Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Legend of Harry Widener

In a recent column on notable graduation speeches, I mentioned one delivered by former U.S. Senator Barney Frank to his fellow Harvard grads.
“When I was here there was still a requirement that students had to swim 50 yards to graduate … because Harry Elkins Widener had drowned with the sinking of the Titanic,” Frank said. “And it made me very grateful at the time that he had not gone down in a plane crash.”
A fuuny line, to be sure.   But what's this about a swimming requirement?
Is it true that Harvard students, the cream of the American educational system, the alleged embodiment of intellectual and physical refinement, really had to swim 50 yards before the dean handed them a diploma?   
And was the Titanic to blame?
Surely a U.S. senator would not engage in hyperbole.
Reader Pat Brunette (Harvard-Radcliffe, 1965) confirmed that, indeed, the 50-yard swim was once a graduation requirement:
“My strongest memory of this enchanting obligation is of not being allowed out of the pool until 11:50 a.m., having to dry off, dress, and struggle through a mile or so of snow drifts (which, of course get deeper each year I get older), to my next class, George Wald’s biology class, which started at noon. If Professor Wald ever noticed me at all, I was the one straggling in late once a week, with frozen wet hair, sitting on the stairs because his was a popular course and all the seats were taken by noon.”
She added:
“Whoever thought being able to swim for fifty yards would have saved (Harry Elkins Widener) from sinking with the Titanic must have been a bit of an optimist, but I’d like to read more about it.”
And so you shall, Ms. Brunette.
This much is true: Mr. Widener, along with his father, perished when the Titanic sunk. His mother survived.
Alas, the rest is all wet.
The legend holds that, to ensure no other Harvard man would share her son’s fate, Eleanor Widener insisted that future graduates be required to demonstrate an ability to swim. “Among the many myths relating to Harry Elkins Widener, this is the most prevalent,” says the Harvard University Library’s “Ask a Librarian” service.
“A review of records in the Harvard Archives indicates that there have been swimming requirements at various times in Harvard history, but none were related in any way to Mr. Widener or the gift of the library to Harvard by his mother ... In his 1980 publication [on Widener Library], Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith wrote, “There is absolutely no evidence in the President’s papers, or the faculty’s, to indicate that [Harry Widener’s mother] was, as a result of the Titanic disaster, in any way responsible for [any] compulsory swimming test.”‍
That doesn’t necessarily ruin a good story, however.
As recently as two years ago, many schools still had the compulsory swimming requirement, among them MIT, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, Washington and Lee, Dartmouth and Notre Dame.
And like Harvard, the test has become the stuff of legends.
One such tale holds that during the 1920s, Oregon State University had such a requirement, and Linus Pauling, who would go on to win two Nobel Prizes, could not swim a stroke. It was rumored that someone donned his number and swam for him.
At Columbia, campus lore has it that a university president wanted to ensure students’ survival if Manhattan ever sank — but since engineering students could build a boat, they were exempt.
A Washington and Lee University spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that a school president from the 1910s lamented “the idleness and restless shallowness of the average undergraduate,” but it is unclear whether swimming specifically was seen as the remedy for youthful malaise. The school’s test now asks students to swim 50 yards in one minute, and then spend five minutes treading water.
At all-female Bryn Mawr, the swim requirement dates at least to 1909, said a spokesman, noting that an archivist found a clipping in the personal papers of the then-athletic director mentioning that “American mermaids are known for their hardiness and fine physiques.”
Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, who earned a PhD from Columbia University, wrote more than 30 books, taught at Columbia and was chairman of the board of editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was denied his bachelor’s degree by Columbia in 1923 — despite his completing their four-year curriculum in three years and finishing at the top of his class — because he failed to pass the swimming test required for graduation.
He was finally granted his degree 60 years later after informing Columbia that he had since learned how to swim and asking them to waive his disqualification.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Words Worth Hearing

“I could have said something profound, but you would have forgotten it in 15 minutes — which is the afterlife of a graduation speech.” — Art Buchwald.

It’s graduation season, that time of year when a generation that made a mess of the world exhorts the next generation to go forth and clean it up.
Of course, the older generation was also encouraged to spread peace and prosperity but somehow fumbled the ball out of the end zone. As did the generation before that. And before that.
Maybe if someone actually paid attention to graduation advice, the cycle might be broken.
That’s a lot to ask. Graduation day is not the best time to expect an eager and receptive audience. It’s a day for celebrating, not navel gazing.
For example, one of our daughters “walked” in high school, twice in college, once in law school and once when she was sworn into the bar.
And each and every ceremony that I sat through was accompanied by a speech in which grads were wished well in the real world and encouraged to do their best.
Aside from the general tone of the remarks, I remember absolutely nothing. Not one word.
I offer no excuse except for the fact that I was so caught up in the moment and awash in pride that Lincoln himself could have materialized to recite the Gettysburg Address and I would been mentally and emotionally otherwise occupied.
So shame on me. Because there are inspiring words being spoken at graduation ceremonies throughout the land that are worth hearing.
One my favorites, from a writer named Nelson Henderson, was profound in its simplicity. “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”
There are plenty more.
“Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions — it means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short.” — Adrienne Rich, Douglass College.
“Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harvard University.
“Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while and look at people’s faces.” — Amy Poehler, Harvard.
“I graduated in 1989, and I’d focused almost entirely on the Soviet Union and communism … so when the Berlin wall fell, I was, well, I was screwed.” — Anderson Cooper, Tulane University.
“… our challenge is to live the final stanza of a song you have heard or sung hundreds of times … land of the free and the home of the brave!” — Anita L. Defrantz, Connecticut College.
“Just remember, you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger, USC.
“When I was here there was still a requirement that students had to swim 50 yards to graduate … because Harry Elkins Widener had drowned with the sinking of the Titanic. And it made me very grateful at the time that he had not gone down in a plane crash.” — Barney Frank, Harvard.
“So the mission of … every empowered person in the world in this time has to be to build up the positive and reduce those negative forces of our interdependence.” — Bill Clinton, Yale University.
“Don’t let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on the big inequities. It will be one of the great experiences of your lives.” — Bill Gates, Harvard.
“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.” — Bill Watterson, Kenyon College.
“Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us. The joy is in the journey.” — Bradley Whitford, University of Wisconsin.
“Despite difficulties, always keep optimism. ‘I can overcome these difficulties.’ That mental attitude itself will bring inner strength and self-confidence.” — The Dalai Lama, Tulane.
“You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you … you’re nothing special.” — David McCullough Jr., Wellesley High School.
“Now I usually try not to give advice. Information, yes, advice, no. But, what has worked for me may not work for you. Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push-up bras.” — Dolly Parton, University of Tennessee.
“In the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal.” — Fred Rogers, Dartmouth College.
“Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come, but as long as we have today, we can change the world.” — Glenn Beck, Liberty University.
“So how do you know what is the right path to choose to get the result that you desire? And the honest answer is this. You won’t.” — Jon Stewart, College of William and Mary.
“Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.” — Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Lake Forest College.
And finally:
“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” — Yoda, a galaxy far, far away

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.

Monday, June 09, 2014

His Cash Is Trash

One of the things I am truly grateful for today is that the so-called “philanthropist” who recently decided it would be fun to stash cash around town, then use Twitter to hint about its whereabouts, is long gone. Forever, we hope.
His antics caused near riots in some locations, led on by grinning media cheerleaders who busily compiled plenty of material to fill their news budgets.
We didn’t know his identity at the time. So in honor of the medium he used to advance his message, let’s call him Mr. Twit.
When we last looked in on his handiwork in Burbank, hundreds of people were rummaging through the streets looking for envelopes of cash. Not a lot of cash, just a hundred bucks or so.
Videos posted online showed people running through traffic, swarming a bus stop and combing bushes in search of three envelopes hidden at various spots at the Empire Center in Burbank, according to media reports. At one point, a woman abandoned her car in the street to join in the hunt.
What jolly fun. I hope Mr. Twit left an envelope at the Burbank Police Department to reward the efforts that were required to bring order to this chaos.
The Burbank episode was followed by one in Hermosa Beach characterized by one observer as “pandemonium.”
No one has been seriously injured yet. But keep it up, Mr. Twit, and it will be just a matter of time before some goofball with a gun will feel justified in defending his new-found stash by any means necessary.
Mr. Twit described himself as a real estate developer, and said the scavenger hunt was his attempt to pay it forward after scoring a six-figure profit on a property deal, and hoped others would do the same.
What a good idea. Let’s all celebrate our good fortune by stashing a few twenties in an envelope and alerting thousands of people about it via social media. Better yet, let’s do it on a Monday when the city is already choked with traffic. If we’re lucky, we might be able to see a few fist fights take place, maybe even a felony or two.
We aren’t the first city to be blessed by Mr. Twit’s largesse.
He first began hiding envelopes filled with cash in San Francisco. When his movement picked up steam, he moved on to San Jose before bringing his act to Los Angeles.
Imitators have popped up nationwide.
People looking for the cash in Wichita damaged railroad signage while looking for their treasure. Just after midnight Sunday the person behind the account tweeted this frustrated message: “damage like this does not accidentally happen #lostfaith.”
That person didn’t want to do an interview, but over email said they were thinking about suspending the account, saying “the fun is quickly slipping away.”
In Dallas, one observer noted that people “were running into traffic for $25 in an envelope. Absolutely insane.”
And it didn’t take long for scam artists to get involved. In San Antonio, a copycat of the Hidden Cash scavenger hunt craze is asking people to donate money to be hidden around the city. Hide your wallets, folks.
For his part, Mr. Twit says “I want the public to know that this is meant to be a fun way to put a smile on people’s faces.”
But then the smile disappeared from his face when he warned, “If you are struggling financially, please look to the many business opportunities that are out there to help yourself.
“There are people making money every day in all kinds of businesses, from e-commerce to exporting almonds (I know a guy who makes about $1 million a year doing this) to real estate.
“Hidden Cash is not going to save you, the lottery is not going to save you. Be smart and responsible and research all the ways to make money that are out there…”
But Mr. Twit doesn’t understand his audience. People who dash into traffic to find a hundred bucks live in a world where e-commerce and million dollar nut businesses are often beyond their reach.
In Burbank, 14-year-old Tatiana Ramirez told KTLA that the $210 in her envelope couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We were having lots of problems with money and my grandma was in the hospital, and I was going to help her with her medication,” she said.
A guy in San Francisco simply took all his friends out for pizza. Another said he would buy something nice for his mom.
Sergio Loza, 28, a San Francisco security guard who found an envelope with $50 inside taped to a parking meter, said he spent $30 on clothes for his 2-year-old niece’s birthday and gave her the remaining $20 as well.
That’s the real meaning of paying it forward. Media circus ringmasters like Mr. Twit should take note. And the next bus out of town.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. He can be reached at Nulede@Aol.Com.