LASTING LESSONS • Summer 2001
Washington University's superb teachers have changed the lives of the students who have learned from them. Here, three alumni describe faculty whose lessons will last a lifetime.

James W. Davis, Professor of Political Science

Ellen Liston Gragg: "I became so intellectually excited by Professor Davis' classes that I wound up majoring in political science.

"Most people assume my degree is in English, but I believe political science was an excellent major to train me as a writer. I had to write a lot in political science.

"I'm not sure Jim Davis realized this, but he was providing a training in rigorous thinking and writing to specifications. His assignments were often of this kind: 'Write as if you were a congressional staffer, giving advice to your congressman on ...,' or 'Write a congressional memo—find out what the format is, and use it to explain your point of view about ... .'

"That kind of training—learning to write in a variety of formats and voices—has been a wonderful asset to me in my career as a business writer. There's no assignment I can't take, because I have confidence that I can adapt to the situation.

"Other professors were my advisers, but Jim Davis had more time for me. When I needed to make big decisions about my education, I asked him. He changed the course of my life when I was committing to go to law school. He said, 'Law school is not the best preparation for a political career.'

"I kept looking for a career until I realized I should write for a living. Writing a speech, I write in the voice of the person delivering that speech; writing a briefing, I must use information fast and get it right. Professor Davis' training is always with me."

Ellen Liston Gragg, A.B. '81, is the owner of Cobalt Enterprise, a professional writing and communications company.

 


 

John L. Kardos, The Stanley and Lucy Lopata Professor of Chemical Engineering

Karen Baxter Ceronie: "I'd say the ideal professor must be excited about what he or she teaches, teach it well, and care about the students; I believe Professor Kardos has all those qualities.

"At the beginning of the year, it was as though he was rubbing his hands together saying to himself: 'Wow! I've got this whole new group of students to teach.'

"In our course on unit operations, Professor Kardos taught us about the different kinds of large-scale equipment you need to get from a pile of ingredients to a finished product, like a chemical compound or, say, toothpaste. He clearly had experience outside academia. Sometimes he would go off on a tangent with an 'I-remember-when' story. Those were interesting, funny, and made a connection between what we were learning and the workplace.

"Once he told us about an example of a unit operation gone awry that occurred while he was working in the petrochemical industry. If you go by an oil refinery at night, you'll usually see small flares of gas burning off. He told us that while out for an evening he went by the oil refinery where he was working and noticed an enormous flare reaching up into the night sky. He thought: 'Uh, oh, I did that!'

"Indirectly woven into the story was the lesson that, no matter how much you learn, you will have ideas that are not going to work all that well ... but you'll figure out what to do and get through it!"

Karen Baxter Ceronie, B.S. '81 (chemical engineering), is a section head in research and development for Procter and Gamble.

 

 


Owen Sexton, Professor Emeritus of Biology

Edward P. Ortleb: "In the spring of 1960, I was looking for a biology course to take during the summer. This search led me to Owen Sexton, and we discovered a mutual interest in ecology and herpetology. During my independent research project that summer, I learned of Owen's deep insights into the relationships among living things. It quickly became apparent that he was an excellent teacher and had that unique ability to make the complex understandable.

"A year later as we were searching for snakes during an impromptu field trip, I described to him what I believed had been the successional history of the area. He commented on the few correct assumptions I had made and then pointed out the rather obvious evidence of a different history that had produced the present biological community. I knew I had a lot to learn.

"In my later graduate work, while doing fieldwork together in Panama and in the glades of Missouri, I found further evidence of his understanding of the dynamics of ecology. I was learning and beginning to understand.

"Owen also was instrumental in helping me focus on my professional goals. His wise counsel helped me as I became a supervisor of science for the St. Louis Public Schools, a president of the National Science Teachers Association, a science education lecturer, and a science textbook author.

"When asked to join WU as an adjunct faculty member in the biology department in 1969, I made a strong attempt to be as good a teacher as my mentor and friend, Owen Sexton."

Edward P. Ortleb, M.A. '59, Advanced Certificate '61, served as a University College faculty member for 15 years, teaching field ecology courses.