First Person

Lessons for a Lifetime

When my grandfather, William Henry Emerson, joined the five-member founding faculty of Georgia Tech in 1888 after receiving his PhD in chemistry from Johns Hopkins University in 1886, his was the first American-earned scientific doctorate in Georgia.

He was the founder of the Department of Engineering Chemistry and, in 1906, the Department of Chemistry, and he left his imprint on the students he taught, the institution he served and the scientific discipline he practiced. He was so respected and beloved by the chemistry students of Georgia Tech that, when they formed a departmental club for students of chemistry, they named it the Emerson Chemical Society in his honor.

In 1909 he was named the first dean of Georgia Tech, and his became a guiding hand in forming the Georgia Tech character. He believed in the importance of applications of science and in the destiny of science and technology to drive Georgia into his new century as it now leads us into ours.

He was born in Tunnel Hill, Ga., on June 17, 1860. At the age of 16, he secured an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1880. After almost three years of traversing the globe as an officer in the Navy, he was admitted in October 1883 to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where he began work in chemistry, studying primarily under the American giant of scientific education, Professor Ira Remsen.

By 1888, when he took the post at Georgia Tech, William Henry Emerson’s devotion to the painstaking discipline of science had fostered a larger educational objective: a careful, thoughtful, analytical approach to problem solving in all realms. This diamond-hard, surgically precise paradigm prepared the students of Georgia Tech with both the means and the willingness to undertake and overcome the hardships of inventing the technologies that would define the 20th century.

Emerson’s educational enterprise extended out of the lecture hall and into his home, where he took an active role in the education of his children and his children’s children.

I was born in 1916, when he was 56. He died in 1924 at the age of 64. I am now 85. I had but three years, at best, after we became fully acquainted to absorb, to the limits of my capacity, his knowledge and wisdom.

He decided that I was ready at age 6 to learn the multiplication tables, so we began. In a romantically short period of time, we accomplished what he wanted to do, so we moved on to literature. Very shortly thereafter, a remarkable event occurred. On a Saturday morning, I was visiting his home, and we were the only two people there. My grandmother maintained a neat kitchen that had a flat-top iron stove, which she covered with newspapers. Why, I don’t know. I had recently learned to strike matches, so I found a box, struck one, and held it up under the edge of the paper. Perversely, the paper flared up, and in seconds a blaze was filling the kitchen. I yelled for help, and in a short time my grandfather was on hand to look things over. Without a word, he stepped to the towel rack and selected the largest towel. He simply placed it at one end of the fire then lowered it flat over the flames. To my amazement (and relief) the fire suddenly was out. This was magic!

I expected recriminations, but none were forthcoming. Immediately my grandfather began the story of what had happened: the striking of the match, the temperature of combustion for paper, the oxygen in the air to continue the fire, the exclusion of that oxygen forcing the paper to stop burning. Reliving the fire at dreamtime, I promised myself to learn more about chemistry — and I did, but much later.

My grandparents’ house sat on the west corner of MacAfee Street and North Avenue, across the street from the Georgia Tech president’s house (through the tenure of Marion Luther Brittain in 1945) on the east corner. His home was known as the Dean’s House at that time, but let me tell you, that was a misnomer: I knew it as the Admiral Benbow Inn.

My grandfather chose "Treasure Island" as my introduction to literature and began to read it to me as I rolled on the carpet in his living room. I came back day after day and begged him to continue that wonderful story. As he read, that living room became the Admiral Benbow Inn, where Captain Billy Bones lived upstairs with his sea trunk containing the map; Jim Hawkins lived downstairs with his mother; and, when it was time, Blind Man Pew tapped his way up the hill on Fowler Street, turned right onto North Avenue and came unfailingly up the steps to the top floor and put the black spot into the right hand of Billy Bones.

How could this place ever again be the Dean’s House? Of course, it can’t. It is gone forever.

My grandfather taught me arts and skills that made my childhood an adventure and my adult life a comfort. Have you ever made a whistle? I mean by going out of doors and using only what nature provides? I can do it. I made my first at the age of 7, and you can guess who taught me how.

My grandfather taught me how to plant and care for fruit trees. In the early 1900s vitamins were not available in bottles. Fruit was the best source of vitamins. He knew that fruit from your own tree is sweeter, tarter, more tangy than any other form vitamins can take. In this way, by making the learning immediate and rewarding, almost gratuitous, he enticed me to excel.

William Henry Emerson devoted his professional life to the task of providing intellectual stimulation and the certainty of distinction between right and wrong to his many hundreds of youthful students. But, as with all who have truly mastered their calling, he found that his professional loves and talents permeated his entire life, and so I too was one of the fortunate ones who chanced to study under him.

©2001 Georgia Tech Alumni Association

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