Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


APRIL 2000
Golden Recollections

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On Pursuing Every Curiosity,
Within a "Living Encyclopedia"

By Ronald Wolk
Johns Hopkins Magazine Editor (1959-1962)

Until Corbin Gwaltney launched the Johns Hopkins Magazine in 1950, alumni magazines were mainly an assemblage of class notes, sports news, and fundraising pitches. Corbin, with his particular publishing genius, capitalized on two important truisms: (1) Education is a lifetime activity that merely begins with a college degree, and (2) The university is not only an infinite font of knowledge but treasure trove of wonderful stories.

The Hopkins Magazine that I joined as assistant editor in spring 1959 had already revolutionized alumni publishing by portraying the incredible richness of the university, doing so with high journalistic prose and high quality photography and art.

In the 1950s, the American university was in the early stage of a major transition. It began with the GI Bill in 1946, which opened wide the ivied gates as never before. And it continued with the flow--soon to become a torrent--of federal and corporate research dollars. Few of us knew it then, but universal access and sponsored research would profoundly reshape American higher education in the second half of the century--and not always for the better.

Johns Hopkins in 1959 was also in transition, but it was still largely characterized by the spontaneity, intellectual excitement, and shabby gentility of the pre-war university. It was, in the best sense of the term, "a community of scholars." Not always solicitous of its undergraduates, Hopkins was a virtual paradise for the faculty and, to a lesser degree, their PhD candidates. The ambience on campus was wonderful. President Milton S. Eisenhower understood the proper relationship between academics and administrations and his role, as he saw it, was to facilitate the work of the faculty. Lunch at the long table in the Faculty Club--on the few occasions I was bold enough to sit there--was an intellectual adventure, as was attendance at the History of Ideas Club.

Editing the Hopkins Magazine was, arguably, the best job I ever had, as well as the best training I could have had for a career in publishing, journalism, and education. We had an unwritten rule that everything in the magazine had to have some connection to Johns Hopkins, which meant we could write about anything. There was no subject under the sun that we couldn't connect in some way with the programs, faculty, or the alumni of the university. For me, the university was a living encyclopedia where I could pursue every curiosity; venture from the present into the past or future in an instant; flit from the realm of theories and ideas to the hands-on world of the laboratory and the medical clinic; see the world through an electron microscope or the imagination of a poet.

I watched a world-famous neurosurgeon operate on the brain of his conscious epileptic patient (a bartender) while a nurse kept the man talking with inane questions about recipes for mixed drinks. Observed an engineer and a medical researcher when they accidentally discovered closed chest cardiac massage while defibrillating a dog (see p. 32). Interviewed Robert Frost, Archie MacLeish, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, and Ivor Winter while a prominent photographer made portraits of them. Had breakfast with Rachel Carson and persuaded her to give our photographer a tour of her Maine beach as part of a special issue on the earth and the sea.

I wrote science articles that were republished in scholarly journals but were beyond my comprehension when I read them a few years afterwards. Substantially rewrote articles submitted by distinguished faculty and later convinced them we hardly touched their prose. Sent a graduate student in physics around the world to photograph ancient universities as part of a series I wrote on the medieval university without leaving the Homewood campus. Shadowed some of the best photographers in the world as they captured on film the exciting visual images that are so commonplace in a great university.

The Hopkins Magazine during my tenure was unashamedly in love with the university. If there were warts, we didn't see them. If there were political maneuverings on campus we--in our little nest in the Greenhouse across from Gilman Hall--were blissfully unaware of them. Neither we nor the university had yet lost our innocence. The hard-nosed criticism of academe by its alumni magazines would come later as the university became more enmeshed in quid-pro-quo grants and entangled in the politics of the Vietnam war. In the 1950s the controversy in the letters column centered on such subjects as the translation of the inscription of Gildersleeve's tombstone, rather than the shortcomings of the university.

My three years as editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine changed me in ways I didn't anticipate. What was intended to be a brief detour on a career path to Life or Look led me in a very different direction and altered the way I looked at the world. I would find it easy to believe that England's poet laureate John Masefield had Johns Hopkins in mind when he wrote: "There is no earthly place more splendid than a University."