In this installment of Jerry’s Story, we’ll cover his experience as an undergraduate student. Refer to the home page for Jerry’s Story to navigate to other installments.
Earlier, we learned how Jerry ended up starting college at the University of Nebraska (in “An aspiring auto mechanic changes course“). This was in the Fall of 1950. Because he had skipped two grades in elementary school, Jerry was only 16 years old; it was still a few months before his 17th birthday. Despite the age difference with the vast majority of his peers, he seemed to fit in better in college than he had in high school. He no longer felt the need to hide his intelligence to avoid bullying, and he made friends with other smart people. He didn’t have any financial help from his parents, so he didn’t consider any other schools that were more expensive.
Jerry told his counselors that he wanted to work with computers. There were no classes in computing and there were no computers on the campus at all. The only thing the counselors knew about computers was that they had something to do with electrical engineering and physics. Because he was good in mathematics, they recommended that he major in physics, thinking that his math talents wouldn’t be put to good use as an electrical engineer.
He took an exam that allowed him to skip the freshman English composition class and go straight to advanced English composition. He found out that the advanced class covered everything from the regular English composition class in just six weeks and then continued on to more advanced topics for the rest of the semester. He wasn’t excited enough about studying English to be interested in an intense class like that, so he signed up for the basic English composition class. At the beginning of his book Weinberg on Writing, Jerry told the story of how he met the professor, Wilbur G. Gaffney–generally known to his students as Bill–
On the first day, we assembled on the second floor of Andrews Hall, only to discover that our section was actually two sections, with two different instructors. We stood in the hall while the instructors counted us off, one-two, one-two, to divide the class. I was a one.
The instructors were both men, but there the resemblance ended. One was skinny, immaculate, clean-shaven with hard eyes and bony cheeks. And no smile. The other was rotund, clothed in wrinkles, with a white walrus mustache covering plump, rosy cheeks. He smiled as if he’d just taken a nip before class. I had no doubt as to which one was for me, but unfortunately, Bill Gaffney, the Walrus, was taking the twos. So, of course, I had to cheat.
I just moved with the twos. It was one of that handful of truly life-changing moments.
Jerry dutifully completed his first writing assignment for the class, which earned a C-plus and a lot of red marks on his paper. For his second assignment, he couldn’t stand writing about a topic he wasn’t interested in. So instead, he wrote a paper explaining why he wasn’t going to do the assignment or any other assignment like it. He wasn’t surprised at the professor’s response, at least at first–
On Wednesday, the graded papers were handed back, but I didn’t get one. Instead, Gaffney handed me a note in red ink saying to come to his office after class. I was right. My brief college career was over.
His corner office was a mess, more rumpled than his tweed jacket, more tangled than his walrus mustache. Books piled everywhere. Reprints on every horizontal surface except the ceiling. Pipe smoke odor permeating everything. He motioned me to clear a space on one of the two wooden chairs, then shut the door on the passing student throng. He returned to his desk and picked up what I recognized as my message. It had red marks all over.
I took a deep breath, probably my last as a matriculated student. Before handing me the paper, Bill Gaffney packed his pipe, lit it with a Zippo, and blew out a huge cloud of pungent smoke. I didn’t want to say this in front of the class … He puffed out another Vesuvian billow. … but in all the years I’ve been teaching freshman English composition … Another gargantuan puff. … this is the best paper I’ve ever received.
He handed me the paper. I forgot to close my hand, and the pages fluttered to the floor. He continued speaking to my bent back. Your argument has totally convinced me, so from now on, you’ll just ignore the assignments I give to the rest of the class. You’ll still have to turn in a paper every week, but you’ll choose whatever topic, whatever style, and whatever length you wish.
Bill Gaffney had years of experience as a professional editor in New York, which made him a more effective writing teacher. Jerry took several classes from Gaffney, learning a lot about the mechanics of English and how to revise his writing so it “sang on the page.” Jerry even worked for Gaffney, helping to grade essays. Jerry read hundreds of essays from freshman composition classes, never receiving any coaching from the professor on how to grade them. Jerry actually had worked for a different professor before then, but he quit when he saw that professor adjusting grades upward for his favorite students and downward for the rest.
When reading all those essays, Jerry observed rudimentary spelling and grammar mistakes, and also mistakes of thinking and reasoning. This went a long way toward shaping his writing skills, and he was happy to get paid to do it. Gaffney became of one of Jerry’s lifelong friends.
When he started at the university, Jerry joined a social fraternity and moved into the fraternity house. He thought that’s what everyone did. The fraternity had a contest where the members bet on what the freshmen’s grade point average would be at the end of the first semester. Jerry was still good at concealing his intelligence, so much so that he was given the longest odds of having the best grades. One fraternity brother bet on Jerry and later won a lot of money when Jerry came out on top of the grades list. The two became friends and bridge partners.
Jerry and his partner won the school’s bridge tournament two years in a row, and also went on to be NCAA regional champions one year. Jerry got a productive friendship from his experience at the fraternity, but once he learned more about how the fraternity conducted itself, he realized that it wasn’t a fit for him, so he left the fraternity.
The University of Nebraska was a land-grant college, which at the time, meant that students were required to join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Jerry joined the Army ROTC program. His habit of skipping class and not bothering to wear the required uniform earned him demerits at a rapid rate. When he reached 300 demerits, he was required to report to the commander, a Colonel, which could have resulted in him failing the program. Jerry described what happened:
When I went in to his office, he was playing bridge with three of his underlings. I watched until the commander’s partner, a captain, played a hand but did not make the contract. Captain said Colonel had overbid. I said, no, the contract should have been made if played properly. After a few more hands, Captain had to leave and Colonel invited me to be his partner. We beat the pants off the two majors, and it turned out they were playing for money. Colonel asked why I had come to see him. I told him about the demerits and he waved them away, on condition that I come twice a week to be his bridge partner.
Jerry didn’t just get his demerits erased. He no longer had to march in parades; he checked out the rifles for the parades instead. The commander even bought him socks to match his uniform.
Jerry quickly became a good marksman. He could take the rifles apart and reassemble them blindfolded. He became a rifle instructor while he was still a freshman. Years later, his shooting skills helped out when we was living in Switzerland. He visited a few local fairs and showed his skills at target shooting. He thinks the locals really valued marksmanship, and this helped his family fit in to their new community.
The only thing Jerry ever killed with a gun was a rabbit he once spotted in his garden. It’s wasn’t a pleasant memory–
I saw it die, and I felt terrible. I did give the corpse to a friend who made a rabbit stew, which made me feel temporarily better about the shooting, but it was really unnecessary. I guess I thought I could make a near miss and scare the poor thing away, but I was too good a shot.
Early in his second year at the University of Nebraska, Jerry started having health problems that were so severe that he moved back home to Omaha. After three major surgeries, he was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. His weight had dropped to 110 pounds. He become addicted to morphine during this ordeal, but was forced to quit during one of his hospital stays.
He must have had some good days while back in Omaha. There was an event Jerry wanted to attend, perhaps a dance at the University of Omaha. For his date, he had his eye on a girl named Joan. But Joan was hard to reach on the phone. Unable to talk to Joan, he thought of her close friend Pattie. He knew Pattie because she sometimes helped at her father’s paint store. When Jerry had helped at his father’s auto body shop back in high school, he would occasionally see Pattie when he picked up paint supplies. She was a high school senior at this point and still living in Omaha. She accepted the invitation, and they had their first date.
After spending almost a year in Omaha, Jerry had recovered from the worst of his symptoms, though he would suffer from the effects of Crohn’s disease for the rest of his life. He returned to Lincoln to continue his studies at the University of Nebraska. Pattie also enrolled there, where she moved in to a sorority house. As a result of his ongoing health problems, Jerry was given a 4F classification by the Army, which meant he was released from his obligation to participate in ROTC.
What started as a date of convenience in Omaha turned into something more over the next year. By the time Jerry went to work a summer job at 3M in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he couldn’t stand to be away from Pattie. He said, “I don’t recall that there was a proposal. We both knew we were going to marry. It certainly was planned, with all the ridiculous fuss that implies.” In August 1953, when Jerry was 19 years old and she was 18, Jerry married Patricia Anne Korney in Omaha.
Jerry felt strongly that the doctors in Omaha had saved his life. He wanted to be a “heroic doctor” to give back to society, so he decided to become a pre-med student. He was already planning to take all of the science courses required by the pre-med program, so it didn’t actually require any change of coursework. But he was willing to give up on a chance to work with computers to take this path.
Then, on a lovely Spring day, another student stopped me outside between classes and asked if I was going to the initiation ‘tonight.’
‘What initiation?’ I asked.
‘The pre-med honorary society.’
‘Why would I go there?’
‘Your name was on the list.’
‘I didn’t see any list.’ It had been posted, but I hadn’t seen it or thought it had anything to do with me.
He explained how being in this society (I forget the name) increased your chances of being admitted to a good medical school, so I asked for details. He gave me time and place, then said all it cost was a 50 cent initiation fee.
‘Oh,’ I said, my mind clearing. Suddenly I knew that my desire to become a doctor wasn’t worth fifty cents. That was the end of my medical career.
Thinking that he couldn’t get into medical school without joining this society, and thinking that he’d rather being able to afford an order of French fries than pay to go to the meeting, Jerry abruptly dropped his plans to go to medical school. Later, after several more experiences with doctors and also comparing notes with others, he concluded that in fact the doctors had almost killed him with their treatment.
One of the many subjects Jerry explored at the University of Nebraska was psychology. But he dropped his psychology class after only going to a few lectures. Why? “A really stupid lecture in a huge classroom. The lecture seemed full of obvious or ridiculous stuff. I think I’d hoped it would teach something about intelligence, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen.” He would come back to psychology many times later in his life, however, referencing it in his writing and even learning how to be a therapist.
He appreciated being introduced to anthropology and was disappointed that the university didn’t offer an undergraduate major in the subject. This is another subject he would stay close to throughout his life.
Jerry enjoyed his physics classes, especially when he got to work in a lab. He worked as a teaching assistant for a freshman physics lab at age 17, and was told he was the first undergraduate ever to get a TA job in that department. He remembered a physics project that involved building a crude copy machine. It consisted of an inflated plastic hood and a camera, and you’d develop and print the picture to get the copy.
For many of his classes, if there was a textbook, he would read it in a day or two, and then he had learned all he would learn from that class. This didn’t always lead to good grades, though. In his differential equations class, the students would learn a progressively more sophisticated method of solving the equations each week. Jerry read ahead and learned better ways to solve the problems the class was currently working on. But his work was counted wrong if he didn’t use the technique he was supposed to be using that week. He didn’t understand the need to use inferior techniques if he could skip ahead and use better methods.
A letter to the editor of the university’s student newspaper at tells us how Pattie and Jerry felt about the quality of the journalism the newspaper was producing. This is possibly the first example of Jerry’s writing that was ever published:
The Daily Nebraskan, March 2, 1954, page 2
We are of the rapidly growing group of students who believe that the function of The Nebraskan is to protect the hair of coeds on rainy days. Since most coeds own scarves which do almost as good a job, we question the advisability of continuing to dissapate (sic) University funds on paper hats.
If, however, the function of the paper is to busy the idle hands of journalism students, those students alone should pay the expense or see that the paper pays for itself. As for the argument that The Nebraskan serves as a carrier of the torch of truth to the student body, we question whether a candle wouldn’t shed more light with less smoke. Furthermore, we question whether the students are really in the dark; whether they really want the Rag at all.
We challenge the editors of this paper to publish this letter (without editing); and with it, a request for letters of confidence from members of the student body (other than staff members and workers) which would have to be signed and delivered in person to the Rag office. In this way, we would test how many students really want The Nebraskan badly enough to make this slight effort to back up the staff and its policies. No petitions, please; and no surveys—just personal letters delivered in person.
Even twisted journalism can be interesting and well written; but how about you? Or is bad journalism better than no journalism?
Pat and Jerry Weinberg
The editors probably delighted in meeting the challenge of not editing the letter except for adding “(sic)” after the misspelling. In fact the letter did motivate another reader to send a vote of confidence that was published three days later. And a month later, another reader wrote in expressing confusion over the meaning of the “(sic)” annotation, and adding a nonsensical request that seemed to parrot Pattie and Jerry’s letter: “Do not edit this letter. If you can’t print all of it, don’t print any of it, or you’ll ruin the whole train of thought and the reasoning behind it.”
I asked Jerry about his letter 64 years after it was published, and he couldn’t recall what journalistic offense had prompted it or whether it was he or Pattie who wrote it. There is another letter that Jerry alone wrote that was published about a year later. In this one, he expressed his disappointment at a few misrepresentations of Alice in Wonderland he had noticed in an editorial.
Jerry was a long-time fan of Alice. Using his IBM Selectric typewriter, he corresponded several times with Martin Gardner regarding Gardner’s book The Annotated Alice some time after it was published in 1960. In The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Gardner mentioned him in two places and included some of Jerry’s insights about the text. The book also cites an article written by Bill Gaffney.
In 1955, Jerry graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nebraska with a Bachelor of Science degree. He was nominated for the Phi Beta Kappa (humanities) and Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics) honor societies. His curriculum vitae also lists the Sigma Xi science honor society, though it doesn’t say when that happened. He was ranked third in a class of about 5000, but he remembers marching in to the graduation ceremony at the front of the line, next to the man who was first. Second place was a woman, and she was required to march behind them. It’s not clear why the school did this to her. Jerry felt bad because she was treated unfairly.
The record isn’t quite clear on what subjects he majored in. Jerry consistently claimed to have majored in both physics and mathematics. But he told me and others that he also majored in English and philosophy, for a total of four majors. He has also said that the university only allowed two majors, so it seems plausible that he may have met the requirements for all four, but was only officially recognized for two of them.
In addition, Jerry earned honors in all four subjects by completing these special projects:
- Physics–reproduced the Michelson-Morley experiment (in 1887, it helped to disprove aether theory and eventually led to special relativity).
- Math–competed in an annual math competition and took second place (the son of the head of the math department took first place).
- English–wrote an essay, the subject of which is long forgotten.
- Philosophy–studied and wrote about some of Isaac Newton’s philosophical work.
Much later, in 2008, Jerry was among the first people inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Computing that’s sponsored by the University of Nebraska. He thought this was funny, given that he had asked to study computers when he was a student there, but there was none to be found anywhere on the campus. The other five honorees for that year are pictured wearing suits in formal portraits. Jerry’s picture shows him in an action shot wearing casual clothes and a lanyard. Formalities never seemed necessary to him.
In the next installment, we’ll wrap up our tour of Jerry’s experiences as a student, including graduate school and beyond.