Reynold Clayton Fuson - Montana, University of Montana, Fraternities, Select Sixteen


When I reached Corvallis in September, a surprise awaited me; a new principal had reorganized the school and was counting on me to teach science in the high school. Had he taken my BS degree seriously? Perhaps, but not so the County Superintendent of Schools, Miss Bethel Irwin. The best she would do was to grant me a 30-day emergency certificate to tide me over until the teachers' examination was given at Hamilton in October. Miss Irwin, later Mrs. Dan Geiman, when her term of office expired came to teach at Corvallis and we became good friends. Some 30 years later when I received the honorary doctorate at Montana my dread of what was ahead of me was lessened when I discovered her and a group of my former Corvallis students in the audience. How big little things can be!

I loved the Bitterroot Valley and found the people delightful. Then too, my pride played a role; I did not want to go back home in defeat. So I studied harder even than I had when I was trying to skip a grade. The examination for a high school certificate covered seventeen subjects and lasted three days; that I passed still stands as perhaps the most noteworthy achievement of my career. Special mention should be made of the high grade that I made in pedagogy, a subject that I had never studied. It left me wondering about normal schools and colleges of education. Normal schools have had their day. What of the colleges of education?

University of Montana

My admission to the University of Montana came about somewhat unexpectedly. At Corvallis, I had finally succeeded in getting into high school but as a teacher rather than as a pupil. I remember writing letters recommending our Corvallis seniors for admission to the University when, for all I knew, I myself could not meet the entrance requirements! During my second year in the high school I was drafted to teach English history, a subject that I met for the first time. Under pressure to cope with the situation, I grasped for a straw in the form of a correspondence course in the subject offered by the University. Accepted as a correspondence student I eventually realized that I was thereby entitled to become a student in residence. The salmon had finally made it

As soon as school was out at Corvallis, I entered the University at Missoula. As yet I had not chosen a field of concentration; my favorite subject at C.N.C. had not been chemistry nor indeed any science. It was German. In the summer school at Montana, I tried French, wondering what it would be like to teach modern languages. In my "second summer" of French, I read the Count of Monte Christo while serving as lookout in the National Forest Service. My station was at Lead Peak just west of the Montana-Idaho state line, although I didn't know it at the time, also divided the Rocky Mountain and Pacific time zones. Many years later I could ask: "How can it happen that a man's watch is one hour fast for three months but he does not discover the error until 15 years later?"

Although my "Lead Peak" French did not convert me into a language major, it proved to be the beginning of a lifetime avocation. My interest in languages was extended eventually to include Spanish, Italian and Russian in addition to French and German.

Italian entered the picture while I was in Massachusetts where I became acquainted with the poetess, Ruth Lambert Jones. She and her sister were taking lessons in Italian and soon I was saying "Buona sera", "Arrivederci" and "Mamma mia" along with them. When I went to Europe later, Italy became my favorite country.

Following the 1951 meeting of the International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry, we entertained a group of foreign chemists in Urbana; it fell to my lot to play host to the Italian contingent which included Dr. Carlo Benassi of the University of Padua. After listening to my Italian for three days, he paid me the high compliment of inviting me to speak at his university. The fall of 1952, thereby, found me in Italy facing a speaking engagement that had been expanded to include the universities of Florence, Pavia, Palermo and Rome as well as Padua. I found out later that I had been the first foreign chemist to make a lecture tour in Italy speaking their own language. I had made history!

The closest I ever came to Greek and Latin was in the Wakefield school where we used Cavin's Orthography as a text. It dealt with word construction from Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes. I enjoyed this study immensely and wonder why it was abandoned in the schools. This gap in my training must have been considered when as a professor I was elected to membership in the Illinois Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Professor Oldfather of the Department of Classics went so far as to write to the Montana registrar for information. The registrar, a friend of mine, decided to treat the letter as an impertinence. He replied in effect that Montana was proud of its Western traditions, one of which was "West of the Red River, no questions asked".

Getting back to my summer French class in Missoula, I must add that it led to my becoming a teacher in the Missoula High School--not of chemistry but of physics. In the French class I got to know the late Margaret Ronan , who taught English in the High School. She was the daughter of the famous Indian agent, Peter Ronan, for whom Ronan, Montana, was named. Her mother's name was given to a lake, Lake Mary Ronan. When school opened in September, 1918, the high school had no physics teacher and through Margaret's influence I was appointed for the month before I had to go back to the University. I liked the job so much that, although I had studied physics only at C.N.C., I was almost ready to go into that type of work for good.


My farm home - country school background and my failure to go to high school separated me irremediably, I thought, from the university students I found in Missoula. So I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to join the Alpha Delta Alpha fraternity. Ours was a fraternity that stressed high scholarship and the brothers appreciated my high grades. When we returned for a reunion in 1962 - 42 years after my graduation - the Missoula press hailed us as a Who's Who group.

Harold Urey had won the Nobel prize in chemistry and Bill Jameson had become a federal judge. Harold, Bill and I had all been called back to receive honorary degrees. Ronnie Kain of the State Department and George Poindexter, New York broker, were given Distinguished Achievement Awards as a part of the Homecoming celebration.

Alpha Delta Alpha, a local organization, became the Delta-Omicron chapter of Kappa Sigma in the 'twenties but did not survive the Depression. I was initiated by the Alpha-Gamma chapter at Illinois in 1927 and have remained a loyal member. At Illinois, however, my first loyalty was claimed by the professional chemistry fraternity, Alpha Chi Sigma. Initiated by the Sigma chapter in Berkeley, I had been active also in the Beta chapter in Minneapolis and in the Omicron chapter in Cambridge before coming to the Zeta chapter in Urbana. My arrival was timed so that I was on hand during the fateful years which ended a decline that must have started in the early 'twenties. It was a decline similar to that which had been fatal for the Missoula chapter of Kappa Sigma and which threatens any student group that does not have strong support from faculty and alumni.

Select Sixteen (A talk given before the Zeta chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma (ΑΧΣ)

Facing the centennial year of the University we pause to look backward and scrutinize the curve that our Department has traced across the century. An abrupt rise occurred, for example, in 1907 when Daddy Noyes joined the Department; the next year saw the founding of the Muffle Club which, after an existence of only five weeks, became Zeta of Alpha Chi Sigma. I am sure that in the Centennial celebration our chapter will be praised for its long and important service to the Department.

I think, however, that it might be a healthy diversion for us, here among ourselves, to go back some thirty years and take a look at what may be cal led the skeleton in our closet. I refer to the unorthodox rescue of our floundering chapter by what I like to call the Select Sixteen. How and why we had sunk so low are difficult questions. I, myself, may be the scapegoat since I was chapter advisor at the lowest ebb. I beg your indulgence and propose another explanation. We know that early pledging of undergraduates had lowered the professional status of the group to such a degree that few if any of the best chemists could be persuaded to join.

As might have been expected a rival organization, Gamma Pi Upsi Ion, was started; but it, too, failed to prosper. Apparently, as a last resort, the two moribund rivals decided to join forces; the result of merger, however, fell short of expectations. When the treasurer absconded with the funds the chapter was brought to the low ebb that made possible rescue by 'the Select Sixteen.

Faculty members devised a plan - admittedly high-handed - to recapture control of the chapter. Sixteen carefully selected graduate students were persuaded to join in a body and immediately took charge. The active members at the time acquiesced presumably because they could not present any acceptable alternative.

Today we would like to pass over this dark page in our history; but the names of the stalwart sixteen volunteers deserve a place on our honor roll.

And who selected the Sixteen? This is a question we do not ask; but I can remind you that Dr. Adams, Dr. Bailar and I have received the Kuebler Award and I am sure that Dr. Marvel's name is high on your list. Isn't it a little strange that this, perhaps the finest thing we ever did for Alpha Chi Sigma, is not to be advertised? Maybe, in spite of their numerous honors, Illinois professors are not motivated solely by a desire for prestige but are really trying to help their fellow chemists?

A former ΑΧΣ house man wrote to say that he considered my recent honorary degree to be collective - shared by each of my former students. The idea pleases me - it epitomizes the Illinois spirit of cooperation, of helping one another for the common good of the faculty, students, alumni. This objective has been expressed in other words: "to aid its members by every honorable means in the attainment of their ambitions as chemists throughout their mortal lives."

Graduate Study

The three chemistry professors at Montana - Bateman, Howard and Jesse - encouraged me to do graduate work and suggested that I apply at three different schools. Since I had decided to become an organic chemist, Illinois - Dr. Howard's school - was an obvious choice. I applied also at California and Minnesota. To my great surprise I received offers from all of them. Was it merely a coincidence that I eventually went to all three?

Evidently, I had been given a high rating and I tried to see why. As president of the honor society, Kappa Tau, I was allowed access to the grades of all students and knew that I ranked at or near the top of my class. Also in my favor was my score on the army Alpha Test, an intelligence test taken by all students. I had made the second highest mark among perhaps a thousand or more students. Helpful, too, was Montana's good reputation for training chemistry students.

Choosing California over Minnesota and Illinois for organic chemistry was a mistake, and I knew it. But the lure of geography was too much for me -- California, San Francisco, the Golden Gate! My mistake of putting geography ahead of chemistry, though common among chemists, is still a mistake. They gave me a master's degree but closed the PhD door firmly, I thought.

My disappointment was a humiliation too because I had made good friends who went serenely on to the PhD in physical chemistry. I tried to swallow my pride and looked for a job teaching in a California high school. At the last minute, however, the Minnesota offer that I had refused two years before was renewed and I took it. But not with enthusiasm - I had visions of another closed door.

The California fiasco I never discussed with anyone, but the situation seemed obvious. I remember telling my father that if I was lucky enough to get the PhD at Minnesota I would never let anything make me unhappy again. All during my subsequent career I was quick to side with students in trouble; I wonder if there is a connection. The forebodings I took with me to Minneapolis did not materialize, however, though my first contact seemed to say so. When I reported at the main office and identified myself, the secretary consulted her files and told me that I had no appointment! Soon, however, she discovered that the letters she first saw were two years old, so, I was reinstated.

When I came up for the preliminary oral examination I felt like a gun-shy dog at a shooting match; the night before I walked the streets unable to sleep. As a matter of fact , I proceeded to the degree in the record time of two years and won one of the coveted National Research Council post doctorate fellowships in the bargain.

Seven years later when my research director, W. H. Hunter, died, I was offered his job as head of the Organic Division. When the Distinguished Achievement Awards were Instituted, I was the first PhD graduate in chemistry to receive one. So I owe the University of Minnesota debts I can never pay.

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