1957 & Freshman Year at MIT  - Harry Baya
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Last update May 12, 2020

Chapter 7 : Summer 1957 & Freshman Year at MIT

Summer of 1957  [ This section also appears in the Abingdon memories ]

I left Caracas shortly after graduating in June of 1957.  I spent a few weeks with George Felts in Miami, visited Tampa, and then took a bus to Abingdon where I stayed for the rest of the summer before leaving for MIT.  I stayed in Aunt Kathleen’s house with Kathleen and Grandmother White.   Grandmother White looked after me and got me ready for college.  She helped me decide what I needed and took me shopping to buy those things.  She got nametags with my name on them and sewed them on every article of clothing.  I think she even helped me pack the suitcase.  She drove me down to catch the Greyhound bus at the bus stop near the train station when it was time to leave. I got along well with Grandmother and got to know her better than I ever had.  She was pleasant, well balanced and intelligent.   She had good common sense, more than me, and she seemed comfortable looking after me and kind of managing my life.

My time in Abingdon in the summer of 1957 was a significant experience in my life.  Though I very much saw myself as a typical American kid while in Caracas, I was in fact in a very different world.  The summer kids who had been in the U.S. during the school year brought with them some aspects of what was going on in the U.S. relevant to teen culture, but most of them were more at home in Caracas than the U.S.   My friends during the school year were fairly diverse. I’d say about half of them were U.S. citizens, but the rest were from all over the world.  Also, regardless of the behavior of my friends, we were living in a foreign world with many differences from being in the U.S.  I arrived in Abingdon with no direct exposure to American teen culture for the last 3 and ½ years, and only a brief 1 and ½ years exposure before that.

Abingdon was as down home root American as you can get.  Not only that, it was a southern town and far away from any big cities.  I spent a lot of time with Irvin Wells and he was a very popular and active kid in Abingdon.  Like me he had just graduated from high school.  He had been president of his class and a football star.  Irvin was a big handsome young man with a reasonably quick mind and a lot of friends.  I went to parties, movies, and outings to the local hangouts like Statzers ( a drive in restaurant), the People’s drugstore ( which had a typical American soda fountain bar and booths), and the local pool hall ( a fairly sleazy establishment near the train station). 
Irvin was dating Sue Sommerson and they eventually married, had children, and stayed together till her death a few years ago.  Sue was a pretty, lively, young woman and I participated in the social life of Irvin, Sue and their friends.  Sue’s father was the manager of the Martha Washington Inn and a highly respected man in Abingdon.  Hanging out with Irvin also meant hanging out with his football buddies and they were a fairly rough and ready group of boys.   This was all a new world to me and I drank it all in, absorbing, it seems to me, a lot of what it was to be a typical American teenager just out of high school. 

We went on road trips to Damascus to visit someone’s girlfriend, and to Bristol to shop.  The nearest record store was in Bristol and we went there to buy the latest hit songs on 45 RPM records.  The Everly brothers and 50’s doo wop were popular then and the radio in Irvin’s car was always on.  I felt that Irvin, and other kids, drove to fast and were not careful enough and I kind of remember telling him to either slow down or let me out at least once.  Among the outings I remember was one to the Moonlight drive-in theater.  I had never been to a drive-in movie before.  Irvin told me the movie we were going to see was called “The Thang” and it was not till I saw the title on the marquis as we drove in that I saw that it was called “The Thing”.  It was a popular horror movie that summer. 
At that time the drive in movie charged for each passenger.  Irvin and his friends put several boys in the trunk of the car to avoid having to pay for them.  We got in and parked the car well before the movies started.  We got out and walked down to the snack bar to get drinks and popcorn, and to meet with other kids.  As we walked down one of the boys said something like “Where’s Charlie?” and there was some discussion.  He had been in the trunk and no one had seen him since getting out of the car.  We went back to the trunk and found that Charlie had passed out, probably from the crowding, and that the others in the trunk had not noticed him when they got out.  He woke up and was alright for the rest of the night.
Another night Irvin and some friends, including Sue and another girl, drove up to the swimming pool on the Martha Washington in property.  The pool was inside a locked building a good distance from the hotel.  The building consisted of four walls around the pool but had no roof.  The roof had been blown off years earlier by a tornado and had never been replaced.  One of the boys climbed over the wall and unlocked the door to the building.  We all went in and went swimming in our underwear.  I felt this was pretty risqué and daring.  I had never been swimming with girls in their underwear before.  It was pretty dark so it was not a particular revealing experience.

While I was in the pool I saw what looked like a flying saucer come sailing over the roof and land in the pool.  It seemed very strange at the time.  It turned out that one of the boys had gone outside and sailed a garbage can lid over the wall of the building so that it would land in the pool. 
One night there was a party at the house that is now known as the Fields-Penn house.  A family (Fields?) was living there and among other guests was a niece from out of town, about my age.  I liked her and she liked me – but it turned out that she was leaving soon and I  never saw her again.  Around 2008 I volunteered as a guide (Doyenne ) in that house during the Highlands Festival for a couple of years.
My experience with Irvin and his friends was a somewhat intense, and delightful, experience for me.  By the time I left Abingdon to go to college I felt a lot more acclimated to the U.S. than I did when I first got to Miami months earlier. 

Off to MIT

In September, 1957 my grandmother put me on a bus in Abingdon, Virginia.  I was off to M.I.T for my freshman year.  I had graduated from High School in Caracas, Venezuela that spring.  My parents were still in Caracas and would be moving to Atlanta in October.

I arrived at M.I.T. and was assigned a dorm room on East Campus for Rush Week.  I had reviewed all the rushing material and picked a list of fraternities to visit.  Top on my list was Theta Delta Chi where my friend George Felts was a sophomore brother.  I had known George in Caracas and had stayed with him in Miami for several weeks earlier in the summer.

It was an exciting, almost giddy, time for me.  I had never been as far North as Boston, and only up to New York twice to board ships overseas.  So much was different and new.  By M.I.T. standards I was a very social person, liked meeting people, enjoyed conversations and social occasions.  Rush Week was a good venue for me.  

One interesting little side light to my particular experience was this.  My grandmother in Abingdon, Virginia, had helped me get ready for college.  We had bought clothes, razors and all the things that a young man would need for his first semester in college in those years.  She had carefully sewn little cloth tags with my name on them into every article of clothing, including the socks.  I was READY!  

She put me on a Greyhound bus in Abingdon, Virginia.  I was bound for Boston some 800 miles away.  I remember reading the road signs out the bus window.  I started reading them backwards for fun and had a little epiphany when I saw a “Radar” sign.  I remember that I had to change busses in the Port Authority bus station in New York.  I had never seen anything like it and was impressed.  I remember seeing my suitcase being wheeled from the arriving bus on a cart.   That was the last time I saw that suitcase. It never arrived in Boston.  I went through rush week in borrowed clothing, mostly from Theta Delta Chi.   In the middle of rush week someone took me down to Harvard Square to buy some clothing.  I bought some shirts, underwear and socks, and a gray tweed  jacket.  I think it was Harris Tweed.  It cost what seemed like a small fortune to me, maybe $25.00.   Unfortunately it had to be altered so I did not have it for rush week.  I wore it with some pride for many years, well into my marriage.

I had applied for a job on campus and was assigned to the Walker Memorial Dining staff.  Walker was a good size building on Memorial Drive next to the East Campus dorms.  I think it had once been a gymnasium, and the top floor was still a gym.  The main floor was a large cavernous room with a very high ceiling, and walking balconies along both long sides of the rectangular room.  It served as a cafeteria, probably the largest one on campus, seating, I would guess around 300 people.   I think I checked in with them and even started working a few hours during rush week.  I met some people there and decided that if things did not work out for me to join a fraternity I would probably be reasonably happy as part of the East Campus/ Walker Staff community.

I stayed in the gym on top of the Walker Memorial building during rush week at the start of my freshman year.  M.I.T. had a larger class than they expected and did not have rooms for all the freshman that week, so some of were in cots in Walker.

The next few days was a whirlwind of visits to different fraternities.  I would visit one and then call up for a ride to the next.  All were, to me, impressive.  The brothers were interesting and friendly.   I ended up getting bids from several houses including Theta Delta Chi, Phi Beta Epsilon, Chi Phi and a couple of others.  There were a couple of houses I would have pursued more had they been more interested in me, some of the bigger houses that were bigger players on campus like Beta Theta Pi (the Beta house), Lambda Chi Alpha, and Sigma Epsilon.  I was also interested in Sigma Nu because I thought they had more Southern roots than some of the others. 
One of my areas of naiveté, or just plain ignorance, occurred on the second or third time I visited a fraternity over in Back Bay that I kind of liked.  I remember that this was the first place I had ever seen a Frisbee and a couple of the brothers spent time showing me how to throw it.   On this visit one of them asked me to go upstairs to a private room to have a talk.  I went with great curiosity.  It was, I thought, too early for them to give me a “bid” (an invitation to join) and I had no idea why he needed privacy.  

He closed the door and asked me, “Are you Jewish?”.   I said “No, I’m Catholic.”   He then explained to me that his fraternity was a Jewish fraternity and that, though they liked me, there was no sense in my continuing to visit their house.   I was taken aback in some way, more or less mystified that this could be true.  So far as I knew I had never known a Jew personally and had no idea that there could be fraternities that were exclusively Jewish.  The brothers seemed very similar to those I had met in the other fraternities.  I was a little disappointed, but not insulted or crushed.  I was more amazed that something this significant could be so without my having even a clue.

In the conversation that followed he asked me whether I had noticed that most of the names of the brothers I had met were Jewish – Epstein, Blum, Bluestein, Weiner, Wiesman, Ashkenazzi etc.   I said, “No, I didn’t know those were Jewish names.”   Sometime later it occurred to me that some of my friends in high-school (Simon Blum, George Eskinazzi,  )   must have been Jewish.   It’s interesting the things one can learn going off to college.

Another fraternity I recall was Delta Kappa Epsilon, The “Deke” house.  They were a known party house by M.I.T. standards.   Lots of parties, lots of drinking, a few brothers flunking out every year.. or so their reputation held.   I found them fun and interesting, and a bit zany.  It was tempting.. but not really.  I was there to study and learn and I didn’t  want anything to get in the way.

Eventually I narrowed my choices down to Theta Delta Ch and Phi Beta Epsilon.   They were similar in many ways.  Both were small fraternities located on Memorial Drive on the West Side of Mass Avenue.  The only difference I noticed was that the Phi Betes were a little stuffier, a little more concerned with social status.  I also had a brief flirtation with another house located in that area, the Chi Phi’s, who were even stuffier..  I had been befriended by several of George Felts’s pledge brothers, i.e. fraternity brothers who came into the fraternity when he did.   I remember Ralph Coumo in particular as coming across as a genuinely nice guy and someone I could really like.  Ralph was Catholic, like me, and he and several other Catholic brothers, took me to Mass in Boston on the Sunday of rush week.   Other people I remember liking were Larry Martin and the president of the house, Tom Climans.  My reading of Ralph was correct and I still consider him a good friend, though I have only spoken with him only seen him once and spoken on  the phone  a few times in about 60 years

There were people who were very impressive also.  I recall being told that both Ray Ambrogi and Pete Cairns had straight A averages (“5.0 Cum” in M.I.T. parlance for a 5.0 cumulative grade average out of a 5.0 possible).  Also, Theta Delta Chi had been the number one living group in academic ranking the previous semester.  That impressed me a lot.  I was there to study and I figured this was a good place to do it.  Every semester a ranked list of the average grade of every living group, including dorms, was published and this was a big deal to many of us. Theta Delta Chi was very proud of this accomplishment and much of it was due to George Felt’s pledge class, which included Ray Ambrogi and Pete Cairns.

I had also begun to meet some of the other freshmen that Theta Delta Chi was rushing and hoping to pledge.  Among them were three other Southerners.  I had lived in the South until I was 11.  At that point we moved to England for 2-1/2 years, then Carlisle, PA for a year, then Monterrey, CA for 6 months, and then Caracas, Venezuela for the prior 3-1/2 years.   Both my parents were from old Southern families.  My mother was the 5th generation of her family from Abingdon, Virginia, where I now live in after moving here at age 65.  My father was from Tampa, Florida and was the 6th or 7th generation of Bayas in Florida.   My parents would be moving to Atlanta, Georgia later that fall.  For whatever the reason, I considered myself to be a Southerner and it seemed somewhat important to me.

I don’t recall there being any Southerners among the brothers at Theta Delta Chi that year, unless you count George Felts.  George was born and raised (I think) in Caracas and his family now lived in Miami.  I guess I would count him as something like “part Southern”.  I’ll have to ask him.  

The other three Southerners being rushed were Jim Kee, from Memphis, Tennessee, Bill Burns from Savannah, Georgia and Don Fowles of Little Rock, Arkansas  Vito Castellano was from Miami but I thought of him as more Italian than Southern.   Jim and Bill and I hit it off pretty well and we remained fairly close for the next four years.  I considered Jim my best friend all through college and he was my “Best Man” when I got married in 1964.

When the smoke of rush week cleared, I and 10 others, pledged Theta Delta Chi, including Jim Kee, Bill Burns and Don Fowles.  Also in the group were Vito Castellano, Alden Foster of Braintree, Mass,  Bob Vickery of Seattle, Washington, Dave Drake of Albequerque, New Mexico and Fred Schmidt of Freeport, Long  Island, New York.  Hardest for me to recall just now are Pete Robb of Albany, New York and Ian Clark of Mexico City, Mexico.   In our junior year, or so, we brought in another classmate, John Scobie, and he became one of the fraternity brothers in our class.  Another fraternity brother, Don Cromley, was actually a year ahead of us at M.I.T., but because he was in a 5-year program, architecture, he is officially listed as part of our class.  

Vito Castellano and Dave Drake left M.I.T. after their freshman year and I have lost track of them.  Don Fowles left the fraternity at the start  of Hell Week in the spring semester, and Fred Schmidt left the fraternity shortly after Hell week.  Jim Kee stayed in touch with Don more than I did.  I stayed in touch with Fred Schmidt over the years.  Pete Robb and Bob Vickery both died, in the last ten years I think.

I plan to try to contact all of the above I can.  I’ve been in touch with Jim, Bill and Fred fairly recently.  I heard that Alden Foster is now a ski instructor in Colorado.  I think Jim knows how to contact Don Fowles.  Ian Clark is listed in the M.I.T. alumni pages.  I think the hardest one to find of those who graduated will be John Scobie.  I’ve tried to track him down, unsuccessfully, before.  I am not expecting to find Dave Drake or Vito Castellano, but I will try.  

Here are a few more notes about rush week and my freshman year at M.I.T. 

I pledged (agreed to join) Theta Delta Chi a day or two before the end of rush week. At that point I ceased to be a rushee and became one of the people “rushing”.  I thought I was a pretty neat guy at the time (it took years to knock that out of me, but it was done) and was glad to help.  Looking back at the job I was sometimes given, I wonder now who it was that was being kept out of the way.   Here is the side I was aware of then.  As the weekend wound down most of the rushees in the house fell into several groups, (a) the ones we were rushing, had given a bid to, and were hoping would join, (b) those hangers on who liked us, had not received a bid  and were hoping to somehow win the brothers over, and (c) new guys showing up who had been shown the door at the other houses they had visited and were just getting around to seeing us.   We new pledges had no formal vote in the “blackball” process. 

Some of the hangers on, and latecomers, were pretty nerdy or obnoxious and it became important to kind of keep them away from the freshmen we were recruiting.   I was sometimes assigned to entertain them and, as I recall, was complemented as being especially good at this as I could handle groups of them at a time.   I remember saying things like “Have you all seen the garage bedroom”… which would take them out of the house.  I think this job had a particular name, like “nerd duty”, but it wasn’t that.  I don’t recall the words geek and nerd being used at that time.

So, in retrospect, though I was helping by steering these guys away from the active rushing areas of the house, I now wonder if this was not also a way of keeping me from bubbling over too much with the hottest prospects.  I was a bit full of myself, I suspect.  See some of the evidence later in this write-up.

I recall that late in rush week, possibly the last night, this particularly nerdy freshman came in.  His name was “E. Parvin Lippincott” and he assured us that he was a 2nd or 3rd generation M.I.T. student.  He was really too much, almost impossible to believe.  It was most entertaining and interesting to interact with him trying to get him to admit that he was a fake, just pretending to be a prospect.   We were pretty sure… but not absolutely positive.  It turned out he was indeed a fake, a “Deke” I think.   But the story does not end there.

As I recall it (and I have to wonder how accurate these memories are), the next day a freshman came in for the first time and he was very similar to Parvin, only he was real.  He was pathetic in some ways, but a sincere, smart human being, who just happened to have some rather severe personality disorders.   It further turned out,  at least in my memory, that he was the model for E. Parvin Lippincott and had inspired the Deke brother to go out as a rushee.   I may have gotten the names mixed up.  It may be that E. Parvin Lippincott was the real freshman and I have forgotten the name of the Deke fake freshman.  If I get around to it I will check to see if there was an E. Parvin Lippincott in our class.

For now I want to mention a couple of my memories about finding my place in the M.I.T. academic world.

I had been valedictorian of my high school class.  I had always been good at Math, usually better than any one around me.  I can’t say that I had never been challenged, I had certainly run into things in math (including algebra, geometry and trigonometry) that I could not do easily or well, but so far as I knew, nobody could.  I thought I might be something like a math genius, waiting to be empowered and discovered.  Who knew?  Hey, I had gotten into M.I.T. hadn’t I?  That must mean something.

I want to add a note about how it seemed to be a freshman at M.I.T. in the fall of 1957.  I had learned about computers from reading while in high school.  I had read a book called “Automatic Control” that was a collection of articles from Scientific American about computers and I had written my high-school valedictorian address about computers based on this book.  I had a kind of rough working knowledge of what they were and could do, but I had never seen or touched one. I was enthralled, fascinated, excited, empowered and all sort of other things though this awareness.  The fact that I was going to M.I.T., kind of the computer capital of the world, was kind of like becoming an astronaut must have been for the first ones…or at least I felt really great, and proud, about it.   I don’t know how focused I was on computers then.  I now say “I went to M.I.T. to study computers” and I think in some sense that was true.  I was early in this.  I don’t recall knowing anyone else as focused on computers as I was.

Still, this is with hindsight.  At the time there were no computer courses to take for freshman, and few for anyone.  The only formal way to study computers at M.I.T was to study electrical engineering and I was pretty sure I did not want to be an electrical engineer.  I stated my course preference before going to M.I.T to be Industrial Management, with a minor in Mechanical Engineering.  There were a handful of us who started out and finished with that major.  The first computer course I took was in my junior year in Civil engineering.  I also took one in Electrical Engineering and sat in on some others.

Anyway, getting back to freshman year.   M.I.T. was perceived, or at least I thought it was, as the top engineering school in the world, and probably the second best school of science in the world, behind Cal Tech.   I had applied to Cal Tech and been put on a waiting list, but I was just as happy to go to M.I.T..  As shown by my choice of an Industrial Management major (we called it course XV), I was not committed to being a complete techie.   To be at M.I.T. in the fall of 1957 allowed me, and many of my classmates, to assume that we were the best of the best. We were technical wizards who would be part of bringing in a new world of technology.  My focus was computers, but every field, it seemed to me, was blossoming with new advances and the world was reshaping itself as we watched. Sputnik went up that fall and the U.S. soon entered the space race in a big way.  M.I.T. was one of the centers of this new thrust and we were all, in some sense, part of it.   It was exciting.

I would meet people in New York or Atlanta, or anywhere, and tell them I was a freshman at M.I.T. and those who knew about it were impressed, maybe even awed sometimes.  A few people immediately assumed I must be a genius, as if every student at M.I.T was a genius.   My family, including my sister and 9 first cousins on my mother’s side and seven on my father’s, all assumed I was very smart.  This was sort of amusing because though I was indeed reasonably smart, most of them knew me well enough to know that I was a bit absent minded and certainly was not always the first one to figure out a problem.  I was a pretty ordinary guy for someone who might be a genius.. and I don’t think my head ever got way to big.  Ok, so I did think I was kind of hot stuff in some ways, but I didn’t get carried away.  Reality kept biting me to remind me who I was.  Girls didn’t swoon for me, I was a rather poor salesman for Wearever cookware, I had to study hard to survive at M.I.T, and, in general, I did not have much of an edge on the people I knew well at M.I.T, in my family, in my summer jobs or anywhere else.

I’m trying to convey how exhilarating and exciting it was to be a freshman at M.I.T. that year.  It was not so much that I thought I, or my class mates, were so extra special, it was more that I felt that we were being given extraordinary opportunities.  We were having utterly unique experiences in the one of the best schools in the world and were living a community of exceptionally bright people, faculty and students. 

I now think ( I prefer to say “realize”, but I know it’s just a point of view) that we were all involved in a process of being brainwashed in the technical/engineering paradigm.  I may try to write it up some day.  It’s strong on practicality, reality testing, hard evidence, mis-trust of the soft sciences like history and psychology, and an edgy feeling of how to deal with reality.  It was, I think, very different from the paradigm being built into our age peers a mile away at Harvard.  We were still young enough, mostly 17 and 18, to be strongly shaped by this process.  I often wonder what we would be like if they had gotten to us sooner, as was the case, I think, with those from Brooklyn Tech and other science based high schools.

I had never studied that hard, my mind was not trained all that well, I had been allowed to flower in a number of interests that had little to do with technology and, I think, that saved me in some ways from being too narrow.   I was, and am, pretty narrow in any case, but it could have been worse.  I suspect I could have been a better student, and a better engineer/scientist/manager if I had a stronger orientation .. but who knows.

During my freshman year I was a busy little beaver.  I worked on the Walker Student Staff; about 12 hours a week, I think.  Most freshmen didn’t do that, though those that went out for a sport probably put in that many hours as well.   I was active in my fraternity, participating in whatever was available, and required freshman duties, and dated as much as I could.  Dating consisted of going to a “mixer” at a nearby girl’s school every week or so and trying to have a date every Saturday night.  I’d say I had a date, maybe, every third week or so, and that was more than most of my classmates.  In the spring semester I was part of the cast and Chorus of “Tech Show”.  That took a lot of time and I didn’t do it again.  Still, I got through freshman year with roughly average grades for M.I.T – no small feat in my book – and had a great year.  It was my first time away from my home and family, my first time living in an all male environment (the fraternity) and, to some extent, taking care of myself.  I was coming of age in many ways and doing it in a unique environment and, I think, I loved it all.  Though I had some difficult times and bad experiences along the way (I should write about those), all in all I was a happy young man riding what I perceived to be a rocket of success, bound for glory.   The next four years were good, but part of it involved a steady lowering of my expectations as I became increasingly aware of my limitations and shortcomings.  I still thought it possible that I would be a big success at something… but it seemed a lot less likely than the day I arrived at M.I.T.

I recall being asked how I had done in the National Merit Scholarship contest.  As I recall Don Fowles was a National Merit Scholar and Jim Kee and Bill Burns were both finalists (or was Bill a National Merit Scholar too?).   Anyway, my honest reaction was something like “What are you talking about.  I never heard of it.”. In those days we were not given our SAT scores.  To this day I don’t know what my scores were, and I am curious.

On the other hand, I and all of my classmates, with the possible exception of Don Fowles, were pretty intimidated and concerned about the academic competition at M.I.T.   We knew we were in the big time game now and that we would be competing with a lot of people much smarter than those in our high schools.  It seemed quite possible that we would be over our heads and would have to struggle to stay afloat… or enrolled, at M.I.T.  In my case I knew that though I was top in my high school class, I was not that much smarter than several of my high-school classmates, and quite possibly not smarter at all. Harry Sasson and Dave Sommers were both pretty smart and there were some girls who seemed to be able to do well at some parts of math without studying much.  I knew that most of my peers at M.I.T. had come from bigger, much more competitive, high schools, and that many of them were also valedictorians, or salutatorians, in their large classes.  There were less than 30 students in my high school graduating class and for something like half of them English was not their first language.

I remember two things that started the long road to teaching me that I was only moderately smart by M.I.T. standards, and possible a tad slow in a few areas.  The first was this.

In those days M.I.T. freshman had a weekly Saturday morning exam.  I think the first one was two or three weeks after the start of the semester.  This was to be the first chance we go to see how we stacked up against the rest of our class.  I am a whiner and I told my fellow pledges at Theta Delta Chi how concerned I was, how off-the-beaten path my high-school was, etc.   They in turn had no reason to doubt me.  I was a bit of a blow-hard and it was quite possible that I didn’t have the mental horsepower to compete in this our new “major league”.  As I recall the first exam was in Chemistry and we all felt that it was a really hard test, much harder than we were used to.  I really think it was.  However, at that time (I wonder how accurate my memories are), M.I.T graded everything “on the curve”.   This meant that it did not matter what the average grade was, what mattered was how your grade compared to the average.  All the freshman class, 1000 + , had taken an identical exam.

The grades came out a week or so later. I had an 81, or something like that.  In high school this would have been a bad mark, probably  a low B.. and we all got A’s in any math or science course.   However,  it turned out that the class average was somewhere in the low 70’s and that was a good grade.  I was second or third of the 11 pledge brothers.  I remember Fred Schmidt, chemistry major, telling me that he would never trust my whining again. 

This was also the beginning of a somewhat disappointing realization for the brothers in our fraternity.   We were not going to be a grade power house like the previous class.  They could almost certainly kiss their number 1 academic ranking goodbye.  Ok, so I could still be “smart’ at M.I.T., but I knew that I was lucky to do that well..and I began the process of finding out that I was, at best, about average at M.I.T.   That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s a far cry from being a budding genius.  My grades at M.I.T. put me well in the upper half of my class, but I knew that I was in one of the less challenging majors, Industrial Management.  I also knew that though I was not all that much a tool (an M.I.T. term for one who studied a lot), I had to work pretty hard for my grades and I did that for the next four years. 

Another vignette from that era.  As a freshman at M.I.T. we had few electives.  Some of us had advanced standing in one or more of the required courses and that gave them a little more flexibility, but I did not.  I had only one elective and I chose “Elementary Number Theory”.  From the description of the course I could tell that it would be a good one for people with real mathematical ability, math majors and the like.  Sure enough, about half our class  in that elective were math majors.  (Keep in mind that all these stories are from memories that are close to 60 years old.  I would not bet money on the factual accuracy of any thing I’m saying here.  This is my best guess as to what was so, based on weak memories).  It was an interesting class, I enjoyed it, and I worked hard at it.  However, I quickly realized that I was in way over my head.  I think I got a C in that class (I have the transcript, I will look) and that took a lot of work.  I remember one guy in the class who read over a chapter on mathematical induction in the few minutes before class began and understood it, well, even though it was as new to him as it was to me.  I had been studying it for hours and was still mystified.  I still have the book.  I was very impressed with (a) the mathematical ability of some of my peers and (b) the clarity of the lesson that I was far from being any kind of mathematical genius.  Some of the things we learned were not what we thought we were there for, but equally important.

My final vignette had a strange twist to it.  Early in the first semester I was asked by one of the brothers to take on a job that he said needed to be done.  It was an official request, from the fraternity.  My job was to prepare an updated list every week of all the major plays and special events in the Boston area for the coming week and to post a neatly typed list on the main bulletin board just inside the front door of the fraternity house.  I accepted the job with enthusiasm, though it was a nuisance and took some time.  I felt almost honored to be asked to do it.  Later, after I had become a brother, I was told that this job was given to me because I seemed a little too undisciplined, or outspoken, or something like that, and this was to bring me down a notch.  Talk about being whipsawed…

I don’t know when I will get around to writing up Hell week.  It was a very interesting experience.  I wrote a letter to the president of the fraternity protesting the hazing before hell week,  and he had me read it long afterwards.  I have a long list of other MIT experiences I would like to write about.

The two sections below describe two specific experiences during my Freshman year at MIT.  They are titled “Not a Genius” and “The Smartest Man at MIT”

Not a genius?

I was entering my freshman year at M.I.T. in 1957.  I had been valedictorian of my graduating class of about 30 students at an English speaking high school in Caracas, Venezuela.  I didn’t think I was a genius, but I did think there was a possibility that I was very smart and I assumed that attending M.I.T. would be a good way to find out.  Yes indeedy?

My real interest, and reason for choosing M.I.T., was my interest in computers but there were no undergraduate courses on that subject.  There was no word for what we now call computer “software”, but that was my real interest.  I was pretty sure that I did not want to study “Electrical Engineering”, so I had chosen “Industrial Management” as a major.  However, depending on my experience I was considering the possibility of switching to Mathematics.  Math was always my best subject.

The normal freshman class schedule allowed for one elective, in addition to Calculus, Physic, Chemistry and Humanities.  I decided that “Elementary Number Theory” would a good way to test my interest and ability in Mathematics.

I still have the book we used : “The Theory of Numbers” by B.M. Stewart, 1952

The teacher was an elderly man ( anyone over 50 was elderly to me at that time) who I learned had done some important mathematical work for the allied side during W.W. II.  About the only specific thing I can remember about him was that he told us that every integer number was very interesting.  He then asked students to give him numbers and with each one he would tell us what was interesting about it.  I recall that one was the product of two primes and was smallest number to exhibit some particular attribute.  He concluded this discussion by saying “If you could give me a number that had nothing interesting about it, that number would be very interesting to me.”  I liked this sort of thing.

OK- so into the waters of “Number Theory” I plunged.  I found it fairly challenging from the start and I probably put at least as many hours of study into that course as anything else I was taking.  For the first couple of weeks I found that hard work was keeping me more or less afloat, though I did find the instructor’s lectures, and blackboard work, rather difficult to follow.
However, when we got to the chapter titled “Mathematical Induction” (chapter 3), probably around the third week of class, I was starting to get bogged down.  Our homework was to read all four pages of the chapter and to do a particular exercise at the end of the chapter.  I read, re-read, and studied those pages for hours.  I found the exercise very challenging.   There were only  a few steps needed to complete the exercise if you understood what the chapter taught, mathematical induction, but without that understanding I found it was kind of like reading “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gymble in the wabe.”

I dug in.  With much effort, and no little time, I was able to understand the concept well enough to complete the exercise.  This was rather satisfying to me and I was rather proud of myself for figuring it out.  I assumed this was a difficult mathematical concept and that learning it at all, in any amount of time, confirmed that I had some ability, perhaps a lot of ability, in mathematics.

I went to class feeling good.  Before the teacher had come in to the room the student to my right asked me what we were supposed to have done for homework.  I showed him the chapter and the exercise and offered to explain it to him.  He said something like “Give me a minute.” and began to read the chapter and look at the exercise.  After two or three minutes he said  “Ok, I got it!”   I was a bit taken aback, but decided to play along and said “Ok, explain it to me.”   He then did just that.  Given my experience I recognized that he did indeed understand the concept and had done the exercise in his head.

Our conversation then went along these lines:
Me:  “You got that from just reading the chapter right then?”
Him: “Yes, it was not too difficult.”
Me: “I assume you have had a course like this before, or have somehow been exposed to mathematical induction somewhere along the line.
Him: “No.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  We didn’t have any courses like this in high-school”.
Me: “But you just figured it out?  Right now?  In those few minutes?”
Him: “Yes.  However, I am a math major and I did score very well in Math aptitude.”
Me: “Mumble, mumble, mumble”

It was at this point in my experience at M.I.T. that I began to learn a number of important things.  It took a while for them to be thoroughly drilled in, but it all began at that moment.  Among the things I learned were:

I have since talked to many fellow M.I.T. graduates, some of them with far higher grade averages than mine, who had very similar experiences.
By the time I graduated from M.I.T. I was very aware that I was, at very best, maybe just a little above average at M.I.T.   Not only that, but I am damn proud to have even been average at M.I.T.

[note: I scanned the pages from the chapter on Induction and plan to put them in one of the appendices to my memories. ]

“The Smartest Man at M.I.T.”

Ok, it probably should be “The Smartest Person at M.I.T.” since it’s been Co-ed from the start, but I thought “Smartest Man” was catchier.  This all took place well before the feminist revolution.

It was the fall of 1957 and I was starting my freshman year at M.I.T.  Early in the semester, possibly even before classes had started, there was a large activities fair in the Rockwell Cage (a large gymnasium on campus)  It was a chance for all the student activities and clubs to show off to new students and, hopefully, sign up new members.  I think many of the booths were also doing fund raising.  It’s been a few years and even though the evidence below proves what a sharp tack I was, I, umm, don’t exactly have total recall.

The most popular event was in a fenced off area in the middle of the gym containing a beat up old vehicle, possibly a good size truck.  The engine was exposed and participants were lined up to express their deep appreciation for technology, engineering, and the like.  I think we had to pay a small fee.  When your turn came you would be given a sledge hammer and allowed a set time, maybe 60 seconds, to attack the vehicle.  Anything you could knock off you could take.  I went up several times and I think I got part of a carburetor.

Among the other booths was one sponsored by something like the M.I.T. Psychology Club.  They were sponsoring a competition which I choose to think of as intended to identify the smartest person at M.I.T.  Since the activities fair was open to the entire M.I.T. community, participants could be faculty, staff, and students at any level, including graduate school.  Needless to say the most powerful intellects on campus were drawn to this competition to demonstrate their ability.  Ok, so maybe a few of the best skipped it, but still . . .  In any case it was reasonably popular and often had two or three people waiting in line to compete.

The challenge was a rat maze used to test a rat’s ability to find its way through.  The maze was made of wood and consisted of boards organized to form walls in a maze-like arrangement.  I assume that something like a screen could be put on top of the maze to keep the rats from crawling over the walls.  The entire contraption lay on a table and was roughly the size of a four foot square.   The rat would enter in the near left corner of the maze and, hopefully, find its way to an exit on the other side where a prize, like cheese, was waiting.

We human competitors would be blindfolded and would then navigate the maze using a round one foot long wooden stick which we would guide between the walls.  Those managing the maze would measure the time it took a competitor to get through the maze.  The fastest competitor was clearly smarter than all the others.  Wouldn’t you agree?
I didn’t really cheat.  There were no posted rules stating that you could not do the test over and over and it was also easy to stand back and look down on the maze to find a good way through.  However the maze was complicated enough that I could not memorize every turn.   OK, so I took the test a number of times, maybe 5 ( I wasn’t counting ) and I did study it.  Still, there were others doing the same thing so it wasn’t as if I was the only one improving my performance.

I enjoyed the activities fair and was also getting to know my new freshmen friends and roommates and spent several hours there.  Shortly before the fair ended a friend said he had heard my name on the loud speaker.  I listened and sure enough I heard “Would Harry Baya please come to the Psychology Club booth to collect his prize.”   Wow!  I had won something!
I went to the booth and was informed that I had the fastest time through the maze. Yes!  I was the smartest person at M.I.T.   Wow!  To have my genius discovered so early – what a delight.  And now I was given my prize…my very own rat.  It was a fairly small rat and came in a small cage.  Uhhh…what was I going to do with a rat?

At this point my intelligence again displayed itself as I began to wonder why a super bright person would want to win a rat.  Perhaps even a very bright person might also have some common sense and realize they did not want to win this contest.   Somehow that aspect of the competition had not previously entered my awareness.  

After some negotiations ( I don’t think money was involved, but I don’t recall ) I was able to convince the Psychology Club to keep the rat.
So now you can be the judge.  Did I indeed show my level of brilliance?