Southern Illinois University was truly an oasis.
The quiet. The calm. The time I could hold in my hand, like a large drop of morning dew. The pristine woods and clear lakes. The short winter and insignificant snow. The twenty-minute walk in solitude between Southern Hills and Evergreen Terrace, the two graduate student housing where we lived for a total of four and a half years, and our biology building on campus. My office in Room 401, right next to our mycology lab in Room 403. It seems like just the other day I was there.
This is an America that was mindful, mellow and mild. This America said, “Welcome.”
I felt welcome in the plant biology department. Dr. Walter J. Sundberg, my Ph.D. professor, was in his late fifties. A big, burly man with a Victorian Age beard and eyeglasses with golden frames, strung with a chord around his neck. He was a traditional, old-fashioned biologist who would not want to go beyond his microscope and morphology and anatomy and camera lucida drawing, his fungal forays into the nearby Touch of Nature, Heron Pond and Little Grand Canyon, or occasionally to Milwaukee, Wisconsin or Springfield, Illinois. He came from an old-school San Francisco biology department run by noted classical mycologist Harry Thiers. Walt Sundberg was uneasy to my ideas of including molecular biology and recombinant DNA fingerprinting and ribosomal RNA sequencing and Southern blotting and cladistics and numerical taxonomy — concepts that I picked up at various scientific conferences, and thought in order to get a teaching job those days, I must learn them. I was disheartened that he would not teach me those lessons in his lab.
But he never discouraged me to learn them elsewhere. He sent me to Michigan, Tennessee, and Duke. He sent me to Greg Mueller in Chicago, and Roy Halling in New York, with scholarships. I was his first Ph.D. student, and he embraced me with open arms. He made sure I got an impossible teaching assistantship in my first semester at SIU: in the winter. And a tuition waiver. He made sure other professors noticed me, both in and out of the department. He made sure I learned my biology well, and passed a very challenging, mandatory, comprehensive exam where professors from both within our plant biology department and next-of-kin forestry and such departments put together questions for me. I did not pass the entire exam at the first shot: I passed 70 percent of it. I was angry then. But in hindsight, I think he knew I was going to pass at the second chance, and he put me in close touch with key professors who helped me prepare myself as one of the best students in the department.
I don’t know other than me and my then student colleague Sharon Bartholomew, anybody at SIU biology had to go through that kind of intellectual, academic rigor. It was a matter of pride that I passed and entered the Ph.D. candidacy. I believe Walt precisely wanted that: that I became proud of my abilities and knowledge.
From a very naive foreign student with little critical thinking abilities, in just two years, I metamorphosed into a hardcore graduate student in an American university, who could think, analyze, form theories, and resolve them with experimentation.
Walt Sundberg also made sure I got the best student dissertation award in my final year in the department. Suddenly, I was rich: from a low-end $600-a month earning, my family of three climbed up the American richness ladder to a substantial $1,200-a month no-work-but-your-own-research stipend.
I must mention a few other people before I close this chapter.
I could not do whatever I was able to do in that remote, detached corner of the world without the help of Lawrence Matten, our then department chair and a reputed paleobotanist, and bryophyte giants Raymond Stotler and Barbara Stotler. They gave me friendship, collegiality, freedom to question and challenge, and confidence to grow as an individual who could lead. Young, friendly faculty Katie Clark with her warm smile, John Bozzola at the electron microscopy center with his friendship and academic support, Aristotle Pappelis the sole plant pathologist in our department, and Walter Schmidt then graduate student coordinator. World-renowned plant taxonomist Prof. Robert Mohlenbrock somehow liked me, and I was simply blown over to take his class on conservation and biodiversity. Betty Graff the motherly secretary in the department. And many more.
Graduate student colleagues: Alice Long, Ellen Cypher, Dave Carter, Kevin Aikman, Steve Schmidt, Kevin Schuette, Dave Breen, Nadia Navarette, Fabienne La Tortue, Beth Wiltshire, Karen Nash…just a few names that come to mind after so many years. I have lost touch with all of you…where are you, guys? No Facebook?
Walt Sundberg passed away in October. I wish I had a way to return to Carbondale once, and walk that serpentine twenty-minute, leisurely walk between school and Evergreen Terrace where my wife waited for me every evening, and so did my child whose early childhood years were very peaceful and happy in that quietness of Southern Illinois.
I have left science and went on to answer my call for work in human rights, political activism, and writing. But I have not forgotten my peaceful life at SIU. Roaming in the lonely woods behind Evergreen Terrace, looking for Pluteus mushrooms, or a rare species of Amanita or Lepiota…or an exquisite morel…in early afternoon hours on a sunny Sunday…when the entire housing complex was in slumber…
I miss that life a lot.
Brooklyn, New York