Honoring Jim Lustig: Speech on Behalf of the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 and the Zeolite Scholarship Fund

Most of you now know that the Zeolites, our 1963/64 high school park district softball team, had a reunion on January 1, 2000. But there were just a few people who knew about it from the start. The adjacent lunch table in Chicago’s Mather High School cafeteria included female friends who’d been told of our plan back in 1963, the year that the idea was hatched: to meet on the front steps of the Museum of Science and Industry in 37 years time. That group included Carolyn and Cathy Bell, Olivia Wasserman, and Judy Maloff.

We got back in touch with them in late 1999 as the reunion day approached, and later let them know that the Culligan Corporation was giving us a grant of $2000 to create something called the Zeolite Scholarship Fund. Some of them even sent us money in support of the project. But, before too long I got an email out of the blue from a man who probably had never heard of the Zeolites and whom I hadn’t seen since 1965. He’d been told about our college scholarship philanthropy for graduating Mather seniors by Carolyn Bell and contacted me to ask if he could help. Soon thereafter we received a very large check from him, one of many that were to follow. To date, he has contributed nearly $5000 to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund, making him our third largest individual contributor. The two guys ahead of him, as you might expect, are Zeolites.

In the 12 years of our existence, that is the only time we received money from someone we didn’t solicit and whom we hadn’t told what we were doing; someone who just happened to hear about us and thought giving money to the project was a good idea. That someone is Jim Lustig, and the story I’ve just related tells you as much as you need to know about the behavioral definition of the word generosity.

Of course, Jim is a University of Chicago Medical School graduate and a highly respected pediatrician. I could tell you much more about his professional accomplishments* — about the recognition he has earned, what he has written and what he has done — but our attachment to Jim is more personal than that. At least four members of the Zeolite Scholarship Committee have gone to him with our own medical concerns or seeking advice about a loved one. Jim is always there, always helpful. Sue Leff Ginsburg will tell you a little bit about her contact with Jim. Then I will say a few more words.

Left to right: Barbara Orloff Litt, Pat McAvoy, Sue Leff Ginsburg, Jan Kozin Gordon, and Joan Lustig

Sue Leff Ginsburg:

In 2006, when our high school graduating class had its first “mini-reunion” dinner at Via Veneto, I was sitting next to Gerry telling the story of my new granddaughter, who was a preemie (premature birth) and wouldn’t eat. My daughter and son-in-law could not find a doctor here who could help and they were so worried and frustrated.  Gerry suggested I ask Jim’s advice, as he was a pediatrician. Now, I knew Jim in high school, he was an acquaintance. So I made my way to his table and started picking his brain. In his very calming, comforting tone, he informed me of the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital and their eating clinic.  My daughter, with Jim’s direction, was able to find doctors who not only had dealt with this before, but had a proven plan to solve it.  Not only did Jim calm two worried parents and a crazed grandmother, but in the process, I made two wonderful friends in Jim and Joan, Jim’s wife.

Thank you, Sue. All of us who have consulted Jim have had the kind of experience Sue just described. To me, Jim is the embodiment of the best qualities of a physician as they were represented on TV and in the movies back when we were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s: someone who is very smart, someone who is very experienced, someone who is calmly reassuring — quietly confident; someone who you know will do everything that is required to make sure that things turn out well.

Jim is the guy you want in your corner. He is the guy you want on your team, whether it is your softball team, your scholarship team, or your medical team. In a difficult moment, he is the person you want by your side any day and every day, any week and every week, any season and every season.

And so, Jim, we have an engraving for you. It reads as follows:

JIM LUSTIG

“A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”

FROM THE MATHER CLASS OF 1964/65 AND THE ZEOLITES

MAY 4, 2012

But there’s more, as they say on TV. Last year some of you will recall that I gave you a short German history lesson, or at least, a history of the Zeolites in German class at Mather High School. Jim was there in German class, along with most of the Zeolites, and people like Bob Ferencz and Michael Kaplan. As I said last year, after four years of German study we’d learned, perhaps, only 10 words; and seven of those words were swear words! But happily, one of those words has to do with Jim! No, not one of the swear words.

The word is “lustig,” which means cheerful or jolly. Now, my guess is, that it is not every day, Jim, when someone comes up to you, slaps you on the back, and says, “You know, Jim, you are a ‘jolly good fellow.'” But, today isn’t every day and we are about to do just that. So, all of you, please join me in paying tribute to our good friend Jim, by singing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

The top photo is Jim Lustig. In the second photo, left to right, are Barbara Orloff Litt, Pat McAvoy, Sue Leff Ginsburg, Jan Kozin Gordon, and Joan Lustig (Jim’s wife). These pictures were taken at the Mather High School Class of 1964/65 “Mini-Reunion” Dinner at Sabatino’s Restaurant on May 4, 2012. They come to the Zeolite Scholarship Fund courtesy of Michael Kaplan.

*Jim is the Program Director, Asthma/Allergy of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. He is also Professor of Pediatrics (Allergy/Immunology), Medical College of Wisconsin and Member, Children’s Specialty Group.

Of Teachers, Tests, and the Luck of the Draw(ing)

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As the old saying goes, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

But sometimes, being good helps a little in determining whether you get lucky.

Now, you wouldn’t think that luck would be an important variable at M.I.T. But the human equation is almost always in play, even in that citadel of rationality and even on a physics test.

The year was 1965. The class was Physics 8.02, the second semester of freshman physics, a course required of all 900 new students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barely 40 of these young people were women.

As the only National Merit Scholar from Stephen Tyng Mather High School on Chicago’s North Side, you’d have thought that a first year college physics test wouldn’t have presented a problem for Rich Adelstein. But then, you probably haven’t been to M.I.T. As Rich remembers it, the school was a brutal place for those who were not succeeding.

He was succeeding, but barely. He hoped to be on the Dean’s List for the term, but needed at least a C as a final grade in physics to get there. Unfortunately, he’d also begun to get the feeling that he wasn’t quite the scientist that some of his classmates were, but maybe more interested in things like history.

Yet science was what mattered at M.I.T; anything else and people didn’t give you the time of day — didn’t really respect you. These were the sort of kids who, just by a look, let you know that “I can do something really hard and you can’t.”

The culture of excellence, in other words, could be crushing as well as inspiring. The accomplishments of faculty members intimidated you into jaw-dropping awe. And Rich had already heard of suicides occurring at the school. Had the pressure to achieve at the highest level gotten to these students?

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An important test was coming up on Friday morning at 9 AM toward the end of the first year. Rich had done his best to study for it, but had the distinct impression that most everyone else was better prepared than he was. And, as he entered the large exam room, where 300 of his classmates would be tested, he felt a little like a man hanging on to a slippery ledge — just beginning to lose his grip.

Rich’s group was in a brightly lit armory, while the remaining 600 examinees were divided between two other locations, all enduring the same event at just the same moment. Sitting there nervously, he waited for the proctor to pass him the blue book on which he would write his answers, and then the test itself.

The first question had to do with “Coriolis forces,” named after the French scientist Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis. But it might as well have been in French, a language Rich didn’t know. He read it, he thought about it, and he knew that he had no idea how to get to the correct answer. “Oh, crap,” he thought to himself, while the anxiety thermometer inside of him started to climb from its already elevated state.

Second question. Again, no idea — just a feeling of being hopeless and helpless. Everyone else seemed to be working industriously, writing away. But Rich’s blue book was still blank and a state of panic-induced “brain-lock” was descending upon him. Rich had never — never ever — failed an exam. Would this be the first?

“I’ve got to get a grip on myself,” Rich thought. “I’m starting to come apart. I’ve got to calm down in order to have any chance of passing this.”

And then, an inspiration. “I’ll draw for a bit. That will calm me down.”

And so it was that our hero began to sketch a three-masted sailing ship, like the one at the top of the page.

Little by little, drawing was doing the job. Rich was “in the zone,” captured by the task he had set for himself, something he could do well and that began to soothe the whirlpool of feelings inside that made it hard to think.

Unfortunately, however, he had not accounted for everything.

“Times up! Hand in your blue books!” announced the proctor in charge. Rich had lost track of the clock. And all he had to show for an hour-long physics test was a picture of a ship.

Rich signed his name to the book and passed it on to the proctor. He didn’t want anyone to think that he’d simply blown-off the test and not even come to the exam room.

There was only one possible way to deal with this. In a state of disoriented numbness, like the survivor of a train wreck, he walked out of the armory in a fog of surreal devastation and went directly to his professor’s office, the man who taught his section of the course as his “recitation instructor.” One Nathaniel H. Frank.

Dr. Frank was then a man of about 60, until recently the head of the physics department, a person particularly respected for his leadership in revising high school physics curricula throughout the country. During World War II, he had worked at the M.I.T Radiation Laboratory. Indeed, it was in that place that radar was developed.

Frank was not just a well-known scientist, but someone who cared deeply about education. Himself a graduate of M.I.T, he was short and stocky; had a full head of wavy, graying hair; and wore glasses.

The academician had been teaching just about 40 years when he first encountered Richard P. Adelstein.

Rich did the only thing he could think of doing. He told Dr. Frank that he had just come from the armory ordeal. Rich related his panic, his attempt to calm himself, and the fact that time had gotten away from him.

He did not want the scientist to think that he was trying to be disrespectful by drawing a boat; nor did he ask for or expect a second chance at the test. Rich simply hoped to make Dr. Frank understand that he took the course seriously, but, somehow what was left at the end of the hour was only a sketch.

“Well, don’t worry about it now,” the teacher said in reply. “Let’s just see what happens when we grade the exams.”

Then Frank gave the young man a grandfatherly smile. The kind of smile that an old man gives to a young man when he has seen many such students — earnest and terrified — all feeling as if the world is coming to an end; and, when he can tell which of them are sincere and which of them are just jerks.

“Let’s see what happens?” Rich thought to himself. “I know what is going to happen. I’m going to get a zero! This isn’t good. I took a physics test and I turned in a picture of a boat!”

But Rich kept all this to himself. Soon he was walking back to his Baker House dorm, and a room that now seemed like a cell on death row.

The weekend was miserable. Waiting is a terrible thing when you can see the ax that is soon to fall on your neck. Sleep was difficult, each daytime second gruesome. Monday and the end to the calamity, whatever it might be, couldn’t come soon enough.

Monday did arrive, finally. Perfect scores on tests were exceedingly uncommon at M.I.T. Indeed, exams were graded on a curve. As Rich sat in the classroom, he looked at the grade equivalents that the professor was putting on the black board. The highest scores fell short of perfect, but there were actually lots of poor scores that were still good enough to pass, with 30 being the lowest grade that permitted a D.

Below 30 and you failed.

In due time the blue books were handed out. Rich was beginning to be resigned to his fate. He would certainly fail with a zero, he thought to himself. But, at least, he’d be 30 points from a passing grade on the exam, not nearly as far from a D as he feared. If only he could have obtained a 30, however, the chance of getting a C as a final grade in the course might still have been within reach and allowed him to get on the Dean’s List.

He forced himself to look at his blue book.

Twenty-nine.

He rubbed his eyes.

It still said 29.

“There must be some error here,” he said to himself. And then, once again, the same recurring idea: “I just took a physics test and turned in a sail boat picture! This can’t possibly be right.”

When the class ended Rich made another death march to the office of Dr. Frank.

“Professor, I think there was some mistake on the grade I got. The blue book was marked with a 29.”

“Oh, no, young man, there was no mistake,” said Professor Frank while looking at Rich warmly.

“How can that be?” asked Rich.

“Well,” said the good doctor, “that was by far the best picture of a sail boat on any of the exams.”

And, in that moment, Rich felt the small breeze — the puff of air — that one feels when one of life’s little bullets whizzes past harmlessly, narrowly missing its mark.

One has “dodged a bullet,” as the saying goes.

Richard Adelstein, Faculty Mentor

Of course, it was not really “the best picture of a sail boat,” but the only such drawing that anyone turned in. This was simply the professor’s funny way of saying that there was no mistake here — of letting young Rich know that the world hadn’t ended, that the sun would rise tomorrow giving him another day to prove himself; that he understood that “things happen” even to the best of us.

He was a man, after all, who knew first hand what it was like to be a freshman at M.I.T.

And Rich did get a C for the course and did make the Dean’s List.

You should also know that this is a story that Rich, now himself a college professor at Wesleyan University, retells from time to time, when he sees a similarly lost student, terrified but earnest, worried that his whole future is about to go under water for the last time, and makes the same judgment that Dr. Frank did in 1965.

And in so doing, throws the young person a life buoy from the imaginary ship that almost sunk him, but ended up saving him 46 years ago; the ship commanded by Nathaniel H. Frank.

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If you’d like to read a rather different story about Rich Adelstein, please see: The Long Road to Becoming Rich.

The top photo is a Naval Ship of Brazil Taken by the Brazilian Navy, followed by an Image of the Dome at the M.I.T. Campus by Fcb981 (edited by Thermos); both sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The portrait of Dr. Nathaniel Frank comes from http://www.webmuseum.mit.edu/ The picture of Dr. Richard Adelstein that follows it is sourced from http://www.wesleyan.edu/ The final image is a Life Buoy, by Shirley, also from Wikimedia Commons.