A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
Written by Rick Archer
2015, Richard Archer
WHO IS RALPH
Mr. Salls, Mrs. Ballantyne,
throughout my college years, I
thought about my three Houston benefactors practically on a daily
I remembered Mr. Salls because I had begun to
like this school despite its lack of
female presence. I appreciated the education I was
That said, I
still wished the school was coed. Since Hopkins
was a men's school, I had no way to meet women on the
Hopkins campus and no built-in opportunities to develop the
kind of casual friendships that can lead to dating.
I had made a
real stab at finding a girlfriend at Goucher, the elite women's college north of the city. However,
after being compared to the furniture on top of Emily's betrayal, my pride was
far too damaged to
return to this school for the time being.
had spent four long years in high school dreaming about the day I
could begin dating in college, it was embarrassing to admit I flunked 'girls' in college.
So far the only thing I had learned about girls in college is that there was a lot
more I needed to learn about girls.
Once dating was
out of the picture, that left me with a considerable amount
of extra time.
So I resumed my
high school lifestyle... strong attention to academics plus
the pursuit of every possible work-study job I could get my
hands on. I was determined to graduate debt-free.
Once I gave up
on women, my grade point average improved considerably.
I would have exchanged my good grades for a girlfriend in a
heartbeat, but maybe that wasn't in the stars.
school habit I transferred to college was trading women for
I played an hour
of basketball five days out of seven. Without
basketball, I can't imagine how I would have retained my
sanity in college what with all the loneliness, pressure and
Mrs. Ballantyne for something odd she had said to me during
our parking lot conversation.
as I laced up my basketball shoes, I would remember that
Mrs. Ballantyne had said she didn't date in college.
Instead, she played a lot of tennis. With a grimace, I
realized her words were starting to make a lot of sense.
Due to my
intense loneliness, I played pickup basketball virtually
every day. It was either that or go mad. I was
darkly amused that my unusual "double" and I shared this
I remembered Mr.
O'Connor every time I came to the gym. Mr. O'Connor,
of course, was the man who had steered me to Johns Hopkins.
I was fascinated to note the basketball gym was named for
Every time I
passed his name, I asked myself again who this Ralph
O'Connor person could possibly be.
I speculated he had
to be pretty important to get Johns Hopkins to give me a full
college scholarship based on his word alone.
The Ralph S.
O'Connor Recreation Center at Johns Hopkins
There was another
reason to think about Mr. Salls and Mr. O'Connor.
During my first year
at Johns Hopkins, I ran into a boy named Doug. I thought I
recognized him and I was right. Doug was a member of the
1966 SJS graduating class. He had finished two years
Hopkins was not a
large school, so our meeting could hardly be described as a
coincidence. At the time, I wondered if Doug had been
persuaded to attend this school in the same way I had...
my opinion, this school is a perfect match for your talents."
Not long after that,
I met a boy named Charles who was a member of 1967 SJS
graduating class. I recognized him one day on the Hopkins
campus as our paths crossed. Although Charles had been
only one year ahead of me, I didn't know him very well. We
exchanged polite small talk, then moved on.
In my Sophomore year
at Hopkins, a young man from the most recent SJS graduating
class showed up (I do not remember his name.)
Adding my 1968 name to the list, I concluded there were now four
boys from St. John's up here at Hopkins... one boy per year...
1966, 1967, 1968, 1969.
Based on the string
of young men up at Hopkins, I deduced that the Salls-O'Connor
connection had formed an annual conduit between St. John's and
Recalling how Mr.
Salls had referred to Mr. O'Connor as "an old friend of mine", I
assumed that over the years Mr. O'Connor and Mr. Salls had
developed a close connection that went way back.
The "Old Boy
Network" is a tradition that started long ago in English private
schools such as Eton and Harrow. Young men who met back in
their school days would maintain close social and business ties
throughout their career and help each other whenever possible.
not what you know, but rather whom you know"
I suspect Mr. Salls
and Mr. O'Connor had a firm "Old Boy" connection.
I was in for a big
surprise in my Junior year at Hopkins. One day in 1970,
the Hopkins newspaper reported a Texas businessman named Ralph
O'Connor had arranged a lacrosse game between Hopkins and Navy
in the Houston Astrodome. The article said Mr. O'Connor
was an influential Hopkins alumnus who used his Hopkins
connections and his Houston business connections to make this
At the time, Johns
Hopkins was the national lacrosse champion and Navy was their
biggest rival. Mr. O'Connor was quoted as
saying he had arranged this game because he wished to popularize
the sport in the state of Texas. Up till now, only the
Eastern colleges played lacrosse. Why bring bring lacrosse
to the West?
The article said
that Ralph O'Connor (Johns Hopkins '51) had enlisted his friend
Dr. Denton Cooley (Johns Hopkins '50) to help him promote the
game. In turn, Dr. Cooley, the eminent Houston heart
surgeon, had persuaded some of his fellow heart surgeons to help
sponsor the game. Once Dr. Michael DeBakey, Cooley's
famous rival, came on board, the success of the game was
I could not help but
notice Ralph O'Connor had impressive friends.
Due to their ground-breaking work with heart transplants, Dr.
Cooley and Dr. DeBakey were America's two most famous doctors.
The game turned out
to be a dynamic success.
Hopkins did not become co-ed until I
graduated, a factor that played a major role in further
postponing my Day of Reckoning with women.
Although I was
disappointed when the Navy Midshipmen downed the Hopkins Blue
Jays 9-6 in the
Big Game, the Hopkins-Navy game attracted over 18,000 fans.
This was a record that stood for nearly 20 years.
Ralph O'Connor had
accomplished his goal. The famous 1971 game in the
Astrodome has been credited with bringing lacrosse to Texas.
I asked myself again
what kind of person has the connections to organize a game like
Who is Ralph
I had come to
college far more interested in dating than actually learning
anything. So far I had made only a half-hearted stab
at studying. However, now that I had a broken heart
courtesy of Emily, I was done with women for a while.
turned my attention to my studies for lack of
anything better to do.
Other than my
problems with dating, I enjoyed the
fact that I was finally completely on my own. This
situation suited me just fine. I discovered I was far better
at taking care of myself than the legion of mommas boys in
my dorm who
called home every night for encouragement.
I certainly didn't need
my mother to tell me what to do.
I was independent, hard-working, and responsible.
However, I also possessed serious character flaws.
When seen in a harsh light, I was a rebellious, insensitive, self-centered young man with serious authority issues.
I was a loner who had trouble making friends. I stuck to myself much of the
despite my immaturity, I never got into a lick of trouble
in college. That is because no one ever challenged
me. My Hopkins
experience was odd in that there were practically no rules. In four years, not once did anyone tell me
what to do or what not to do. My sense of rebellion
was still there, but with nothing to rebel
against, my defiant streak went into dormancy.
I remained just
as self-centered as I had been in high school. But
guess what? Practically every young man on campus was
just as self-centered as me. We all wandered around in
our own little worlds. I was still a
moody kid prone to depression. Fortunately, for the
first time in my life, I had a support system to fall back
I was finally
reunited with Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn, two people I admired
greatly. As I had hoped, Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn welcomed
me into their family with open arms. For the first
time in my life, I had the chance to feel part of a
close-knit family with two parents,
three brothers and one sister.
Aunt Lynn was a
born mother in same mold as my idol Mrs. Ballantyne.
Lynn went a
million miles out her way to make me feel like a part of her
I loved her dearly.
Lynn had been the
stayed with me in the hospital reading Lassie Come
Home back when I cut my eye out. Now
here in college, Lynn came to my
rescue again many times. For example, she single-handedly put me back together the weekend I saw Emily
getting on the train with Eric. When I got back
to the dorm, I was devastated and crying.
impulse, I called to Aunt Lynn and told her what had
happened. She asked if I wanted to drive down and talk
about it. One hour later, I was sitting in her kitchen
crying my eyes out. Lynn let me get the tears out of
my system, then helped me calm down. Her reassurance
Lynn became the mother I never had
grandmother Lenore, and me at age 5 in Pittsburgh.
The day after this picture was taken, I cut my eye out.
After my car was
stolen, within a couple weeks I bought another used
Volkswagen using my grocery
store savings. I bought the car not to resume my dating
project, but rather so I could continue driving down to Northern Virginia
whenever I was going nuts again. I simply could not
bear being cut off from this family.
Griffiths family became my sanctuary. Whenever
I was going crazy at school, I would simply drive down to
Northern Virginia for the weekend and talk to Lynn.
After a long talk and her abundant sympathy, I
would cheer up. Then I would spend the remainder of my two days hanging out with
Lynn's four children Rick, Dale, Todd, and Tammi.
These kids were
great! I fell effortlessly into a
big brother role. One winter's day during
my first Christmas at their house, I helped
my cousins construct a long toboggan run on a snowy hill.
Dick and Lynn's house was built along a steep hill.
There were seven houses side by side at different
elevations. Our first effort used just my cousin's
front yard and their neighbor's yard which was 20 feet
finished, we had so much fun that I suggested we make our
toboggan run longer. My cousins looked at each other
and nodded. Good idea! So we asked five neighbors
whose houses occupied the same slope if we could use their front yard as well.
They all said sure. One lady really cracked me up.
"I fully expect to be given the opportunity to take a ride
when you finish!"
By the time we
were done, our run started at the peak of the hill.
Using the front lawns of seven consecutive homes to build
our masterpiece, the run spanned three hundred yards.
We had an indescribable amount of fun and laughter with our
project. The long ride
was a huge thrill. Even Aunt Lynn tried it and she
laughed her head off with delight. "This is the best
toboggan run I have ever seen!"
We all grinned with
pride at the compliment. This became one of
the happiest days of my life.
For the first time in my life, I felt part of a family.
Thanks to Aunt
Lynn, Uncle Dick, and my cousins, after each weekend visit
my sanctuary, I was ready to go back
into the arena and try again.
Uncle Dick was
an amazing man. Dick contracted polio in the Navy.
For a while, he wasn't sure he would ever walk again.
Dick said the biggest break of his life came when IBM took a
chance on him despite his crutches. His body may have been
withered, but his genius and work ethic were intact. Uncle Dick
not only thrived at IBM, he gained enough experience to open
his own data processing center in Northern Virginia.
Dick proved to be a very successful businessman.
While I was in
college, Uncle Dick became both a friend and a father to me.
Lynn and the children went to bed around 10 pm. At
this point, Dick and I stayed up to watch Johnny Carson
together. Those were very special
moments for me.
I spent every Christmas at Dick and Lynn's house.
During our first Christmas, Uncle Dick
offered me some very good advice. One of his
suggestions was to learn more about computers. He said
computers would be the wave of the future. I smiled.
That sounded exactly like "plastics", the famous
my favorite hit movie The Graduate.
eh? I took Dick's advice. Still suffering from my
broken heart, on the way back to Hopkins I decided to turn my attention to computers.
It was now
January 1969. As we know, Uncle Dick was prescient
in his prediction. Unfortunately, he was so far ahead of the
curve, my college had not quite caught on yet. When I went to enroll in a computer class in the second
semester of my Freshman year, to my surprise, there were no
computer courses listed.
I went to the
Registrar's office and showed a nice lady the catalogue.
I asked her where I could find the listings for computer
"Next year we are going to open up a new computer
department for undergraduates, but right now we don't have
disappointed I looked, she had a suggestion. "You
know, we do have a couple of night school computer classes."
My ears perked
up. "I don't mind taking a night school class if it is
here on campus."
The lady smiled.
"Yes, it is here on campus. I will tell you what.
Pick the class you want and I will ask the Dean to grant
The night school catalogue contained a course called 'Basic
Computer Programming Skills'. I told the lady that was
what I wanted. The lady knocked on the Dean's
door and soon returned wearing a smile.
Masterson said no
problem. When the new semester starts next week, your course
will be on Wednesday evening at 7:00
pm, Room 201, in the Math building."
One week later,
it was pitch dark as I walked across campus
to my first class. Night school indeed. I was
10 minutes late, but I didn't care. I was
late to class all the time because no one
seemed to mind if I was late. After all, most of my classes were
lectures with 200 anonymous boys spread across an
auditorium. The professor was so far away he didn't
know what half of us looked like.
Nobody knew my
name, nobody took attendance, nobody spoke to me and no one
told me what to do. No one cared if I was late to
class and no one cared how long my hair was. This was
college. We were on our own.
You want to wear
your hair long? Go ahead, kid, wear your hair
long. No one cared, no one minded. At this
point, my hair came down past my
Not that I stood out... half the boys at school wore their
hair long. Thanks to rock groups like the Doors
and the Rolling Stones, long hair was a fixture on
campuses across the country. No one gave my long hair a second thought.
I paid no
attention to my appearance. Since
there weren't any girls around, I had little incentive to be
Half the time I didn't even comb my thick brown hair. Hey,
this was a men's school. Why bother? Besides, I
was convinced I was ugly. Every time I looked in a
mirror, all I could see was a face covered with acne scars.
The less time spent looking at mirrors, the better.
Consequently I only shaved every now and then. And
what is my point? Well, think 'Charles Manson' and you
wouldn't be far off.
As I opened the
door to my night school class, everyone was already seated.
That was my first surprise. Apparently in night
school, people were punctual. I gasped... the entire
room was full of men in business suits and women in dresses.
Every person was perfectly groomed. Every single person in the room had a briefcase. Every
man in the room had short hair and was clean-shaven.
Every woman wore a dress complete with nylon hose and high heels.
Every woman had their hair tied up in some way. Good
grief, I had the longest hair in the room! I was
shocked. I had not even
remotely anticipated this. What
the heck have I gotten myself into?
Hearing the door
open, the entire room turned around to see who the
Instantly a huge collective gasp of
horror filled the room.
Standing before these
disciplined, manicured people was none
other than the Creature from the Black
Lagoon. Seeing the
sheer disgust on their faces, I stopped dead
in my tracks. Whoa, Nelly! I was definitely
on the wrong side of the Generation Gap.
The contempt and angry expressions
on their faces said it all. Only one other time had I
seen so much hostility directed at me. I
was painfully reminded of that horrible day when I showed up at high school
with the acne explosion covering my face.
Tonight's cold reception was a close second. The business
world of the late Sixties had just met a representative of the
Counterculture. Welcome to the
Age of Aquarius.
discouraged to note I got a dirty
look from the instructor as well. He challenged me in
a sharp voice, "Young man, can I help you?"
I picked up on
his tone. Evidently he hoped that if he barked at me rudely enough, I might
leave. No one enjoys being in a place where they
are not wanted.
picked on the wrong guy. I felt my
defiant streak kick in. I was going to take this class whether
this crowd liked it or not. Very slowly, I
walked the gauntlet up the aisle to his desk in front. There
were twenty people seated
on one side and twenty people on the other. Every single
face was intolerant and frowning.
never kowtowed to authority, but I have to admit being outnumbered forty to
one had a chilling effect on me. I decided not to
challenge anyone by staring back. Helter Skelter,
Easy Rider and Woodstock had
not quite taken place yet, but they were on the near
horizon. Unfortunately, thanks to Vietnam, there was
already considerable tension between the Establishment and
the Counter Culture. Given these ugly stares, I was
One wrong move and I could be facing a barrage of ugly comments.
Indeed, as I
passed, one man whispered, "Get
a haircut, freak!" Two others nodded their
For once in my
life, I didn't snap back. Instead I adopted a look of submission.
I made sure my shoulders were slumped and I looked down as I handed the
instructor my admission form. I didn't want any
instructor studied the form. To his obvious disgust, everything was in
order. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he gestured for me to take a seat.
Everyone in the room was stunned. They couldn't
believe the instructor had given me permission to stay. What in the hell was
this hippie doing in their class? And why did the
teacher let him stay?
The ladies in
particular had horrified expressions. I could see they were
terrified the Creature might choose to sit next to them.
One lady quickly filled the empty seat next to her with her
briefcase as I came near.
They need not
have worried. I knew my place. Saying nothing
and looking at no one, I slowly returned to the very back of
the room and took a seat. Ten rows of empty chairs
separated me from the pack up at the front.
Since several of the men looked ex-military, I preferred to
avoid confrontation. In addition, I wanted to be near
my escape route at all times.
professor did his best to regain control of the class.
Slowly but surely, once they were certain I wasn't going to
cause trouble, everyone turned back around.
Just in case, every now and then someone would turn
around to have another look at me. They wanted to make sure the
Creature wasn't sneaking up on
them. I was darkly amused at their discomfort.
They were not at all happy to have their backs turned to me.
Based on the way they were dressed,
I assumed these people had come
straight from work. I tried to make
sense of the situation. This scenario
was just as much a surprise to me as it was to them. These people
were in their mid-twenties and early thirties.
I was 19, ten years younger than the average age.
These people looked sharp in their business clothes. Obviously these were businessmen
and women who were established in their careers. I noticed the IBM logo on several of
their briefcases. I gathered that these people either
worked for IBM or perhaps they were taking this class hoping to get hired by
Judging by their
concentration and their focused expressions, this was a serious,
highly-motivated group. This class was an important
stepping stone in their careers. It was obvious these people were intent on
climbing the ladder of success.
As for me, I had inadvertently
found myself placed on the front lines of culture shock and
social change. I stuck out like a sore thumb. These
people were groomed to zoom while I was dressed no better
than a dope-smoking hippie panhandler.
I was wearing a white tee-shirt, cut-off jeans, and sandals.
My hair was uncombed. I comforted myself with the
thought that I had showered after playing afternoon basketball. What about my face? I gave my face a
quick touch. Nope, I had not bothered to shave
that day. I was about as grubby as I could possibly
be. No wonder they were so suspicious.
Whenever someone would turn to check
on me, they made sure to cast a withering stare in my
direction. They seemed to be sending some kind of
message. And what could
I didn't speak
IBM, but if forced to
guess, they wanted me to leave. I certainly understood why they were
uncomfortable with me. They clearly did not
like having a long-haired hippie in their midst. Long hair
was popular with Hopkins undergraduates, but these
buttoned-down IBM people were disgusted by any hint of my
'make love, not war' generation. To them, I was no
better than a drug-crazed, promiscuous draft dodger
who burned flags and protested against their hero Richard
Although I definitely felt out of place, I wasn't intimidated. They may have
hated me, but so what? I had a right to
be here. In this case, my years of standing my ground back in
high school served me well. I did not like being
pushed around. Dirty looks and all, I was here to
One month came
and went. No one ever said a word to me, including the
instructor. How could they? I never gave them a
chance. I came in late on
purpose. I took notes, never asked a question, never answered
a question, and left the moment the instructor signaled
class was over. No lingering for me. I attempted
to remain as innocuous as possible.
In the fifth
week, the instructor handed out a test. He made me
come up and get it, so this gave everyone another chance to
practice their withering stares. I was disappointed; I
had put on my best pair of jeans, shaved and combed my hair in an attempt to curry favor.
No such luck.
Once I got back to my
chair, I realized this test
was unlike anything I had ever encountered before. The
instructor called it a "take-home exam".
First we were
supposed to solve a mathematics riddle. Then we were
supposed to write a flowchart of
computer commands designed to help a computer solve the
riddle. After leaving class, I stopped off at the
Hopkins library and took another look.
The instructor had given us a classic math puzzle known as
the "Twelve Billiard Balls".
I had never seen
this puzzle before, but it immediately caught my interest. In this puzzle,
there were 12 balls identical in size and appearance.
Eleven balls weighed the same, but one ball had an odd
weight that made it lighter or heavier
than the other 11 balls.
Using a balance scale, I had only three chances to weigh the balls to
determine which ball was the odd one and decide it was heavier or
lighter than the rest.
I couldn't imagine how anyone could figure this out in three
tries, so I was very intrigued. I smiled. My
father had given up on me too fast. Okay, so I was
useless with mechanical things. Obviously I would
never be a brilliant engineer like him. On the other
hand, I was excellent with
games like chess and logic puzzles.
I loved solving puzzles, this logic test was right up my
alley. This wasn't work, this was fun! I took to the challenge like a duck to
water. The riddle proved to be very tricky, but I
loved it. The answer was so ingenious that I admired
whoever had designed the puzzle.
After that, the programming was easy. All I
had to do was use computer language to write out the same logical steps I had used to
identify the wrong-weight billiard ball.
When I was done,
I smiled with contentment. Although the problem took
me about two hours, I enjoyed every minute of the challenge.
To my surprise, when we handed in our assignment
the following week, there was an unusual
amount of grumbling. The consensus with the business
people was that this
assignment was far too difficult. The instructor
seemed very surprised at the amount of negativity. I
didn't say anything, but I knew this project had required
some serious thought plus a two
hour investment of time. I imagined these
busy people with their jobs and families probably didn't
have the luxury to find two hours of complete silence to
a project like this.
As for me, I had
just as much
time as I wanted to invest. Time was definitely on my
side, but I didn't feel
the least bit sorry for them. After all, I had spent
nine years competing against St. John's kids who had far more advantages than
me. It was nice to have the advantage arrow pointing
at me for a change. Why feel guilty?
week, the instructor was in a bad mood. He had
finished grading the exams and apparently he was not happy
about the class performance. Before he
handed out the graded tests, he told the class how
disappointed he was in the overall performance. However, rather than challenge the group to
step up their efforts, the teacher tried to appease them. Apparently this challenge was tougher than
he expected and he wanted to apologize.
I was surprised
at his tactic. To me, he was showing weakness.
Why apologize? That was like a lion tamer backing
down to a few snarls. Sure enough, the grumbling increased
immediately. Now the
professor compounded his error. He added that
the test had
been so hard that only one person in the entire class had
solved both the puzzle and the programming
one person had done well turned out to be a mistake.
He should have said nothing. This odd tidbit brought a hush to the grumbling.
Now the anger was replaced by the need to indentify the rat.
Heads turned searching for an embarrassed face. Who was the traitor among them who had made everyone else
responded, so one lady spoke up. "Dr. Burnett, who was
the person who solved the puzzle?"
To my dismay,
that stupid instructor decided to name the perpetrator. The instructor
asked 'Richard Archer' to raise his hand.
I rolled my
eyes, but I didn't say a
word. Since I had
solved the problem handily and he stated only one person had
succeeded, I assumed he must be referring to me. However, I had no
intention of responding. I was already the most
unpopular person in the room. Why direct further wrath my way?
What I did not
anticipate was the furious wave of curiosity that ensued. Too late now.
Once the instructor had let the cat out of the bag,
everyone was looking around for someone to turn on. The reaction of
the class was interesting. Heads turned every which
way trying to guess the identity. Oddly enough, not one person
turned to look at me. That
spoke volumes as to their opinion of me.
Which jerk had raised the almighty curve?
When no one confessed, they looked back at the instructor who in turn
shrugged. He didn't know who 'Richard Archer' was.
Once he realized no one was going to take credit, his eyes went
down to his roster. And then something in his brain
clicked. A flash of recognition crossed his face.
I thought, 'he
just figured it out.'
with a look of utter incredulity, he lifted
his head to stare directly at me.
up on the instructor's strange expression. They turned
their heads to see who he was looking at. Immediately
every person in the room turned around to look at me. When they
realized it was me who had solved the puzzle, a look of
total shock crossed their faces. They gave me the
weirdest looks... anger, disbelief, disgust. This entire group had written me off
because I didn't look like them or dress like them. To them, I was
a worthless bum. Make that a stupid worthless bum.
It absolutely blew their minds to
realize one should not judge a book by its cover.
Now that I was
exposed, I crossed my arms and stared back at them grim-faced with defiance.
I met every one of their eyes without blinking. I
knew a secret that none of these
people would have guessed in a million years.
certainly looked like a long-haired, brain-fried, doped up hippie, it was
all just a disguise. When it came to academics, I was
more dangerous than they could have ever imagined.
was probably more driven to succeed than any person in this room.
experience was an affirmation of the elite education I had
received at St. John's. These people had no idea I
had spent nine long years as a scholastic gladiator at the toughest, most
competitive private school in Houston, Texas. Underneath my
ghastly appearance was a mind accustomed to tackling
What a bunch of
sissies. Boo hoo hoo. I would never have given
up on a problem like this.
Mr. Salls had
promised me that Hopkins was a perfect fit. At
the thought of him, I smiled. My Headmaster was right all along.
Thank you, Mr. Salls. Forgive me for doubting
I did not win a full
four year scholarship to
Johns Hopkins University by accident. I earned my scholarship.
- DR LIEBERMAN
In my Sophomore
year, I signed up for my second computer course. The
course being offered was an "Intro to Computer Science"
course taught by Dr. Alan Lieberman. This course was part
of the new computer department at Johns Hopkins. Blending
in with 200 other unkempt, long-haired Hopkins undergrads, I was relieved to find I was no longer an
outcast like I had been in Night School.
Dr. Lieberman was
a truly gifted professor. He made computer science
absolutely fascinating for me. I wasn't alone in this
opinion. His class was very
popular. In fact, no one dared come late to his class
for fear of not getting a seat. The attendance in his
class said it all... not an empty chair. One day I
complained to a friend after class that I had to sit on the
floor because there were no seats.
My friend explained what the problem was. After the class had
been closed to further enrollment, several students decided
to audit the class just to hear what Dr. Lieberman had to say.
I was impressed.
I had never heard of auditing a class. Obviously this
professor commanded a lot of respect. I quickly found
out why. Dr.
was far and away the most interesting, best-taught class I
would ever take during my four years at Hopkins.
adjustment between St. John's and Johns Hopkins was the
lack of relationship between professors and students.
It was now the second semester of my second year and not
once had I spoken to a professor other than to ask a brief
question. One thing I liked about Dr. Lieberman is that
he actually asked questions in his class and there was a
lively dialogue. I tried to answer his questions
several times, but the class was so large that he never
One day Dr.
Lieberman gave us a
programming assignment using BASIC, a sort of
training-wheels, entry-level computer language that was
popular at the time. The assignment was extremely
I put a
tremendous amount of effort into the project, but there was
something wrong. There was a bug of some sort in my
command structure. This flaw caused the program to fail somewhere
along the line. I could not for the life of me find the
error, but I believed my programming was solid otherwise.
If I could just find this
one glitch! However, I kept drawing a blank.
problem was getting enough computer time to run more tests. Computers
were very slow in those days plus the interest in computers was
over the top at school. The demand for computer time
far outstripped the limited availability. Not only
were the lines of undergraduates waiting to use the campus computer
endless, we were given only ten minutes apiece to run our
program. If our program didn't work in the allotted
time, tough, we would have to come back
My entire class
was in the same boat as me. Unfortunately,
everyone in the class was struggling with this assignment, so the lines
at the school's single terminal
remained long. I hated those
lines. Like everyone else, I would do whatever
homework I could while waiting my turn. And then after
an hour or two hour wait, I would get the bad news when my program
failed again. My frustration was mounting.
Each time the
computer generated a
print-out of my command structure. I would go
back to the dorm and pore over that print-out trying to find the bug. Hours passed
without any luck. This needle in the haystack approach
was driving me nuts. I had never felt so helpless before.
Then I had an
idea. Why not put messages in the program to identify
the exact section where the error took place? So
that's what I did. I began to add messages throughout
the program that read like this: "Program correct through
line 350". I inserted two dozen of these markers.
In other words, if my print-out said "Program correct
through line 350", then I could start looking for the
problem at line 351 and beyond.
I had no idea if
this solution would work, but I rushed over to the computer
center. No luck. The line was out the door
at the computer center. Every student in my
class was just as desperate for computer time as I was. Realizing that my next computer class
with Dr. Lieberman would
start before my turn would come, I went to the classroom
early and spent the next hour
looking at the printout for the error again. No luck.
I was getting
worried, so I stayed after Dr. Lieberman's class to talk to him. I
showed him my print-out and asked if he could spot my
smiled and said, "Let's have a look." He patiently scanned line after line for about three minutes.
Then he turned to
me and said, "The good news is that this appears to be very
solid work. I agree with you, the error is probably very small
and the project will be completed the moment we find it.
The bad news is that I can't find it and I have an
appointment right now. Are you free this evening?"
I nodded and
said I was free. To myself, even if I wasn't free, I
would cancel anything to get some help. I was getting
you come to my evening class? I hold my night school class in this
same room. After class, I will have
enough time to take a closer look."
I was both
elated and dejected at the offer. I appreciated the
offer, but I hated admitting to my professor I
could not find that mistake on my own. I dropped by
the computer center again, but the line was still out the door. No
So I spent that
entire afternoon scanning the print-out again to find my mistake, but to no avail. At
dinnertime, I went to the computer center again. I
hoped to test my new error markers to see if they worked
before seeing Dr. Lieberman, but the line was still there.
A lot of students had chosen to skip dinner just like me.
So I spent the next hour looking at my print-out.
Again, no luck. At this point, I had spent
somewhere close to six hours looking for the mistake without
any end in sight.
I was so frustrated. I had never put this much time into
any project before in my life. I was really
With the error
still a mystery, I
showed up in Dr. Lieberman's night class as promised.
As I entered the classroom, I realized Dr. Lieberman was
teaching a night school class similar to the one I took the
previous year. Sure enough, I saw the same IBM business types as
they busily wrote down everything Dr. Lieberman had to say.
I sat down in a remote
spot and listened to his lecture. He was such an
entertaining man. Through humor, questions, and
anecdotes, he kept his class in the palm of his hand.
I was so impressed. I idly wished I could be a teacher just like
After class, I
walked up to my professor. Dr. Lieberman greeted me with a smile.
"Ah, good, you're here. Let's have another look."
Now he studied
my print-out some more. He frowned and shook his head.
Uh oh. When I saw him do that, my heart sunk.
Dr. Lieberman could not find the mistake either. I
figured I was doomed.
To my surprise,
Dr. Lieberman offered a ray of hope. "Do you have time
to come to my office? We can run your program on my
terminal and maybe I can spot something that way."
Yes, I had the
time. Most definitely.
So the two of us
walked to his office. I felt very fortunate that this
eminent professor would offer his valuable time
to an anonymous student like me.
This man reminded me of Mr. Curran and my other fine
instructors back at St. John's. Dr. Lieberman was
popular for a reason... he definitely cared about his
ten-minute walk across campus, Dr. Lieberman asked my name
and asked me where I was from.
When I told him I was from Texas, he grinned. "I had
no idea Hopkins had any Texas students. You had me
fooled... you talk like you are from the east."
I explained I
was born in Philadelphia and my mother spoke with an East
accent. He laughed and nodded. That explained
my lack of a Texas drawl.
his interest. This was not a good time for me.
This was one of those times when my loneliness had me very
When we got to
his office, I was surprised to see Dr. Lieberman had a
private terminal. Good! I was relieved there
would be no standing in line for two hours. Dr.
Lieberman took my command tape and ran it
through his terminal. He watched the printout
His eyes grew
wide when my intermittent messages appeared every 50 lines.
"Program correct through Line 200", "Program correct through
turned to me. "Where did you get the idea to put those messages in there?"
"I thought of it
"Good for you,
That was a very clever idea."
Just then the
program failed. Dr. Lieberman looked at the print-out.
"Program correct through Line 400."
smiled hopefully. "Okay, I think we can trust your
work. If so, apparently the program is solid
through Line 400. That is very close to the end of the
program. Let's take a look at what we have after Line
He scanned my
list of commands for a second, then paused. "Aha, there it
is. In Line 422 you forgot to add a period at the end
of the command. That's all it was. It is
ridiculous how something that small can sabotage everything.
This is the curse of computer programming. One must
have an unusual amount of patience and stick-to-itiveness.
It looks like you have both qualities."
I wasn't so sure
about my patience, but I was definitely
relieved. I couldn't
believe something that obscure was causing me the biggest
headache of my life.
quickly inserted the missing period, then ran the
program again. I held my breath. This time the program
worked like a charm. Thank goodness. The ordeal
turned to me and shook my hand. He smiled and said, "Rick, you should be proud of yourself.
I saw some very solid work here and that idea to put in
messages to help with the trouble-shooting was brilliant.
The fact that you
came up with that idea on your own shows you have a
real knack for this work. I am very impressed."
I blushed at
this extraordinary compliment. It meant a lot to hear
high praise from this man I admired so much. I
explained how grateful I was for his help. I said that
without his help, I
couldn't imagine how long it would have taken me to find
that mistake on my own. I thanked him for helping me
out of the worst jam I had ever encountered.
much I appreciated his help, a huge smile came over my
professor's face. He appreciated my sincerity. Dr. Lieberman replied with modesty.
"Don't be silly. Your groundwork was already in place. You would have found it yourself the next time you got on
could see that Dr. Lieberman had clearly enjoyed coming to my
aid. He was tickled that his good deed had worked
out so well. As he turned off
the computer and prepared to leave his office, Dr. Lieberman
commented wistfully, "There are times when I wish I could have more
interaction like this with my students. But there are just so
many hours in the day. I want to thank you for
reminding me why I always wanted to be a teacher when I grew
up. It has been a real pleasure helping you, Rick."
And with that,
we shook hands and said goodnight.
What a great
guy. It was no accident that Dr. Lieberman was given the student's choice award
for top instructor at the end of the school year. He
definitely got my vote. I never met a finer professor.
As I walked back
to the dorm, an interesting thought crossed my mind.
Tonight's experience had made quite an impression on me.
I would very
much like to be a teacher someday. What a shame it was
I had no idea what I wanted to teach.
WORK WORK WORK
Money was always
a problem during college. Seeing as how neither parent
contributed a cent, I was always scrounging for ways to pay
for books, room and board. Plus I had wasted valuable
savings buying a new car to replace the stolen one.
I did not want to
take out loans so I turned to work-study jobs to make
ends meet. Since I was no stranger to work, every
time there was a job opening at the Hopkins financial aid office, I
would apply for it. Sometimes I would hold down as many as three part-time jobs at the same time.
I worked just as many hours in college as I had back at the
aid office was a bright spot in college. There were
some very kind people there. I would
graduate debt-free thanks to the terrific
work-study program at the financial aid office. Many
jobs were temporary, so when one job ended, I had to be on the
lookout for new openings. Due to
my frequent visits looking for more work, I
made sure to tell whoever would listen how much I
appreciated these small jobs. It was those good
manners I had learned at SJS coming in handy again.
I guess they
weren't used to students expressing gratitude.
Whatever the reason, I became a real favorite at the
financial aid office. A lady named Lorraine
said in her opinion I was the hardest working kid she had
ever seen at this school. Bless her heart. I made a
point to visit Lorraine any time I needed some encouragement...
and then on my way out I would scan the bulletin board for any new job
One of my jobs
was reading academic papers to a blind philosophy professor
named Dr. Whitman.
Due to my recent interest in
the "meaning of life", I was currently taking
several Philosophy of Religion courses. I was strongly considering
'Philosophy' as my major. So when I saw that I would
be reading philosophy papers to him, I naturally assumed I
might learn something.
something all right, but I wasn't happy about what I
learned. I was
in for an unpleasant surprise. As I
began to read, many of these scholarly terms were obscure
words I had never encountered before.
Dr. Whitman was
not the nicest of men. He was a cold, critical man who
constantly demanded that I try harder. If anything,
his pressure made me more tense. I did
everything in my power to read more accurately, but I found
myself stumbling over all these foreign words. Half
the time I could not even comprehend what I was reading
aloud to Professor Whitman.
were supposed to be written in English, but you could have
fooled me. There seemed to be a
special vocabulary for the realm of Philosophy.
Epistemology, metaphysics, noesis, ontology, solipsism,
teleological... words like these meant nothing to me.
The material was completely over my head. That was
the first time in my life when I realized that there were
degrees of 'bright'. That
was a sobering realization. There is 'bright', and
then there is 'super-bright'.
I had been
highly amused to vanquish those nasty people in my computer
night school class, but now I had met my match. There was no way I could
this advanced philosophy material. This was my
gunslinger moment. No matter how fast I was on
the draw, I had just discovered that there were people with
intellectual ability far beyond what I possessed.
I began to dread each visit because I hated
Dr. Whitman's disapproval and these constant reminders of how limited my IQ was. Try as I might,
I continued to stumble over the difficult vocabulary. For a lonely kid like me, I wrapped my
self-esteem around my intelligence. Now it stung to
see I wasn't anywhere near as smart as I thought I was.
brought me to the conclusion that my success at St. John's
was due far more to hard work and discipline than any overwhelming
brainpower. That was a very humbling realization that
intellectual self-esteem down several notches.
I was smart
enough to attend Hopkins, but there was clearly a level of "smart"
well above mine that I could never aspire to. People like
Dr. Whitman belonged in a
league of their own.
Eventually I got
over myself. During my visits, I tried to help any way I could. The
professor would ask me to do small favors like
address envelopes or look for a missing comb he had
misplaced. I was astonished at how organized a blind
person has to be if they live alone. One variation from routine and a
simple item like a lost comb or lost key becomes a time-consuming
search. I got in touch with what an enormous
handicap blindness was. Since I was blind in my left
I felt great empathy for this man's plight.
This story had
an odd ending. This was the only job I would ever be
fired from. At the end of one of my reading sessions,
Dr. Whitman said he regretted to tell me this, but this
would be my final visit. Dr. Whitman
explained that while he appreciated my reliability and
earnest effort, I didn't read fast enough for him. He
found himself constantly impatient with me.
Although my prickly side resented the criticism, I didn't
argue with him. In my heart, I knew he was right.
Dr. Whitman was simply confirming what I had previously
concluded on my own - I was not smart enough for this job. Who would have
ever guessed that a $1.65 an hour part-time reading job would entail
my defining Peter Principle moment?
I had reached my
level of incompetence. I was too stupid for this job.
was able to find other jobs more suited to my limited IQ...
bartending, for example. I was pleased to see I still
had enough intelligence to pour a glass of wine at an alumni
party or mix orange juice with vodka. That eased my
shattered self-esteem somewhat.
I worked all kinds of jobs. I restocked books in the
library. I supervised the all-night reading room.
I prepared phone numbers for alumni phonathons to raise
money for the school. And yes, I bartended alumni
get-togethers. I would work any job I could get.
study job involved
manning the desk at the Graduate Reading Room inside the school library.
The professors wanted their graduate students to read scholarly papers
culled from various journals. These were more or less
the same type of papers I had struggled to read to Dr.
Whitman. So, for example, let's say Dr. Whitman would spot an
article in a professional journal he liked. Now he wanted to find a way to
include the article in his course curriculum.
Dr. Whitman would
have the office secretary make
several copies for his students to read at their convenience
in the library. Many of these
scholarly papers were
unusually long. Since they varied from ten to thirty pages,
they were very time-consuming to copy and collate.
copies kept disappearing at an
alarming rate. The graduate students were stealing them.
So much for the Hopkins honor system. The professors
became very angry at having to replace these long copies so often, so they
devised a plan. They would put all the copies in one
room and hire an undergraduate like me to keep an eye on them.
This area was known as the Graduate Reading Room.
Good idea. Now that the graduate students had to sign
the papers out with someone like me watching and read them
in an area where I could see what they were doing, the rate
of paper disappearance diminished. However, there
was still theft. I imagine when I wasn't looking, the
students would sneak one copy into their briefcase and check
out another copy to avoid suspicion. Then they would
return one copy and take the second copy home with them.
I watched, but
there was one of me and always at least a dozen people to watch. All they had
to do was wait till I was distracted. If someone is
determined enough to steal, a library offers too many
One day I told my blind
philosophy professor that I had noticed the philosophy
papers were being stolen at a much greater rate than the
psychology papers or political science papers or economics papers and so on.
Then I told him that at my job in the all-night reading room,
the entire $300 set of the
Encyclopedia of Philosophy (worth $2,000 in
modern money) had just turned up missing. Considering
there were twenty heavy volumes in the collection, this must
have been a very determined thief.
This was an
especially callous act since different students used that
material all the time. Now no one had access because
it was gone.
asked Dr. Whitman what he thought about the black eye
someone was giving Philosophy graduate students.
"I imagine one
of our philosophy graduate students ripped off the
Encyclopedia to study for comprehensives."
You would think philosophy students would be the most
ethical people of all. What about Kant and the Metaphysics
contrary. Year in and year out, it is a known fact
throughout the different departments that philosophy students
steal more and
violate more rules than any other group at the University."
"Why do you
suppose that is?"
students are a rare breed. They study something that
most people in society consider a complete waste of time and
yet they feel superior to the whole world. Because
they are brilliant, they feel
intellectually privileged to do anything they want.
they've thought out their positions a different way so many
times that they have reached a point where they can rationalize
anything. They have learned to argue any position with
equal justification. So rather than become
increasingly moral, they
become curiously amoral. Besides, since philosophy students
believe they are special, they feel entitled to do anything they want."
"What can they do
with a philosophy degree?"
ethical ones with talent become professors like me. The
lawyers and politicians and the ones with no talent become salesmen. There they find ways to rationalize
whatever immoral thing they choose to do without any major
I believe that
was the day I quietly changed my major from philosophy to
Good move. Psychology now
became my favorite subject. Despite the handicap of my
limited intelligence, I
somehow made A's in every course. The sad
thing is that I knew full well why I was so intrigued with Psychology. I hoped the more I understood about human
nature, I might find a solution to the suitcase full of
emotional problems I had acquired in childhood.
Maybe I might
even figure out how to get a girlfriend.
FOR MEANING BEGINS
Loneliness is an
acid on the soul. It makes people become twisted and
I moved out of
the dorm after my Freshman year. I saw a notice of a
room for rent in a row house. Baltimore has many row
houses. They are tall, thin three-story buildings
built side by side in a long row... hence the name.
Two little old ladies lived together. They watched TV
day and night downstairs. They slept in separate
bedrooms on the second floor. I had a room on the
third floor all to myself.
roommate, I was on my own. I had some guys I played
basketball with, but I wasn't a very social being. No
drinking with the guys, no partying, and certainly no
My life was a
daily blur of classes, work-study jobs, afternoon
basketball, and studying. Each day, same thing.
I was around people all the time, but mostly I was alone.
I was starting to retreat back into the same shell I had
once inhabited back in high school. However this time
I wasn't bitter towards anyone. Just lonely.
Every day I went through the motions.
In the second
half of my Sophomore year, I was immersed in a serious
depression... but I didn't know it. I was so depressed that I didn't even
realize I was depressed. I was blind to my problems
because I was numb inside. I was no longer in touch
with my feelings.
It was now March
1970. One Saturday
morning, I was working at the Graduate
Reading Room. I noticed how grouchy the
first graduate student was. Then I saw another student
enter the room with a huge frown on his face. Then I
saw another one with a frown on his face as well. And another
As I sat there
leaning back in my chair with my arms crossed,
I could not help but notice how depressed all these young men looked
as they passed by. This went on all morning. Is
the whole world miserable? Isn't anybody happy around
Then I had a
sudden flash... it wasn't these young men who were
depressed, it was me. I was the one who was depressed.
I was seeing my own depression in their faces.
I was using a
psychological defense known as 'projection'. My
loneliness had taken its toll on me. I had become so
cold and so remote that I was now out of touch with my own
feelings. Instead of revealing the disturbing fact
that I was absolutely miserable, my mind would
only let me see that feeling in the
faces of the other students.
The first thing
I did was wonder where that curious insight had come from.
The mind is a strange thing indeed.
The second thing
I did was panic.
I was stunned.
How was it possible to be so deeply depressed and not even know it? I could not believe how blind I was to my own state of
mind. Now that I thought about it, I had been going
around feeling numb for weeks.
I was shocked to
realize just how unhappy I was. This was exactly how I
felt during the toughest part of my senior year in high
school. Unfortunately there was no Mrs. Ballantyne
around to save me this time. What was I going to do? I had to work the entire weekend, so
there was no chance to drive down to
Northern Virginia for sanctuary with Aunt Lynn.
goodness for the insight. At least now that I was
aware that I was miserable, perhaps I could do something about it.
I thought back. Who were the happiest people I knew?
Who did I know who was really happy?
My mind drifted
to Allen and Polly Clark back in Houston. They were
members of the Quaker Meeting which my mother and I had attended
fairly regularly during my childhood. Polly was very
protective of me. After my
parents' divorce in 1959, Polly could tell how much I was
struggling since the break-up. Seeing how lonely I
was, there were times when Polly wondered how she could
persuade my mother to let me come live with her family.
Finally she had an idea. One day when I was
11, she approached my
mother with an idea. Could her son join the Clark
family for their upcoming summer trip to Colorado?
Mom had no
reason to object, so that was that. I took
one trip each summer for the next four years with the
Clarks. They had three children of their own - Shari,
Jim, and Margaret.
When Margaret was about three, I
nearly broke her hand on our first trip. Thanks to my blind eye, I closed a car door without
realizing Margaret had just outstretched her hand.
The poor girl
cried and cried.
I felt so
I could not believe the pain I had caused the poor child. However, despite the Margaret's considerable pain, not once did
Allen or Polly chew me out.
were, "Don't worry about it, Dick; accidents will happen. We
know you didn't do it deliberately."
them so much for being so understanding. Fortunately
Margaret's wrist was not broken. Periodic aspirin did
the trick and the rest of the trip went well.
By the end of the trip, I was part of the family. Over the
years, I would
become a fourth child in their family.
They adopted me in much the same way that Aunt Lynn and
Uncle Dick in Northern Virginia would later take me under their wing.
So now in my
darkest hour here at Hopkins, I recalled that not just Polly and
Allen, but many of the members of the Quaker Meeting had been
kind to me. I concluded that possibly the Quaker
religion was one of the keys to the unbelievable kindness of
these people. There is a thread of inherent decency in many Quaker
Well, I could use
a heavy dose of
kindness right now, so the following
decided to attend the Sunday service of the Homewood Friends Meeting
('Friend' is another name for 'Quaker'). I looked up
the address and realized this Quaker
meeting was conveniently located right across
Charles Street from the Hopkins library.
For those who
don't know much about the Quakers, they are a gentle
people. I would describe
the Quaker faith as a "do it yourself" religion.
There are no ministers or preachers. No one tells you what to think or believe. The Quaker
religion is based on introspection and meditation. The
idea is that God will speak to a person if they can quiet
So the entire meeting consists of people sitting in silence
for an hour hoping for a divine suggestion.
That isn't to
say that the entire hour is spent in complete silence. If
someone wishes to stand up and share a thought, whatever
they have to say would be listened to with respect. This was
definitely "a thinking man's religion" which
appealed to me just fine. Let's face it, I was always
thinking. It was my nature to be curious about
everything and that included religion.
One of the main
tenets of Quaker philosophy is that there is a ray of light
in every man. If one looks closely enough, that light
can be seen. In other words, everyone has good in them
if given a chance. I have always been fond of that thought.
As I hoped,
several people came to greet me after the Meeting was over.
I needed warmth in the worst way, so their attention
was much appreciated.
They all encouraged me to come again, so I said I would.
As I left, I
felt better already. This had been a good idea.
I was glad to
escape my gloomy campus for a while.
It was reassuring to be reminded there really were happy people in
Maybe someday I
could be happy too.