Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2010

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Alumni take the spotlight at Reunion for a photoshoot with Anne Reno Geddes ´93.

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Lessons Learned

Alumni remember their favorite professors and the words that still guide them today

By Crai Bower ´84
Illustrations by Dennis Balough


SPHERE OF INFLUENCE

Crai Bower ´84, Freelance writer and author

I vividly remember the slide from a class presentation: three children, ages 3 to 6, frolicking in a New England meadow. “I brought these children into the world,” Professor of History Richard Birdsall wheezed through a bout of spring asthma, “so that they could dance upon my gravesite.” First-time Birdsall students shot nervous glances to each other, and we veterans chuckled at yet another “birddog” (his term) moment. The class was “Nature in America,” and we were studying the Transcendentalists.

Birdsall´s Fanning Hall standup was but one act of his tutorial. There were trips in his yellow VW bug to see the Bacon and Blake exhibit at Yale´s Peabody Museum, followed by beers at Morey´s, a suitable domain to listen to his anecdotes about quitting Yale to “hike up the mountains of Vermont and sail back down on a pair of 6-inch-wide planks.” I left college to wander the West, tattered copies of “On The Road,” “Desert Solitaire” and “The Glass Bead Game,” Birdsall recommendations all, in tow.

I was working in Cripple Creek, Colo., when the postcard bearing “Diana and her Nymphs Surprised by Fauns” arrived in my postbox. Fauns had been crossed out and replaced with “asthmatic, old history professor.” “Keep wandering,” the postcard read, “and keep exploring.”

While the late Dick Birdsall remains an indelible part of my travel writer´s impetus today, I could have just as easily featured hiking with George Willauer and my Frost-Dickinson seminar to see a “West Running Brook,” watching Robert Askins gush at the spring arrival of a black-throated blue warbler in the Arboretum, or Bruce Kirmmse´s enigmatic postscript to yet another riveting intellectual history lecture, “But you´ll believe what you read in The New York Times, won´t you?”

This tapestry of recollections may also explain why, after I´d fulfilled the requisite number of interviews to convey tales of influential professors in this article, I couldn´t help but call more alumni to hear yet more stories. Call it part birddog work ethic and part desire to wander and explore the familiar.


THE SUN RISES IN THE EAST

Kevon Copeland ´76, Senior Business Development Specialist, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh

The Connecticut College day begins early for dance majors, crew teams and, for five decades, students in Professor Charles Chu´s Chinese class. Five days a week, Chinese language and Asian studies majors would trek across the Green to work for two hours with the legendary “grammar sergeant,” engaged in lively discussion before most classmates were functionally verbal in English.

Kevon Copeland ´76 cut this own path, though he had never expected to be on it at all. He discovered a passion for Asian studies due to the eloquent instruction of the Brodkin, Havens, Smith and Chu quartet.

“My first job in the Asian Pacific banking market and my subsequent finance career were direct results of taking survey classes with Professors Havens and Brodkin, who opened the door to other parts of the world,” the former international banker says.

Copeland worked with Kent Smith to complete his senior thesis, a study of Sun Yat-sen and the transition from Imperial China to the Republic of China. He came to emulate the professional dedication of each professor, including the late Charles Chu. “It helped me frame my own journey to gather insight into how they personally went about their vocations, building careers and constructing their lives,” he says.

A Connecticut College trustee, Copeland still vividly remembers that year spent treading across campus in the early dawn. “No college student should be awake then, but Charles was such an enthusiastic guy that you got caught up in his enthusiasm, and it was such a difficult language that you never knew how hard you were working.”


REAL-LIFE LESSONS

Andrew Kerner ´02, Assistant Professor, Political Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Many high school students first distinguish schools on the basis of their size, the large university vs. small college. Andrew Kerner ´02 knows this dichotomy well. While at Connecticut College, he conducted an empirical, micro-economic study under economics Professors Don Peppard and Rolf Jensen in Vietnam. Kerner spent a month interviewing Vietnamese women who sold fresh produce from their baskets, an integral if illegal stratum of the local economy. “My eyes were opened to the understanding that large elements of the economy remain unmeasured statistically,” he explains.

Kerner also credits Candace Howes, the Barbara Hogate Ferrin ´43 Professor of Economics, with revealing other critical elements of the economy that live within the numbers. “Howes taught a course on labor economics and immigration during which I was struck by the strong ethical component in political economics,” he says. “I saw that we are underserved when we look at the anonymous model and forget the emotions.”

The son and grandson of Connecticut College alumnae, the political scientist is advising two undergraduate studies, further evidence of his alma mater´s lasting influence. “There is a feeling here that you are supposed to focus on your research rather than on undergraduate teaching,” Kerner says. “But my trip to Vietnam, Professor Howes´s lectures and my politically active grandmother also motivate me to remain focused upon my undergraduates.”


LOOKING BEYOND THE DATA

Trish May ´75, Founder and CEO, Athena Partners, Seattle

Unlike many college freshmen, Trish May ´75 arrived on campus with a plan: She wanted to work with computers. But this was 1971, and small, liberal arts colleges weren´t exactly leading the computer revolution.

“Dean Joan King wasn´t going to let a lack of hardware prohibit my success,” recalls the founder of Athena Partners, which donates all profits to breast cancer research. “She encouraged me to enroll in a computer class at the Coast Guard Academy.” May also spent her junior year at Dartmouth, where computer science was available, as part of the 12-College Exchange.

Thirty-five years later, May remains impressed with the College´s willingness to encourage her independent study, in which she created the first computer program for the Admission office. But it was Ruby T. Morris´s macro and urban economics classes and Gerald Visgilio´s senior economics seminar that most shaped her career as an early employee at Microsoft (the company was so small back then that employees shared pizza with Bill Gates during Friday brainstorm sessions) and now at the nonprofit company she founded.

“Professors Morris and Visgilio provided two important ends of the academic spectrum,” May says. “Morris was eccentric, waving her arms around very excitedly and bringing data to life from graphs and newspapers.”

Visgilio, who taught May´s nephew last semester, was more traditional in his approach, demanding that his students look beyond the data. “He taught us to apply the intricacies of hard economics to the complex world. You had to apply new thinking,” she recalls. “It wasn´t just rote learning but an engaging discussion, and there wasn´t just a single correct answer about how to apply economics to what we see out the window each and every day.”


IN SIGHT OF A VISIONARY

Ken Lankin ´83, Director of Public Health, Physician, U.S. Navy

The lawn of Ken Lankin ´83´s Philadelphia row house may not have been very large, but he returned from his freshman year in 1980 determined to convert it from grass to native perennials. He´d just taken Ecology 101 with William Niering, the same course that convinced Lankin he should never consider buying a new car.

The Lucretia L. Allyn Professor of Botany´s pragmatic philosophy continues to resonate with Lankin in other ways. “Rarely does a day pass that is free of Professor Niering´s influence,” the physician says. “He emphasized that in order to get things done, one has to take a global view of all perspectives, that compromise is not a bad word. It was critical to hear this from someone so dedicated to conservation.”

Eleven years after his death, Niering´s personal ecology remains legendary: cycling across campus in winter, throwing out a single bag of garbage a year, wearing secondhand clothing, including his favorite pants, a pair of Brooks Brothers khakis he´d “discovered” in a dorm´s Dumpster. But Lankin notes additional impressions rarely cited within the Niering myth.

“He served in World War II, which really shocked a lot of us from the cynical, post-Vietnam generation,” recalls Lankin, who recently returned from a medical mission in Afghanistan with the Navy. “But Dr. Niering used his time in the service to work on restoration projects in Papua New Guinea, demonstrating once again that good intentions trump negative preconceptions.”

One perception that will never change is Niering´s ethos that saving this planet will only be possible if people listen to and work with each other.


THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING THE FACTS

Sally Susman ´84, Senior Vice President, Policy, External Affairs & Communications, Pfizer Inc., New York City

Sally Susman ´84 has come full circle, with plenty of tangents. The Pfizer executive and Connecticut College trustee didn´t know what she wanted to study when she arrived in New London in 1980, nor did she have a concrete plan upon graduation.

“There really is no telling exactly what you are going to do if you studied what I did in college,” the one-time government major observes.

But Susman was confident that she´d be successful in the long run, thanks in no small part to several classes she took with Professor of Government Marion Doro, who specialized in African government and the role of women in historical and political contexts. Susman found international politics to be exciting subject matter, but what most impressed her was Doro´s insistence that political studies must be objective and not driven by emotional arguments.

“She taught me to be fact-based in my approach,” Susman says. “Even when people would want to engage her in arguments about apartheid, she would say, ´What are your facts?´ This gave me a frame of reference for how to perform in the workplace.”

Susman says her own success depends upon making persuasive and precise arguments, such as during Pfizer´s recent debate whether to support or oppose health care reform.

“In my world, every day is an argument,” Susman says. “I have to make sure the facts are accurate to make my case. Professor Doro (now emeritus) is one reason I am well equipped to do my job.”





THE REEXAMINING

Estella Johnson ´75, Director of Economic Development, Cambridge, Mass.

Estella Johnson ´75 arrived on campus at age 24 after working and taking junior college classes in New York City for six years. Her “heavy social days” behind her, Johnson thought she knew herself pretty well, until she entered sociology Professor Arthur Ferrari´s classroom.

“He would absolutely challenge us at every opportunity,” the College trustee recalls. “He would torture us into thinking for ourselves, question our sense of reality.”

Although more than 35 years have passed since her beliefs and logic were put to the test by her animated professor (now emeritus), several of his lines of inquisition remain fresh in her memory. “He loved to ask, ´Well, if you are so different, then why are you doing the same thing as everyone else all the time?´ It really forced me to test my own sense of who I was, to understand that another person´s perspective, even if it was the opposite of mine, contained equal value.”

It´s a lesson Johnson says she employs daily. “Conn takes whoever you are and shows you how to be better,” she says. “I try to do the same thing.”


THE POWER OF CANDID COMMUNICATION

Christy Burke ´93, President, Burke & Co. LLC, New York City

Christy Burke ´93 is used to hard work. Whether employed in business development at Forbes Magazine during a challenging economy or starting her own public relations company, Burke and Co., to launch self-owned technology start-ups, the New York resident invites challenges that require foundational creative skills.

“Companies that are still run by their founders are a lot of fun,” she says. “Working with these entrepreneurs provides the opportunity to work very closely in the marketing of their products.”

Burke credits her Organizational Dynamics class with Professor J. Alan Winter for teaching her the value of clear and candid communication. “He was unafraid to speak his mind and be straight about things,” recalls Burke, a member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors. “In my business there is a tendency to be overly polite and couch everything, but Mr. Winter taught me to be very direct and have fun with it.”

Burke admits that Winter´s methodology could be unsettling at times, like when he gave her a C- on her first paper. She knew the final grade depended on just three papers, and she´d never received such a low grade before. “I had always written successfully in my own style, but he really taught me to introduce my subject, provide clear content and then summarize my argument,” she says of Winter, now the Lucretia L. Allyn Professor Emeritus of Sociology. “It´s a technique I´ve employed professionally for 17 years.”


MINING THE MIND

Michael Kelly ´96, Adjunct Professor, Department of Philosophy, Boston College

Michael Kelly ´96 was the first member in his family to attend college, but he was not alone. His twin brother, Matthew, also attended Conn.

“My father assumed he was sending us to college so we could advance toward well-paying vocations,” Kelly laughs. “Five years into my graduate school in philosophy, he still believed I was studying to become a psychiatrist.”

The philosopher admits that he too would have shared his father´s incredulity were it not for the support of Associate Professor of Philosophy Kristen Pfefferkorn.

“She saw more talent in me than I saw in myself,” Kelly says. “She indicated I had a gift in the discipline, made me aware for the first time of graduate studies in the humanities, and was influential in giving me an award as an outstanding student in the department. If I said something that was particularly interesting she would ask me why I had made a certain comment.”

Kelly says Pfefferkorn also contributed to his vocational training, gently insisting upon clear ideas presented in linear fashion. “I tried to write my final paper on Nietzsche in his writing style,” he recalls. “Pfefferkorn pulled me aside and subtly said, ´You have to be very careful in this work.´ I´ve carried this advice through graduate school to this very day.”


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