Read an interview with Paul McKinney by colleague and chemistry department chair
Rich Dallinger.



Paul McKinney's Summer reading recommendation














Read the faculty's tribute to Professor McKinney


Summer/Fall 2001

"May the Fire Always Be With You"
Wabash gathers to celebrate the scholarship and service of retiring professor and dean emeritus of the College Paul McKinney’52

"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 20 minutes!

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."
John Zimmerman, chemistry professor and long-time co-teacher of the department's introductory course, recalled another of McKinney's habits:
"Back when most of the faculty smoked, Paul smoked Kents; many Kents, and particularly in lecture. My office was next door. I'd hear students come out of Paul's classes and say "28 seconds." 28 seconds. I came to find out that was the time differential between Paul's inhaling, exhaling, and talking at the same time.

"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 thinking—I'm not sure this guy's really with it. He might be a little slow.
"Then I saw he had a bound notebook, and he was writing as well as reading. So I figured he was re-copying lines to learn them, and then I knew for sure he wasn't too bright.

"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 gift—a 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."

McKinney outlined his own plans for retirement at the conclusion of his chapel talk, where he quoted from a poem by Li Po:

In this little river town
the autumn rain lets up
the wine's all gone
well then, goodbye!
You stretch out in your boat
The sail fills, you skim home
Past islands burning with flowers
Banks crowded with willows
What about me? I don't know
I think I'll go sit
On that big rock
And fish.

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