Isaac knew no boundaries

I recently received some photographs from 1997. They’d been sitting in my father’s files for 24 years. This takes me back…

Although I received my Ph.D. in particle physics in 1996, I didn’t formally graduate from Columbia University until 1997. For the occasion, my mother Beatrice and her husband Bob flew from California to attend the ceremony. My father Stephen and his wife Hannelore were there as well.

Somehow, my mother convinced the stiff-necked administrator of Nevis Labs to permit a party on the grounds. At the time, it was unheard-of for a party to be approved for a Saturday, for a mere graduation, involving non-Nevis attendees. To this day I don’t know how she did it.

What I did not know is that my mother invited every one of my friends that she could track down. A year before, I’d sent out a “Hey, I got my Ph.D.!” email announcement to all my friends (kids, this was before Facebook), and I had not “BCC’ed” their email addresses. I wouldn’t have thought her internet skills were up to the task, but my mother contacted everyone on that email header.

The graduation party took place on May 24, 1997 (which happened to be my mother’s birthday). As I was going through the pictures my father had saved, as well as the pictures of the event my mother had sent me, I came across this:

May 24, 1997
From left to right is me (with forehead hair, pony tail, and full beard, none of which I still have), my stepmother, my father, and Isaac Bonewits. I believe that this occasion was the only time that my father and Isaac met.

At the party were my physicist friends from Nevis and my Wiccan friends. (If this had happened 15 years later, my gamer friends would have been there as well.) The physicists were all intellectual evidence-based reason types; the Wiccans were personified by… well… you can see my tie-dye t-shirt in the photo.

The two groups stood across the field separate from each other, the way boys and girls used to cling to opposite sides of a hall at an elementary-school dance. My father (a physician who never understood this hippie-dippie fantasy-role-playing stuff) didn’t feel comfortable with either.

There was one person who spoke with everyone: Isaac. He didn’t care that he had no background in physics or medicine or what-have-you. He would talk with anyone, trying to find commonality between what he and they knew.

May 24, 1997
On the left, with his back to the camera, heavy-ion physicist Dr. Paul Stankus discusses aspects of nuclear collisions with Isaac. Three of my Wiccan friends listen in. The one whose face is cut off on the far right is Susan, who at the time was my ex-girlfriend (she would eventually be my ex-girlfriend again; long story).

He broke the ice. Thanks to him, the groups mingled.

Later, they all played volleyball together.

Well, not exactly volleyball. Tom (the middle of the three Wiccans in the above picture) had brought one of those big thick beachballs. We used that instead of a volleyball. It was heavy. It really hurt your forearms if you hit it with enough effort to get it over the net. It was a stupid thing to do.

However, as we played, a group of women sat nearby and watched us with amusement. It was then I learned a lesson about guys: If we’re doing something stupid, we can’t stop as long as women are watching.

For years afterward, Professor Michael Shaevitz, Director of Nevis Laboratories, would ask me, “Hey, how is that Druid doing?”

May 24, 1997
Isaac hangs out with the physicists and Wiccans. Mike Shaevitz is the one in the blue denim shirt. In the background is the Hamilton House at Nevis, built in 1835 by James Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton.

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