Read an interview with Paul McKinney by
colleague and chemistry department chair
Read the faculty's tribute to Professor McKinney
"May the Fire Always Be With You"
"Reason and passion, knowing and ignorance, good and bad, and pleasure and displeasure are a few of the polarities we live with. How shall we deal with them? How did Plato and Nietzche reach beyond these polar possibilities? Can we resolve the conflict of the author of Job and the teacher of Proverbs?"
In this era of academic hyper-specialization, what other theoretical
chemist would pose those questions to 200 students and faculty colleagues?
Who besides Paul McKinney '52 could speak so passionately on "Love
and Language," drawing equally from the Bible, Plato, Galileo, Li
Po, Nietzche, Heisenberg, and Max Planck, and wrap it all up in the allotted
McKinney, still recovering from the effects of successful cancer treatment
months earlier, earned a heartfelt standing ovation at this, his final
Chapel speech before retiring from full-time teaching after half a century
as a student and professor at Wabash. Describing the speaker, even the
freshman writer for The Bachelor had heard enough about "the Alchemist"
to refer to the College's resident Renaissance man as "a Wabash legend."
His colleagues lauded him as "a personification of the liberal arts:"
a scientist, a gifted pianist, a former candidate for the state legislature,
an actor, and, most powerfully, a teacher and mentor.
"In a class I used to teach with Paul, we used a book by C.P. Snow,
who spent a good deal of time talking about two distinct cultures in the
world-the humanist and the scientist," former biology professor Bill
Doemel said. "For Paul, there have never been two cultures; there
is only one culture. Paul taught all of us in the sciences to recognize
the importance of the humanities." Not to mention providing for those
in the humanities a much-admired model of the passionate, aesthetically
driven scientist, who studies other languages and cultures with the same
intensity he focuses on his beloved equations.
Two months after his Chapel talk, the "Oracle of Otterbein"
found himself in Detchon Center, encircled by his colleagues, young and
old, trustees, and those graduating seniors lucky enough to have stayed
on campus for the event. For an hour after the reading of a formal tribute
(see WM Online for full text), the afternoon became a Wabash family gathering,
where homage was offered alongside playful jabs and favorite stories.
Current Dean of the College Mauri Ditzler '75 recalled his mentor and
predecessor's liberal dispensing of homework.
"Paul was notorious for the amount of homework he gave," Ditzler
said. "There was a group of us that would gather in Morris Hall and
work on those problems, usually till two, three, or four in the morning.
We often considered calling Paul, figuring that if we were up, he ought
to be up as well.
"I know that no one other than Dean Kendall ever called him Mac,
but we did call him a lot of other things."
"Sometimes Paul would get so intense that he would have two cigarettes
lit at the same time. And rumor has it that he once nearly succeeded in
lighting a piece of chalk.
"I've worked the last 15 years in Chemistry One, perhaps our greatest
challenge as a department, where Paul's enthusiasm comes through in ways
that are hard to describe. One thing students always seem to remember
is an admonition of Paul's: "May the fire be with you."
Aus Brooks, professor of biology, recalled his mistaken first impression
of the young oracle when Brooks was a freshman and acting with McKinney
in Shakespeare's Henry IV.
"I didn't know Paul very well then, but I'd heard he was a pretty
bright guy. Every night I would see him sitting in a corner, working on
lines, even after the rest of us were finished.
"Now Shakespeare can be tough, but not that tough. And I got to
thinkingI'm not sure this guy's really with it. He might be a little
"30 years later, we were together on a retreat to New Harmony and
I saw Paul on a trail where he had been out jogging. There was Paul, once
again with a bound notebook, and he was reading and writing very intently.
I was at his side before he even knew I was there. I asked him what he
was doing, and he said, 'I'm doing my research. I'm working on my equations.'
"And I finally realized that Paul wasn't the slow one. I realized
that's what he'd been doing during our rehearsals, and many students and
colleagues have seen him at this same task during his years here."
"Paul is the epitome of a colleague," Brooks added. "After
President Salter died, Paul vowed to finish the ongoing scholarly work
that Lew left behind. Paul did, indeed, finish that work."
Roasts and reminiscences completed, McKinney opened his retirement gifta
clock-launched into an oration on the essence of time, a self-parody that
roused the heartiest laughter of the afternoon.
Though he retires from full-time teaching, McKinney has agreed to return
next year to chair the College's Cultures and Traditions course.
"Saying goodbye to Paul McKinney will be difficult, so we'll put
it off as long as we can," Dean Ditzler said. "We're delighted
and grateful that Paul will return to lead this most important aspect
of a Wabash education."