Interview with Paul McKinney
are two kinds of truth: the cold truth and the hot
truth. The cold truth is very dehumanizing; what
one needs is warmth of truth in his contact with
other in the learning process.
try to use the metaphor of the fire to start my
class. I try to talk about creativity, and it doesnt
have to be in the sciences, its sort of a
human drive. I think what one tries to do is to
work with students so that youre an advocate
for the best that they can give.
You start hearing the stories
soon after you come to Wabash: the cow in the Center
Hall bell tower; the Great Monon Bell Heist of 1965,
and any number of Dean Norman Moore tales.
One of the most inspiring features
chemistry professor Paul McKinney 52 and his
friend and colleague, physics professor and 12th
president of Wabash, the late Lew is Salter H57.
When Salter was dean at Knox College in Galesburg,
Illinois, and McKinney was a professor at Wabash,
the two supposedly met for hours in a classroom
somewhere between the two schools for the sole purpose
of working on an equation.
It sounds like a scene from
the movie A Beautiful Mind, I told
McKinney when I asked him about the story.
Oh, if you want to talk
about a beautiful mind
he began, then
led me to the College archives, where Salters
journals and correspondence are preserved. Reams
of notes and equationssome on graph paper,
others written on napkins, motel receipts, and the
likechronicle an amazing and disciplined intellect.
Echoes of that intellect are still
McKinneys companions. He has worked for years
on a physics problembased on Salters
ideaswhich the two studied together. Last
fall, between chemotherapy treatments for his ongoing
battle with cancer, he received the good newsthe
Journal of Mathematical Chemistry will publish McKinneys
algebraic solution to that problem in an upcoming
I asked McKinney, now professor
and Dean of the College emeritus, about that meeting
in Illinois years ago, about former Wabash President
Lew Salter, and for his thoughts on friendship between
faculty at Wabash.
McKinney: When Lew
was dean at Knox, and I was here at Wabash, I was
working on some problems that I thought I had an
interesting solution to. It was a problem in which
you try to do quantum mechanics just adding and
subtracting operators, rather than introducing some
kind of operation to carry out that result. I continue
to work on that problem.
So Lew suggested that we meet
at Illinois Wesleyan, halfway between Knox and Wabash,
and talk about the problem. We walked into a building,
found an empty classroom, and I put the problem
on the board. We talked a little bit about it so
that Lew understood what I was trying to do. I probably
gave him a manuscript of what Id talked about.
Then I gave him a chance to go back and think about
it and get back to me. He did.
WM: Was the focus of
your friendship with President Salter this kind
of common interest?
McKinney: Lew always
wrote equations. I recall one faculty member at
Knox saying that he knew the meeting was over when
Lew started to write equations.
When I returned to the Wabash
faculty in 1956, Lew was a faculty member here.
I attended his classes in physics, because I wanted
to continue learning. He was an excellent teacher,
so I wanted to study with him. Through that we worked
on several problems, and we always talked about
quantum mechanics, because it was interesting.
One day when I wasnt feeling
too well, I asked Lew if he had a problem I could
work on. So he gave me a one, and I took it home
and went to bed and worked on it to help me feel
better. And I was able to reduce that to a much
simpler expression. And that really pleased me,
and I think it pleased him, too. Thats somewhere
in his notes. It was fun to do that together.
WM: It sounds
as though there was mutual respect between the two
Ah, I was the kid, he was the teacher. He was a
nice guy, he liked everybody.
WM: Were there other
areas of common interest?
McKinney: Lew was
interested in music, and I was taking piano lessons
at the time, so we shared an interest in music.
He played the kettle drum, but he was trained as
WM: So when you
got together, talk could swing from quantum mechanics
And Lew was very committed to religion, and I was
the young agnostic, so occasionally wed argue
about religion. We didnt do that too much,
because we didnt agree, so there wasnt
as much fun in that.
He was a very devout Baptist,
and he liked to needle me about evolutionthat
there wasnt enough time for evolution to take
place and that it was totally random. So we would
argue about that stuff. He loved to see what you
had to say: hed use that old Socratic method,
tempt you out on a limb, and try to saw it off!
He did that to me more than once!
WM: If someone were
to ask you, Who was Lew Salter, and
ask you to tell one story that you think captures
him, what would you say?
McKinney: As a teacher,
he was outstanding, and you can see that from his
classroom notes and the finals for some of the courses
he taught. One can see how he taught those courses,
and it helps one see how a teacher puts together
ways to talk to students about complex issues.
He was, I think, a distinguished
administrator. And he was an excellent fundraiser
for the College.
As president, he set for us a
high ethical standard. These are remarkable things
about him. He was close to people. People felt comfortable
with him because he was a man of goodwill. He had
a great sense of humor. He liked to tell stories
about deans, since hed been one. One of his
stories is about the president who is seen as the
good shepherd of the flock at his institution. The
president, as the good shepherd, has a dean to work
with, and the dean could be designated as the crook
on which the good shepherd leans. [laughs]. He had
WM: Was this relationship
with Lew purely a professional, working side-by-side
relationship, or would you describe it as a friendship.
friendship, for me. I was occasionally at their
house for dinner. I had great respect for Lew. He
was a gifted scientist, but I think, more importantly,
he was a man of great moral character. And I learned
about these two aspects of life from the way he
WM: Were you
close as he became more ill? [Salter died of
cancer in 1989]
McKinney: He eventually
asked me to be dean of the college. I think we worked
well together, but I dont know that we talked
with each other as much as we should have about
the nature of thingshow he saw the world,
how I saw the world.
WM: You attended Lew
Salters classes. Any others?
McKinney: I went
to [philosophy professor] Harry Cottens classes.
And I went to [English professor] Don Bakers
poetry class. I have his text book still. Don directed
Henry IV, Part II and I had a little role in that,
and so did [biology professor] Aus Brooks.
WM: Did faculty spend
more time together in your earlier days?
McKinney: I think
when I was first here, we probably partied harder.
We were a smaller group, and we depended on each
other for our social lives. It wasnt just
social and work, they overlapped.
WM: Warren Rosenbergs
essay in this issue asks, Can men really be
friends? If we apply the same question to
faculty, how would you respond?
I dont know what Warren means by friends,
but, you know, there are certain parts of my life
that I wont share with anyone. These have
to do with my inner life. But that doesnt
mean that Im not close to people. Some who
worked with me as division chairs, and others Ive
felt close to personally as well as professionally.
Theres a wide spectrum of faculty members
I feel close to. Young and old. I feel close to
them, but that doesnt mean our personal lives
I think there is a way others
at Wabash look at the world and I feel like that
overlaps with the way that I look at the world,
and theres comfort in sharing that perspective
of the world thats important. That doesnt
mean you dont argue about it. You share a
way of understanding the world that can bring you
WM: Youve been
a student, teacher, deanyouve done pretty
much everything a person can do at Wabash. When
did you feel closest to the College?
always felt close to the College. I loved being
a pledge [at Kappa Sigma]. Oh yes. These were creative
moments for my pledge class. We could take anything
that was handed down and we saw that the favor was
WM: Creative moments?
McKinney: Yes. When
I was a pledge, this was the first year in the house,
and pledgeship was a pretty rigorous thing; our
behavior was corrected thoroughly once a week. We
learned to understand what a pledge was; our responsibilities.
When we thought wed had enough instruction
in good behavior, we felt it was necessary to instruct
some of the actives on good behavior. So we often
left them symbolic little messages at their door.
Then wed anticipate more instruction in good
WM: What kind of messages
did you leave?
not going to tell you. [laughs] We did this as a
group. Our pledgeship was dedicated to training
us to work as a team; not to be so individualistic.
Being members of the fraternity, we were going to
be members of a team.
WM: You strike me as
a person who is very comfortable being by himself.
McKinney: Yes, but
I pledged as a sophomore. Chemistry I took in my
WM: Did you come here
to do that, to study chemistry?
McKinney: No. My
father wanted me to be a lawyer, and my interests
were more in science and mathematics. My great uncle
who graduated from here was a lawyer in the county
I took pre-med, and was admitted
to medical school at IU. But after studying with
Ed Haenisch and Lloyd Howelland Doc and I
didnt get along at allI decided I wanted
to go into chemistry.
WM: You and Doc Howell
didnt see eye-to-eye. When you were a student?
McKinney: Yes. I
didnt learn this until too late, but if you
did the lab well, Doc would forgive your exam grade
and you could get a pretty good grade. And I was
terrible in lab. In organic chemistry, we had to
make a salt glass condenser. This is an impossible
task. [laughs] And I worked my but off trying to
make it, and every time Id get close to the
end, the darned things would crack one me. That
happened to everyone, but they gave up on it before
Howell saw that and was ready
to flunk me. We had a personally conflict, too.
I didnt like the way Doc did things, so I
fought against him when I shouldnt have. I
should have tried to work with him.
But I dont agree with that
approach to teaching. I dont think you, well,
maybe certain kinds of people learn from it, but
I think the record shows very few did, and that
most people turned away from science when they had
abilities that could have been very useful scientifically
had they made this a career.
There are two kinds of truth:
the cold truth and the hot truth. The cold truth
is very dehumanizing, what one needs is a warmth
of truth in his contact with other in the learning
I try to use the metaphor of the
fire to start my class. I try to talk about creativity,
and it doesnt have to be in the sciences,
its sort of a human drive. I think what one
tries to do is to work with students so that youre
an advocate for the best that they can
WM: Did that fire for
teaching start for you here?
McKinney: At Northwestern,
I was a teaching assistant. But Ed Haenische and
Harry Cotton were great teachers, and I learned
from them how it should done.
I did most of my work in the sciences
and in philosophy; I could have taken philosophy
as a major if I just took my senior seminar, but
I just didnt have time to get all these things
WM: Did you enjoy being
dean of the College?
McKinney: I loved
being Dean of the college. It has its hard moments.
But it gave me a great deal of pleasure to help
young people achieve the goals they had set; and
its important to me to work with faculty development
at the college. It taught me a lot about the nature
of human beings and myself. I felt like I learned
how to argue in public, I enjoyed faculty meetings
when we had issues, and I was sort of like the prime
minister taking questions. I came to enjoy thatthat
may be masochistic, but I enjoyed it, and I tried
to conduct meetings with the kind of integrity I
felt set a good standard for the College. Thats
controversial with some faculty members, but
WM: You mentioned earlier
that you liked to work equations when youre
not feeling well. Do you take your equations to
your chemotherapy sessions?
McKinney: Of course
I do. Its the only way I keep my sanity. If
I dont keep my mind off it, Im in big