By Richard McClelland, PhD
Above, Columbia High School, 1945, nicknamed “Col Hi,” just shortly after completion of its new building. It began as Richland High School, circa 1910, and resumed its original name in 1983. Public domain photo, taken from the Hanford declassified photo collection.
In March 1949, my parents moved into a small house in Richland, Washington together with their three young children. I was 15 months old, as was my twin sister. My older sister was just two years old, and my younger brother not yet a proverbial twinkle in anyone’s eyes.
My father had secured a job as a clerk at Hanford, where he remained the rest of his working life. Three generations of my family worked in and around Hanford. My mother’s father, John Briece, helped to build parts of the physical infrastructure of Hanford, working as a pipe-fitter for J. A. Jones Construction. My father eventually moved into middle-management, and my mother as an executive secretary. My twin sister worked her entire working life at Hanford, starting during summer vacations from college and retiring in her sixties as an archivist in charge of vetting and preserving the written records of the Hanford project. I briefly worked there in the Federal Building as a janitor in the summer of 1967.
Both my parents had been in the Army during World War II, and like many other young parents in Richland in the late 1940s and ‘50s, must have been very glad to be alive, to have full employment, and to eventually own their own house. Our first house, known officially as a Y house, was to prove very cramped for six people. The bedroom I shared first with my twin and later with my brother was six feet wide and nine feet long. But when houses in Richland went up for sale in the late 1950s, my parents were quick to snap up ours.
I have some memories from the early days, including dust storms so dense we could literally not see the houses across the street from ours. These were known as the infamous Termination Winds, so-called because lots of folks quit their jobs at Hanford following such storms. One storm picked up a board that had been lying around the neighborhood and drove it through the front window of our living room, striking my older sister and knocking her down. She sat on a space heater that was operating there, and has to this day a scar on her butt.
Learning is my real subject here. I was enormously fortunate to be born when and where I was: late 1947 in Pasco. For on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. The shock to America was tremendous. Wow! The Russians were far ahead of us in science, math, and technology. The whole country believed it imperative that we catch up with them.
In 1958, President Eisenhower’s administration responded with the creation of NASA, DARPA, and the passage of the NDEA, which funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools all over the country, especially in support of science education.
I was finishing grade school at the time and would soon be in junior high and high school. Federal support for public education in technical and scientific subjects especially was a key element in my own academic success – though I did not know that at the time. What schoolboy knows anything about such high-level public policies?
That academic success was to be considerable in due course of time. I graduated from Reed College in 1970, went to Princeton for one year, and later to Oxford University (BA, 1975; MA, 1980) and Cambridge University (PhD, 1985). Success in these institutions qualified me for a career as a university professor, from which I retired in January 2014. I continue to do research and write for publication in my retirement. I expect to leave the intellectual life only with my last breath. And all this started in the public schools of Richland, Washington. If it is possible to owe a debt to a historical period and to a public policy, I owe that debt to Eisenhower’s response to the Sputnik crisis.
A second element in that story was the place itself. As the home of most of the workforce for the Hanford Atomic Products Operation, Richland housed a large number of highly skilled and highly educated people, including many with advanced degrees in technical and scientific areas: chemists, biologists, physicists, and especially engineers of all kinds. The entire community had a deep and lasting commitment to the high value of education. Their consequent support for the public schools was (and remains to this day) notable.
I was unaware of any funding crises. Levies always passed. Schools got built, schools got excellent staffs, curricula were often innovative and rigorous. Talented students were streamed into groups of their peers, starting in middle school, and there was a high expectation that we would all go to college if we could. Many of us eventually attended some of the great universities of the world. My own family iterated this commitment to education and though neither of my parents graduated from college, all of their children did. Two of us have advanced degrees, and we were entirely typical of the middle class in Richland during the late 1940s through the late 1970s, the Baby Boomer years.
To these communal commitments both of family and town, I owe a great debt. For they gave me an almost axiomatic expectation that I would go to college and that I would succeed there. They also gave me my earliest academic ambition, which was to become a physicist. Physicists were the gods of Richland, and many very smart kids growing up there aspired to their ranks (some of us made it, also). I chose to go to Reed because the older brother of my best friend went there and he was a physics major. Even though I did not complete my scientific training, I retain a deep interest in science to this day and work in ancillary fields, mining them for their philosophically rich ideas and findings.
I was also enormously fortunate in my teachers. I started at Marcus Whitman Grade School, located a few blocks from our house on Jefferson Street, in the fall of 1953. Considered by today’s standards, our school was very tightly run, highly disciplined, and filled with teachers who cared deeply about the success of their students.
My fifth grade teacher did me the enormous good turn of teaching me, after school, some elementary algebra, knowing some of this subject herself, and knowing I was interested in it. That got me onto a math kick that paid off when I later taught symbolic logic at the university level, without question my favorite course to teach.
Middle school (junior high as we knew it, constituting grades 7-9), at Carmichael Junior High School, starting in 1960, brought me other similarly dedicated and able teachers, notably my ninth-grade geometry teacher, Mr. Goecke.
All along my English teachers encouraged reading widely and writing, skills that eventuated in my own career in the humanities. In high school, at Col High, as we called it, short for Columbia High School (originally Richland High School, re-built and renamed Columbia High School in the 1940s, and then re-renamed Richland High School in the early 1980s). I had three teachers who had PhDs in their disciplines: Dr. Abbot for algebra, Dr. Gentle for calculus, and Dr. Sawyer for physics. There were others in the school who also had PhDs, but these three were mine. I do not doubt that such a rare occurrence was in large part due to being in Richland at that time.
But my all-time favorite and most influential teacher was Mrs. (Julia) Davis, who taught me English in my junior year of high school. She taught me how to read a text critically and how to write expository essays. No one, earlier or later, taught me more about both skills than she did. When I was a junior in college, I was attending Washington State University, having gone on leave from Reed for that one year. I had gotten enamored of English literature by this time and changed majors to that subject in the fall of that year. In February, the chairman of the English department, who had taught me in two courses, told me that he would guarantee a full ride (i.e. full scholarship support) to do a PhD in his department if I would undertake it when I finished my undergraduate degree at Reed. This was on the strength of my demonstrated skills in critical textual analysis and clear expository writing. I did not take him up on the offer, as it happened, but I was (and still am) hugely pleased to have earned such high approval. I owed that very much to the formative influence of Mrs. Davis. Every publication of mine bears the imprint of her teaching, with its emphasis on analytical clarity, economy of expression, tightness of organization and rigorous argumentation.
I later enjoyed similarly inspired and hard-working teachers throughout my collegiate and graduate educations, up to and including my PhD supervisors in Cambridge. Without such excellent teachers, starting in grade school and continuing on thereafter, I would never have had the success that I did. My own students, in their turn, benefited from all that, too, of course. What goes around comes around, and good teaching begets good teaching. I taught some 10,000 class sessions over the 32 years of my university professorship, graded and commented on more than 35,000 essays, and brought to these tasks native ability and skills honed and sharpened by my own teachers. The multiplication of efforts of my teachers through my teaching has affected the lives of thousands. Here is another way in which the values of a family and a community can be transmitted to further generations.
I am thus indebted to a time, a place, and a range of people. I hope that through my work, past, present and future, I can honor those debts and discharge them well. Like an oasis in the Sahara, Richland in my youth, was a considerable source of intellectual nourishment and encouragement, without which my own life (and those of my own children as well) would not have taken the shape that it did. The academic life is not what many think it is, and it is capable of high degrees of toxicity (sort of like learning to handle plutonium), but it has also been enormously rewarding.