Chemical Bonds: Isang paglalayag ng pagkatuklas at pagmamahal (translated from the Austronesian language of the Tagalog, “a journey of discovery and love”)

A memoir from a Graduate of 1969:  “Last winter, Dr Jeffrey Turk initiated the Chemistry Department Alumni e-Newsletter in which he justifiably boasted of a record equalling 14 Chemistry graduates in the 2018 class. Justifiable indeed, my class of 1969 had a meagre four. This first-ever newsletter inspired me to overcome my usual inertia and offer to write a short note demonstrating the sometimes global reach of the Chemistry Department and how it profoundly affected me.

Chemical Bonds

isang paglalayag ng pagkatuklas at pagmamahal

 (translated from the Austronesian language of the Tagalog, “a journey of discovery and love”)


Last winter, Dr Jeffrey Turk initiated the Chemistry Department Alumni e-Newsletter

in which he justifiably boasted of a record equalling 14 Chemistry graduates in the 2018 class. Justifiable indeed, my class of 1969 had a meagre four. This first-ever newsletter inspired me to overcome my usual inertia and offer to write a short note demonstrating the sometimes global reach of the Chemistry Department and how it profoundly affected me. At the same time, I thought I might also try to sketch life at Alma in the mid-’60s and, given the political situation then and now, to try to provide some flavor of the times. Without much sober second thought, Jeff accepted my offer.

A few disclaimers, though. First, for me to pen a note about ‘a journey of discovery and love’ is almost unthinkable and indicates I’ve lost a few marbles along the way. Second, my current knowledge of both Alma College (AC) and its environs is severely lacking. Finally, although I have related events to the best of my memory, there are no doubt more than a few errors and omissions. 

I was raised in the modest Detroit suburb of Harper Woods. Notwithstanding the fact that Alma was much too rich for my blood, I chose it for two reasons: its Scottish and Presbyterian heritages. (My teetotaller mum, who never set foot in Scotland but whose ashes rest there, was often said to have had more Scotch in her than Robbie Burns.) Then, as now, AC was a relatively expensive place to gain an education. Little did I anticipate that my investment in this placid, parochial place would pay off so handsomely. In just a few scant weeks, it became the quiet but revolutionary womb for what was to become my new self. 

In those days Alma employed a trimester system featuring three short but intense sessions spanning the Sept–June period. In my 1st year, enrollment was about 900; by my 4th it had ballooned to 1400, where it sits today. And AC was indeed both placid and parochial. Girls (as they were then known) were expected to exhibit proper demeanor. This included no smoking outside of dorms, no slacks, and no ostentatious displays of their sex (now called gender). Curfew was a bit more complicated. On school nights: 1st year girls in by 10PM, upperclass by 11PM. On weekends: all in by midnight. Boys, granted much greater independence, were unencumbered by curfew, could smoke freely, wear slacks at will, and were sometimes known to demonstrate their inherent maturity by slipping away to the woods for a wee sip. They were, however, required to don coat and tie for dinner, excepting Saturdays. Although Sunday Chapel was neither compulsory nor vigorously encouraged, faculty who fretted over the inevitable fraying of our moral fibre kept an open eye.

Academically though, Alma could be almost cosmopolitan for those impoverished by their high school education and/or inclined to imbibe at the hands of some very gifted teachers. For a diffident student like me, the personal attention and encouragement received was priceless.

For the first two trimesters of years 1 and 2, all incoming students enrolled in Western Civilization, an ambitious program encompassing the history, philosophy, and arts of the Western world dating from Ancient Greece. In addition, all students were assigned a book to read prior to each term and to be discussed with one’s academic supervisor (and presumably with other students). Titles ranged from African Genesis by Robert Ardrey who examined the origins of violence to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s introspective look at the responsibilities of believers to their faith in Letters And Papers from Prison to The Affluent Generation by the economist JK Galbraith. As well, each student was required to attend at least three ‘convocations’ per term presented by outside scholars. Our close proximity to both East Lansing and Ann Arbor allowed access to world renowned lecturers and performers, individuals like the anthropologist Ashley Montagu (expert in the study of the social influence of race), the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, (a pioneer in employing period instruments), and Pandit Ravi Shankar on the sitar. A 1968 convocation that deeply affected me was given by a member of the Quaker Action Group which sponsored the 1967 humanitarian voyage of the sailing ship Phoenix from Japan to North and South Vietnam. Of course, not all students delighted in the readings or the convocations. Nor did they necessarily agree with the theses presented. But that was the point: to encourage discussion amongst students and faculty.

We chemistry students (and our biological brethren) worked hard. Unlike those ‘layabouts’ in the Social Sciences and Humanities, we toiled long hours in the lab, a pastime often unnoticed. I do recall one instance, however, when we couldn’t be ignored, namely at dinner one evening immediately following an organic chemistry lab spent synthesizing an aromatic compound found in horse urine.

During my four years in Chemistry, the department comprised five faculty: Drs H Potter (Organic Chem, chairman), JJ DeYoung (Organic Chem), P Splitstone (Physical Chem & Physics), R Beaumont (Inorganic Chem), and Mr C Skinner (Analytical Chem & baseball coach). The faculty were an enthusiastic and proficient, if somewhat dry group, even though Dr Potter had a self-effacing sense of humor capable of lighting up the sky.

Dr DeYoung mentored me in both chemistry and the vagaries of fortune, and I fondly remember our many hours together. But ‘Jake’ wasn’t my only mentor. It was MJJ Smith (History) who, in my first term, exorcised the scales of certainty and prejudice from my eyes, taught me to delight in knowledge, and to ignore worldly things like grades. What a blessing. And Dr Davidson Hepburn (English Literature), still a dear friend, taught me the importance of language and nuance, of listening to what was said, how it was said, and what was left unsaid. This seems to me to be prerequisite to understanding a contemporary world cursed with blind courtiers adept in the dark arts of dissimulation and as yet unaware that they have been shorn of their souls.

AC also supported eager students in others ways. For example, it introduced a flexible program to allow eligible 3rd and 4th year students to take several courses on a pass-fail basis. I had enrolled in Dr Toller’s 1st year Introduction to Physics course in my 3rd year, and soon realized I wanted more physics. The pass-fail program allowed me to take a 4th year, 3-term course in Quantum Mechanics & Nuclear Physics. As fate would have it, I neglected to elect the pass-fail option for the final trimester much to the unending delight of Dr Toller. It was my final gift to a wonderful human being and extremely gifted professor.

Of course, Alma did not exist in an intellectual vacuum, nor was it unaffected by the tumultuous social and political upheavals of the ’60s. Although the Vietnam war and the civil rights movements were discussed openly, little organized protest existed during my first two years. Things began to change in 1968 with the assassination of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King. This shocked both students and faculty, who responded by staging a march through the city. A small effort, true, but a heartfelt one. Some of the convocations also addressed racial issues. For example, one Sunday Chapel service was given over to a prominent civil rights leader and minister from Detroit (whose name, please forgive me, I cannot recall). On the political side, I shall never forget the thunderous cheer that echoed across campus the night President Johnson announced he would not seek another term of office. Following the 1968 summer break, some students attempted to establish a chapter of the ‘radical’ Students for a Democratic Society, and the tone of the younger students in particular grew much more militant. In fact, I recall a soft spoken, polite 1st year student who attended a protest against a local chemical company known to profit from the manufacture of napalm. Suddenly she screamed out at the company representative, “Up against the wall, m*…*r!” Hardly an example of the demure behavior expected only three years earlier.

Clearly, my portrait of Alma College is idyllic and incomplete. Moreover, those who were not keen to learn or work hard probably profited less than I. As well, in addition to the faculty already cited, there were those of lesser stature. Indeed, I left Alma weak in mathematics and disdainful of sociology. But the abundance of high quality attention given to me could only have been had at a small liberal arts college.

After Alma, I enrolled at the Ohio State University (OSU), and the year-long period of Oct 1969–Sept 1970 proved to be the most eventful of my life. Fortunately, my Alma background put me in good stead relative to the 75 or so other new graduate students. Forebodingly, we 75 were herded into a large room partitioned into about 25 cubicles. Mine was shared with two young women from the Philippines: Gloria and Nelia. Gloria was married – Nelia was not – Clotho was grinning as she spun out my thread. By Christmas, we were informally engaged but lacking consent. 

However, the political climate in the US and at OSU was rapidly deteriorating, culminating for me in the April riot which was quelled by the Ohio National Guard (ONG). I vividly remember the fully armed Guardsmen on campus with fixed bayonets tossing tear gas canisters to disperse any groups numbering greater than three. My direct involvement was to wash out the eyes of several non-protesting students who had been gassed. A few days later, the country was stunned to learn that another contingent of the ONG had gunned down four students at nearby Kent State University. Shortly thereafter, OSU closed its doors and sent its students home. Unlike General MacArthur, I was not to return.

However, the gods overseeing Alma Chemistry had long been active. Nelia is an only child whose mother died when she was one. Her doting father was a math professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) and was justifiably alarmed by our whirlwind romance. But his eldest sister who taught Biochemistry at UP had received her PhD from UMich (1936); Tia Ading, as I knew her, met her future husband Barker Brown there, and he joined her in Manila after finishing his PhD (1937). It should be blazingly obvious at this point that: 1) he had grown up in St Louis, MI, 2) was an Alma Chemistry graduate, and 3) had been best friends with none other than the redoubtable Howie Potter. Soon the lines of communications caught fire (as only handwritten letters can), and by the time Nelia and I arrived at the Manila airport in May and were welcomed by 50 or so of her family, they knew more about me than I did. This has always struck me as unfair, but if I learned anything in Western Civ, it was not to contest the gods. In any case, I was immediately embraced by my new family, something which has always humbled me.

Sadly, when I broke with OSU, my ties to Alma weakened. My last interaction was to request Professor Toller to write a letter of recommendation for me to the University of British Columbia (UBC). He did so, but also advised me that although he usually warned the boys against the dangers of marriage, in my case he wished to warn the prospective bride. It was his final gift to me. At UBC, I migrated into Physics/Mathematics and became a physical oceanographer.

This note, bloated as it may be, represents the beginning of the final phase of my voyage with Alma College. My hope is to reconnect with some of the many classmates with whom I shared so many experiences during that formative period of my life. To close, I will at last answer that burning question which must be tormenting all minds touched by the beauty of science: What is the nature of the chemical bonds to which I alluded? Simply this, while they may have begun as ionic ones, they long ago evolved into covalency.


Written by Jim Helbig, Alma College graduating class of 1969

Story published on October 11, 2019