty students nationally who were invited to participate in the Purdue Program that year. During our time on campus, we each worked on research projects under the guidance of Purdue faculty from various disciplines. We also experienced non-academic aspects of campus life too, and I now understand (with fifty years of perspective) that this brief period was one of the most significant for helping me hone my interests in botany and in pursuing an academic career. I also grew that summer in many ways besides just in height. It was a truly transformative summer for me and this is my story.
I initially met Professor Ahlrichs on Monday, June 17, at the introductory session for the Summer Program. After checking into Cary Hall that previous afternoon, I’d gotten acquainted with my roommate, Jim, and with some of the other male participants all of whom were assigned to live in the same wing of the Cary Hall dorm. We didn’t have access to automobiles during our time at Purdue so we walked everywhere we went. That first Monday morning, Jim and I crossed Stadium Avenue and walked past the Sigma Phi Epsilon and Acacia fraternity houses. We proceeded down Waldron Street to the Lilly Hall of Life Sciences and entered its front door. There we encountered that same stairway I walked so many times that summer and during my subsequent days as an undergraduate at Purdue—and where I would return forty years later on the day I met Jim Ahlrichs in that agronomy faculty meeting. But this was 1963, and as my new friend and I entered the room where our initial meeting for the Summer Program was to be held, it was Doctor Ahlrichs who greeted us.
As the session got underway, he introduced us participants to the graduate assistants who would serve as our “counselors” during the summer and lived with us in our dorms. Within the Program that year there were 15 women and 24 men, and a single minority participant. The life sciences were largely a white male professional field in 1963, although the times were changing. For example, biologist Rachel Carson had just published her book, Silent Spring, that previous fall. It became a best seller and was one of the most important environmental publications of the 20th Century. It was understood that women were increasingly selecting biology professions, although projections for minorities were less optimistic then. However, as we male participants began the Summer Program, we were glad to have such a good number of women participants in our ranks—and it had nothing to do with our interest in gender equity in the life sciences.
I recently showed a photo of the Summer Program participant group to one of my university colleagues, but she didn’t recognize me. I’ve changed a great deal physically over the past fifty years. I wore glasses then, had blonder hair, and was shorter in height. Even when I look at that photo now, it seems like I’m viewing someone else entirely—someone so different from who I am today. But is that really true? I think that most of the “distance” I feel from that person in the photograph stems from five decades of time that has elapsed since then, plus the fact I’ve had so little contact with others in the picture since then. I don’t remember most of their names now, although their faces are still familiar. Nevertheless I regard these people with no names, and the brief time we spent together during that summer of 1963, as having been crucial to my development as a young man. We were companions during our respective passages from adolescence to adulthood, and that’s not a small thing.
I’m sixteen years old
And every day something happens to me…
Please, God, please don’t let me be normal…
—from The Fantasticks
“Sixteen years old, and every day something happens to me.” That’s a good way to describe that summer of 1963 for me. I was sixteen, and my seventeenth birthday wouldn’t come until the following November. In ways that are clearer to me now than then, the summer of 1963 was a time of emancipation and transformation for me. I’d traveled fairly extensively in my life before 1963; for example, I’d taken a school trip to New York City during my 8th grade year during which time I smoked my first cigarette. I also experienced a summer of travel with my mother and brother in Europe in 1962. But the eight weeks of my participation in the Summer Program at Purdue was the most extensive period I had been apart from my family and Terre Haute friends and on my own. I made the most of it.
Sometime during the first two or three weeks of our time together, some other participants and I attended a performance of The Fantasticks at the tiny Experimental Theater located in the basement of the library building on Purdue’s campus. The Fantasticks had earlier become an off-Broadway hit in New York City in 1960 and its theme song, “Try To Remember,” was popular then. I recall how grown up I felt as I attended the play with my new friends. It’s a play about growing up, and I now realize what a strong parallel there is between its story line and my personal situation that summer. It’s a story about losing one’s innocence of youth and finding a first love, both of which happened for me within the next few weeks and months. Although that play’s message mostly passed me by that evening, it hasn’t since then. I’ve attended other performances of The Fantasticks in the intervening years, including at its original venue in Greenwich Village. It has become for me a powerful symbol of that summer of 1963 and my responses to it.
Unlike the lead character in The Fantasticks, I did then have a desire to be perceived as “normal.” Among my peers at my high school in Terre Haute, being a normal guy usually meant excelling at sports (commonly football and basketball), feeling socially comfortable with girls—and being an average student. I was not tall enough then to be a good basketball or football player, although I did play on the golf team. That didn’t count for much within my high school peer group. I was shy and lacking in self-confidence, and felt ill-at-ease with most girls. Plus, I was an exceptional student. So on all three counts–athletics, social graces and academics, I failed the test for normality at my school. I’ve since come to realize, of course, that even those whom I regarded as “normal” had their own private feelings of inadequacy, but that wasn’t yet apparent to me.
I have entered a group ping-pong tournament. This is the life! Meals have been real good so far…There isn’t enough recreation time but I sure like the freedom here…
—from a letter to a relative (June 1963)
Within a relatively short time, I felt comfortable within the community of high school students in the Summer Program. Most evenings, we male participants hung together in the dorm doing our studies, playing ping pong and enjoying our new-found independence. I recall playing golf once at the university’s course (I had taken my clubs). It was the nicest course I’d ever played up that point. I didn’t get to know many of the university students, but I did make friends with one who served as a volunteer disc jockey for the dorm’s radio station. It was a “closed-circuit” station and did not broadcast beyond Cary Hall, but I enjoyed being with him at the station during evenings as he “spun records” and broadcast his musical program. I learned a lot from him about the kinds of music that was popular on Purdue’s campus then such as jazz and folk. That also made me feel grown up too. I don’t recall making any trips back to Terre Haute during the summer. I was entirely on my own in the company of thirty-eight other young people from all over the nation, most of whom were tasting “freedom” and finding their own identities for the first time too.
Although I was sixteen years old when I participated in the Summer Program at Purdue, I had not yet kissed a girl. I had gone to my Junior Prom that previous spring with a girl from one of my classes, but we shared little in common except our mutual shyness. I did not kiss her.
When I departed the Summer Program two months later, I still had not kissed a girl, but I had met the one with whom I would share my first kiss that following year. Her name was Donna and I’ve never forgotten her. As we got acquainted during the summer, she became the first women my age with whom I felt entirely comfortable and authentic. She was from Columbus, Indiana (near my grandmother’s home) so I visited her a couple of times that following spring. It was on one of those “dates” that I had my first kiss. I lost contact with Donna and the other Program participants soon after we graduated from high school. She went to college in Ohio, and to my knowledge no one except me from that Summer Program of 1963 returned to do undergraduate studies at Purdue. I regarded Donna and the other participants—even then—as bright, mature and authentic, and I liked what I saw. I now can understand that I was also beginning to aspire to and appreciate such qualities in myself too.
There are men with childhood behind them,
Handsome men from Yale or Purdue…
—from Bye Bye Birdie
As I became acquainted with the Program, as well as with the other participants, I found that the things in which I excelled were valued and even celebrated. I came to understand that I was running with “thoroughbreds” that summer and my academic abilities were paying off. Much later, after we had become academic colleagues in agronomy, I asked Jim Ahlrichs what he recalled about serving as director of the Summer Program. He responded that the goal was to work with “the most promising [high school students] we could find in the whole country. Our hope was that many would become truly significant persons.” Then he concluded: “I just remember how very bright those students were.”
It’s fair to say that many of the participants in the Program were also shy and not part of the social “in crowd” at their home high schools either. Some were good athletes, but it’s interesting that none of them excelled in the major sports like football and basketball. They excelled in sports like baseball, swimming, track & field—and golf. I felt right at home.
Another aspect of the shift in my perspective about myself during that summer of 1963 involved my identity with Purdue University itself. One afternoon several of the participants and I walked from our dorm all the way across the Wabash River into the town of Lafayette to attend a matinee showing of the new musical hit film Bye Bye Birdie. I recall the theater was filled mostly with Purdue students, and with its emphasis on agriculture, engineering and technology then, most of the students enrolled at Purdue were men.
The film was a parody of the scenario in 1958 when rock and roll superstar Elvis Presley was drafted into the Army. At one point in the film the 21 year-old star, Ann-Margaret, sings a song titled “A Lot of Livin’ To Do.” During that song she expresses her admiration for “…handsome men from Yale or Purdue.” At that point the theater erupted in cheers, whistles and applause. I recall feeling such a sense of pride in that moment because I knew that I too was a man from Purdue!
We are trying out all of the churches here and I went to the Methodist one on Sunday… —from letter to a relative (June 1963)
In addition to attending plays and films, I also went to church. Having grown up without much experience with faith or church, I think it’s significant now that one of the things I sought out during that summer was the experience of worship. That was also the case when I returned to Purdue as a freshman a year later. Maybe it was just the novelty of it all that drew me, but I don’t think so. I now see it as the beginning of a deeper spiritual quest and journey that continues to this day for me. This path subsequently led me to embrace a contemplative form of Christianity that helps me find hope and meaning in every day. It gives me understanding of God’s Providences in my life in deeper ways—Providences such as the summer of 1963.
My project is to detect photosynthesis and respiration in Viburnum by a certain method. My tests last for 12 hours and last night I had to go to the lab at 2:30 am to stop a test. Our counselor gave me the wrong key to our building and as I was trying the key at all the doors, a policeman came up and asked me what I as doing there. We had to call the counselor to verify that I belonged in the building. The test was a flop. Tonight I have to be at the lab at 3:30 am…
—from a letter to a relative (July 1963)
Although I had conducted a plant-oriented Science Fair project during my junior year of high school, the Summer Program experience at Purdue was my first exposure to major league biological research. My project was conducted under the guidance of Dr. Fred Lanphear, an assistant professor in the Horticulture Department. My research goal was to design and construct an apparatus that could measure rates of photosynthesis in ivy leaves growing at various temperatures. The method involved monitoring the removal of carbon dioxide in the air by a plant leaf that was enclosed within a small Plexiglas chamber. Carbon dioxide concentrations of the air were measured using a titration technique that monitored a chemical reaction with the carbon dioxide. It was a cumbersome approach and became obsolete just a couple of years later when infrared gas analyzers became commercially available.
My research project involved long hours and required more dedication than I had ever given to anything—except golf—to that point in my life. The experiments involved going to the lab at all hours of the day and night, and the personal discipline it took to conduct these studies at my young age still impresses me. I was not exceptional in this; all of the participants in the Summer Program were similarly motivated when it came to their research studies. There didn’t seem to be much academic competition among us either, for which I was very thankful. During the final week, we all wrote papers that described and summarized the results of our research during that summer. I don’t recall whether we also gave oral presentations about our work to the group as a whole, but I expect we did. All in all, my research project measuring photosynthesis that summer of 1963 exceeded anything I did over the following fours years until I later undertook a senior thesis in biochemistry at Purdue.
How many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?…
—Peter, Paul and Mary from Blowin’ in the Wind
This August 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington”—a 1963 rally in Washington, D.C., where 250,000 people gathered around the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to offer support for the civil rights movement. Many historians now believe this event was a turning point in the movement and helped assure later enactment of key civil rights legislation in Congress. It also reinforced the emergence of Martin Luther King as the principal spokesperson for the movement through his memorable “I Have A Dream” speech.
I have no first-hand recollection of the March on Washington at the time it happened. I was aware of racial strife in the South at that time, of course—after all my family did watch Walter Cronkite and the CBS News almost every evening at supper time. I think my disconnection from these important events had more to do with geographical and cultural isolation than to prejudice. My school had a higher proportion of black students in 1963 than any other high school in Terre Haute, yet the fact remains I had only a couple of African-American friends in those years. One man from my neighborhood went to participate in the freedom marches in the South, but my parents and other adults I knew in Terre Haute then mostly had a “distanced” view of these developments .
For Peter’s grown
An Paul’s grown
An Mary’s grown
An the times’ve grown.
—Bob Dylan from a liner note on the 1963 album In the Wind
An Steve’s grown. Over that summer and the succeeding fall, I grew approximately six inches to attain a height of six feet, one inch. I can’t emphasize enough what a boost in my self-esteem resulted from this growth spurt, but that change was external. Just as significant were the internal changes, which helped me gain new perspectives as I returned to high school for my senior year. To borrow a phrase from the civil rights movement, “I had been to the mountain” during that summer at Purdue. I now understood that after high school I would enter a world where many of the things I did well, like academics, would be important and valued—and I couldn’t wait!
My senior year went better for me. My biology teacher Merrill Carr (who had nominated me for the Purdue Program) continued to be a valuable advisor. I still didn’t go on any dates during the first half of my senior year, but I was more at ease with women in my school now, and especially ones who possessed qualities like those I’d gotten to know in my friend Donna and other women associated with the Summer Program at Purdue.
An the times’ve grown. One cannot think of the fall of 1963 without noting the assassination of President John Kennedy in November. It happened the day before my seventeenth birthday, and the word came to us as I was sitting in Mr. Carr’s biology class. We were stunned. In an instant, my generation’s innocence ended and the era of Camelot was over.
Steve has a full out-of-school life. He is interested in all sports–especially football and basketball…Steve collects arrowheads and is also an adept photographer. Steve’s tentative plan after high school graduation is to attend Purdue University and major in some phase of forestry or conservation. If not this, he wants to go into college teaching… —from a Terre Haute Tribune newspaper article in 1963
During my senior year of high school, I again participated in the Science Fair in Terre Haute. This time I reported on the photosynthesis research I had done during the Summer Program at Purdue; I received a major award for it. With respect to academics that year, I was already thinking of myself in the context of my future university life, and my effort in the Science Fair was an example of that. But my return to Gerstmeyer High School that fall spurred another mix of emotions. Yes, I had “been to the mountain” during my summer at Purdue, but I also understood that once I graduated from high school and moved on to college, I would be leaving childhood behind—and everything good that it represented. I was fairly sure that after I left Terre Haute for college, I wouldn’t be looking back. My mother has told me she sensed this in me as well. I didn’t yet know that my father would accept a job transfer to New York City within a year and my family’s move to the East Coast sealed the likelihood that my connection to Terre Haute would thereafter be minimal. I returned to my hometown only a couple of times after my freshman year at Purdue and I participated in no high school gatherings until my 25th year class reunion. Thankfully, I’ve rectified that pattern and have not missed a reunion since.
One aspect that was especially hard for me to leave behind was my childhood relationship with my Grandmother Christine. She epitomized for me the ideal of unconditional love and was one of the most influential people in my life. Her knowledge of agriculture, her interests in nature and conservation, her appreciation for the arts and literature, and her faith were all important influences for me as a child. I knew she believed in me—that she “had my back” in today’s vernacular—and as a boy trying to find his identity as a man, that was a huge gift.
I recently again came across that newspaper article written about my selection for the 1963 Summer Program at Purdue. I’m impressed how closely my interests and aspirations then correspond to who I am now. I still have an affinity for basketball, arrowheads and photography; I retain a strong interest in forestry, agriculture, conservation and nature. And I did go on into college teaching and worked in that capacity for thirty-two years at the University of Minnesota.
Oh these places—and times—have their meanings…in my life.
Steve Robert Simmons wrote this personal essay in 2013. All rights reserved.