images-2Van Allen’s tenaciousness, through the eyes of a son

This story ran in The (Cedar Rapids-Iowa City, IA) Gazette on September 10, 2006.

When my Dad, space physicist James Van Allen, died on Aug. 9 he  made his exit the way he lived life – quietly, graciously and with his  sense of humor in tact.  I’m the youngest of his five children – born over a span of 13  years and all experiencing a different part of my Dad’s life, with our  own take on who he was.  

Born Sept 7, 1914, in Mount Pleasant, to a lawyer and his wife,  my Dad grew up in that small town, the second of four boys.  The family was resourceful and self-reliant. They had a garden  and chickens out back. His mother could can vegetables and butcher a  chicken. They made their own furniture. They had shelves of reference  books. For entertainment, his father would spend hours reading the  encyclopedia aloud to the boys. It was a stern household and I’m not  sure how all of those brothers each found humor in the small things in  life – yet they did.  

My dad graduated from Iowa Wesleyan and got his PhD from the  University of Iowa. He was also schooled by the Dust Bowl, the  Depression and the rationing and scrimping of World War II.  He was famous for his frugality. That frugality wasn’t limited to  turning off lights or brown-bagging lunch. For many years, he drove a  ’62 Volkswagen Bug. To deal with the cold Iowa mornings, he rigged a  rope with a handle so that he could wrap the rope around the belt drive  and start the car – much like you would a lawn mower. AAA was not an  option.  

More famously, on the balloon-launched rockets, known as  “rockoons,” in the early 1950s, he filled orange juice containers with  hot water to keep rocket fuel from freezing at high  altitude. Which proved that not every solution has to be rocket  science.  

Yet, in the every day, being able to put chains on the car tires  at 20 below zero was considered a life skill, and my dad seemed to have  a wealth of them.  He was always very exacting. Every home project was a lesson in  patience and humility. We lived on a hill in what was then the outskirts  of Iowa City, on what was then a gravel road north of town. In those  days, a fact of rural life is that every spring some yahoo will smash  your mailbox with a baseball bat.

Every spring, my Dad and my brother  Tom and I trudged down the hill to the foot of the driveway, with  wheelbarrow, post-hole digger and a carpenter’s level. At our house,  every project had to be maddeningly plumb and level.  For these occasions, my dad had a few well-worn expressions –  often understated and always well-timed:  “Give it a good tamping down,” he’d say.  “That’s it – Bear down on it!”  “That’s the old fight!”  And, when things didn’t go according to plan, he’d groan and say,  “Oh, my aching back.”  My brother and I would pull our hair out. But putting up the new  mailbox was an exercise in exactitude.  

This might also help explain how my Dad continued to collect data  from Pioneer 10 three decades after its launch.  Around the house and in the family cars were small notebooks with  an attached string and a tiny pencil, sharpened to a point with a  pocketknife. These were the “logs.” When you got gas, you wrote down the  date, the gallons, the price, location. When you traveled, you wrote  down the mileage, time you left, destination, time of pit stops,  arrival, motel check-in, tolls, money spent, and so on.  

Science wasn’t just about observation; it was about keeping  track.  But maybe the most pressing lesson, the thing I need to  illustrate here is a trait my Dad has that, perhaps more than anything,  contributed to his success. Some might call it persistence. But a word  that’s in vogue today is “grit.”  

Recently, there was a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a  professor at Penn who had studied grit and its role in some famous  successes. Edison, Einstein, Magellan – all these guys were smart. But  they didn’t start out as “geniuses.” They had failures. They had  embarrassments. Like all of us, they had the occasional bad day at the  office. But they shared one trait. They continued to work at a given  problem over years, decades, over lifetimes.  

Grit is a trait I identify with my Dad.  Every day, he left the house at 7:45 a.m. Every day, he was home  at 6 p.m. After dinner, he retired to his home study, where he worked  some more. He followed this schedule six days a week. On Sundays, he’d  often make the family waffles on an ancient waffle iron. But, when the  waffle iron was put away, he was off to work, for at least half a day.  The work that he did was chipping away, a tenacity demonstrated  over years.  

If there was inspiration, it came after long hours. If there was  genius, it was the result of many hours of toil applied toward the same  problem.  Grit was not something my Dad wore on tattered shirts or work  gloves. That was simply his frugality. Rather, grit was something that  showed itself in the papers that he published, in the classes that he  taught at the University of Iowa and in the doggedness he showed to make  sure the mailbox was plumb and level.  

My Dad worked nearly until the end. This summer, while he was in  the University of Iowa Hospital, my oldest sister, Cynthia, brought over  two sets of galleys – professional papers that had been accepted for  publication but needed final proofing. From his hospital room, working  together, they made the final changes.  In the hospital, he remained inquisitive and witty.  

When I flew back to Iowa City to visit him in the hospital in  early summer, he sprang to life when telling the story of his lunch last  spring with Iowa Hawkeyes head football coach Kirk Ferentz, a meeting  arranged by retired track coach Ted Wheeler. My Dad never played  football, and only became a fan later in life. But, in two dozen or more  games I watched with him, the same questions about the game dogged him.  And, apparently, he was never quite satisfied with my lay interpretation  of the game. So here was his chance to get some expert information.  “Do the quarterbacks call their own plays?” he asked Ferentz.  No, he was assured, the plays come in from the sidelines.  I can imagine my Dad smiling and nodding with the coach’s answer.  I asked if he asked Coach Ferentz another question he’s put to me  a dozen times: Why do kickers use of the side of the foot? Surely the  ball would go further if they kicked straight on.  “No,” he told me, he hadn’t asked. “But why do they kick that  way?”  Better accuracy, I said.  “Of course,” he said, though he didn’t look entirely convinced.  

When he died, at age 91, obits ran in newspapers around the  world. My favorite write-up might have been from the New York Times. The  Times is famous for writing its obituaries well in advance. That way,  when someone of prominence dies, the story is ready for the next day’s  paper. With my Dad’s obit, there was a note that the obituary’s author,  a noted science writer at The Times, died in 1996.

My Dad knew and  respected the writer’s work, but would have been amused to know he  outlasted the man who wrote his obituary.  Tenacious to the end.  

Peter Van Allen is a staff writer at the Philadelphia Business  Journal and lives with his wife and two children in Bryn Mawr, Pa. This  essay was adapted from a speech given at the National Space Club in  March, accepting the Goddard Trophy on behalf of James Van Allen.    

Copyright (c) 2006, Gazette Communications, Inc.
Record  Number: 2470821


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