This Too Shall Pass (In Memory of Curt Beck)

Today I’ve decided to write about something a little different; it’s about the act of mentoring. This blog is devoted to a mentor and teacher of mine, Curt Beck, who made a difference in my life some thirty odd years ago. And I still remember.

Vassar College is a liberal arts school in upstate New York. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Matthew Vassar, a brewer who wanted to give women the opportunity to have a first class education. At the time, only men were accepted into the premier colleges like Dartmouth or Yale, and Matthew Vassar did something about it. Luckily, when it was time for me to go to college, Vassar had opened its doors to men as well.

One of the most memorable people I met at Vassar was my organic chemistry professor, Curt Beck.

Curt Beck left Germany as a young man. Although he had that Germanic devotion to completeness, Curt Beck was a Renaissance man. He was well versed in the classics as well as in history, literature and, of course, science. Mr. Beck (Mr. or Ms. is preferred at Vassar over Doctor or Professor) was one of the founders of archeological chemistry. He worked with archeologists around the world, identifying what substances were contained in ancient clay jars, so they could figure out trade routes from the distant past. He was best known for his original amber research. Amber is a substance derived from ancient sap. It can be found in many places around the world, and has been prized by royalty and evolutionary biologists alike.

To be honest, all this was unimportant to me at twenty years of age. As a pre-med student all I cared about was doing well in organic chemistry. From my point of view, Mr. Beck stood between me and medical school.

It was thirty years ago, although it feels like yesterday, and I was preparing for my finals. Unfortunately, I was also embroiled in a rocky love affair. My girlfriend and I kept dating and breaking up many times. This meant late nights dealing with the excitement and hurt of immature love. Since every grade counted, and I wanted to get into medical school, I had to stop the roller coaster. I simply couldn’t concentrate on my finals and the relationship at the same time. After talking about it, we both agreed to put the relationship “on hold” until the end of finals.

When the exams were over, I searched the campus for my girlfriend only to find that she had already left for the summer. Disappointed and distraught, I then arrived at Mr. Beck’s office to pick up my organic chemistry final exam. I walked in, looked briefly at the test, and then put it away among some papers.

We were alone.

Mr. Beck was the quintessential college professor, with his casual formality, his intelligent blue eyes, wavy grey hair, and a curious hint of impishness. He spoke in fluent English, modified by a mild German accent.

He noticed that something was wrong.

Mr. Beck asked, “Is something troubling you?”

And I told him the truth.

After he heard my story, Mr. Beck suggested right then and there that we go for a walk. We found our way to Sunset Lake, a small pastoral lake on the Vassar College campus. It was a beautiful day in mid May, and the daffodils were in full bloom. As we sat down on a hill overlooking the lake, Mr. Beck told me about his life, that he had wounds too, and how the vast majority of men (and women) have stories like mine.

Then he said something that I still remember:

“You know, sometimes life seems like a ride in a small rowboat. The waves are so big that you think you are going to tip over. So you hold onto the sides as hard as you can. You are thrown by the wind and the waves; and then one day, the sea just calms down. And everything’s okay.”

“It’s going to be okay for you, too.”

These words still resonate with me, and I want to offer them to all of you out there, who feel that you are on a small rowboat being rocked by huge waves. Most of the time, things do calm down eventually.

Mr. Beck was an unusual man, with a vast intelligence and a huge heart.

We later became friends. I visited his home, and like the good chemist that he was, he taught me how to make apple brandy from freshly picked apples. Last week Vassar had a memorial gathering for professor Curt Beck, the distinguished researcher. Colleagues from all over the country attended, including one of the curators of the Smithsonian who paid homage to Mr. Beck’s contributions to amber research and the study of evolution.

But I remembered a man of great humanity, who took time away from his important work to offer solace and companionship to a young student. I remember a man who saw what was important, and I will never forget it.

This story originally appeared on the Psychology Today website, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.

A Call from my Grandmother

In the early 1920s, my grandmother came to the United States from Warsaw to study at Hunter College. She grew up in a large family that valued education, many of whom were educators themselves. One of her sisters was already here and a brother followed, but most of her family perished at the hands of the Nazis some years later.

The connection with Vassar is this: my grandmother was a housewife with a lively intellect, and an independent thinker. She looked after her family, cooked, cleaned, and tended her garden. She stayed connected to the world as a reader of literature and newspapers, as a theatergoer, and as a member of several reading groups and women’s philanthropic organizations. She was both grounded in family and community, and intellectually driven. And her phone call one evening as I was filling in my various applications to colleges had far reaching effects.

“Have you considered Vassar?” she asked me. I hadn’t. But she wasn’t a meddler, my grandmother, so I listened carefully as she gave me her impressions of a place that valued independent thinking and that wasn’t averse to breaking norms in a challenging and true intellectual environment.

These many years later I fully appreciate that of all of the colleges that might have appealed to my grandmother’s sense of where a young woman might thrive, Vassar would sing to her as the right place for me. She was a brave young girl, traveling halfway across the world on her own, with only scant book learning of English, to study in America. She became a responsible wife and mother, reflective and nurturing and always attuned to the latest trends in nutrition (although I don’t think my uncle enjoyed the pre-fab vegetable patties called “protose” that she tried to convince him were hamburgers). An avid reader, she enjoyed gathering groups together in her home to discuss books. And she gave to others, both as a caretaker in the family and as a donor of time and money to charitable causes. She was a modern woman in her day, always feeding her intellectual curiosity even as she literally and figuratively nourished those around her.

I owe my rich and beautiful college experience, with all of the skills, new areas of discovery, and the lifelong friendships that came with it, to my witty and wonderful grandmother, who brought Vassar to my attention. That’s the kind of legacy that is so very consistent with a Vassar education.

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