Friday, February 6, 2009

From Melody Lane

This is how I remember Fred – sitting at his desk in KBT, white shirt, sleeves rolled up, ready to work. I was Fred’s secretary from 1971-1981. I was just out of college and he basically trained me to be a scientific secretary. My greatest skill was that I could type fast which was key with Fred as that was the only way to keep up with him. He was in the middle of his chairmanship of the MB&B department. It was then that I learned what a good leader should be. He did this through his charm, wit, cajoling, and even anger. He had no problem yelling at the faculty or staff or administration when he felt it was warranted. He had tremendous energy and enthusiasm for science. During those ten years with him he started the Program-Project Grant with the WERMS groups (Wyckoff, Engelman, Richards, Moore and Steitz) which is still being funded. He started the Research Reports for the department. He was on the Board of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Whitney Marine Laboratory, the Advisory Board of Purdue University’s Magnetic Resonance Laboratory, and on the Board of Trustees of Cold Spring Harbor. In 1971 he became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, served on the Council of the International Union of Pure and Applied Biophysics, was President of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and President of the Biophysical Society, as well as being on the Editorial Boards of the Journal of Molecular Biology and Advances in Protein Chemistry. He carried a full teaching load in an introductory biochemistry course, whose lectures are still taught by other faculty. He carried on a vast correspondence it seemed with everyone in biochemistry, biophysics, the government, and the Hinckley Boatyard. He was on a first-name basis with the University officers. He published extensively and served on many University committees, among which was to chair a committee to establish the Office of Cooperative Research. And he was the Director of the Jane Coffin Childs Fund for Medical Research. And he played hockey at noon! This was all within a ten year span – more than most accomplish in a lifetime. He was incredibly focused and clear in all he did, a very deep thinker. He would dictate correspondence without asking for rough drafts – they were almost always so well thought out that they needed only minor editing; the same for his manuscripts, and grant applications. I found out later how unique that was. His group called him The Chief. I called him Dr. Richards. He had a great team: Johnnie Mouning, Gerry Johnson, Paul Pepin, Art Perlo, all technicians who made the Core work. Fred made it fun to work with him.

Fred had a way of using phrases that I called Fredisms: Get (so-and-so) on the blower for me. Stop grousing and do it. Don’t get into a swivet. I have an appointment with the croaker. He also had a great way of filing which I believe his father taught him. If the pile on your desk gets too big, just take the bottom half and throw it away, because if you haven’t looked for it you don’t need it. Every few months I would hear a big THUMP from his office. It took me a while to catch on to the fact that we were engaged in what I called paper wars. He would spend the morning dictating and then bring out a big stack of papers with the tapes. He’d put them all on my desk with a gleeful smile. The game was on. It was now up to me to get it all done before I left for the day and put it back on HIS desk, so now his desk was cluttered and mine was clean. This is just an example of the challenges he presented in a playful manner. I put a cartoon on his door of a boss speaking to his employee that said “If I wanted it tomorrow, Smedley, I would have given it to you tomorrow.” He loved that.

He was a great communicator. He summed up his packing theory to me by saying, “Put a bunch of stones of different sizes into a bag and leave it – eventually the small stones will go to the bottom and the larger stones will be on top.” Early on we had a brief discussion about who is more creative, an artist or a scientist. His arguments made me aware of just how creative science is and I gained a greater understanding and respect for it. He called it thinking outside the box, which he was known for.

I left the department for about 10 years and came back in 1991, back working for the chairman, a job that Fred had trained me to do years ago. I called him Fred now and he called me Mel and it’s been that way since. Once you work for Fred, you always work for Fred. And it’s been 28 years all told. But we all did it with love and great respect for him. He taught us all so much mostly by example. He even had an uncanny knack for bowing out at the right time – he had no problem handing the controls over to others to let it grow. Even his gruffness was fun because he loved the banter. I think he did it to keep everyone on their toes and keep pushing for excellence. Once he was going on about something and I said he was becoming a curmudgeon – he just smiled broadly, like I finally got it.

Fred was a great leader of the department, even though he had not been chair since 1973. He was always available for advice. You could count on him to really think about an issue and come up with just the right answer. You could trust that he was right. The only thing I can remember that didn’t work for him was his tire jetty project in Little Harbor. I think he would have made it work eventually if not for the neighbors.

One of the last acts as leader was last year when he called a meeting of some of us to put together a scholarship fund for Johnnie Mouning. He was very clear about what he wanted but we were all there as part of his team again to make it all happen. Again, he had an incredible grasp of knowing the right thing to do.

When he had done something he was really proud of, he would call it a thing of beauty and a joy forever. That’s how I remember Fred – a joy forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please add your comment here