"We Share a Way of Understanding the World"

An Interview with Paul McKinney

“There 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.

“I try to use the metaphor of the fire to start my class. I try to talk about creativity, and it doesn’t have to be in the sciences, it’s sort of a human drive. I think what one tries to do is to work with students so that you’re an advocate for the best that they can give.”

— Paul McKinney

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 H’57. 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 Salter’s journals and correspondence are preserved. Reams of notes and equations—some on graph paper, others written on napkins, motel receipts, and the like—chronicle an amazing and disciplined intellect.

Echoes of that intellect are still McKinney’s companions. He has worked for years on a physics problem—based on Salter’s ideas—which the two studied together. Last fall, between chemotherapy treatments for his ongoing battle with cancer, he received the good news—the Journal of Mathematical Chemistry will publish McKinney’s algebraic solution to that problem in an upcoming edition.

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 I’d 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 wasn’t 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. That’s somewhere in his notes. It was fun to do that together.

WM: It sounds as though there was mutual respect between the two of you.

McKinney: [smiles] 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 a pianist.

WM: So when you got together, talk could swing from quantum mechanics to music.

McKinney: Sure. And Lew was very committed to religion, and I was the young agnostic, so occasionally we’d argue about religion. We didn’t do that too much, because we didn’t agree, so there wasn’t as much fun in that.

He was a very devout Baptist, and he liked to needle me about evolution—that there wasn’t 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: he’d 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 he’d 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 wonderful stories.

WM: Was this relationship with Lew purely a professional, working side-by-side relationship, or would you describe it as a friendship.

McKinney: Well, 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 conducted his.

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 don’t know that we talked with each other as much as we should have about the nature of things—how he saw the world, how I saw the world.

WM: You attended Lew Salter’s classes. Any others?

McKinney: I went to [philosophy professor] Harry Cotten’s classes. And I went to [English professor] Don Baker’s 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 wasn’t just social and work, they overlapped.

WM: Warren Rosenberg’s essay in this issue asks, “Can men really be friends?” If we apply the same question to faculty, how would you respond?

McKinney: Well, I don’t know what Warren means by friends, but, you know, there are certain parts of my life that I won’t share with anyone. These have to do with my inner life. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not close to people. Some who worked with me as division chairs, and others I’ve felt close to personally as well as professionally. There’s a wide spectrum of faculty members I feel close to. Young and old. I feel close to them, but that doesn’t mean our personal lives cross frequently.

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 there’s comfort in sharing that perspective of the world that’s important. That doesn’t mean you don’t argue about it. You share a way of understanding the world that can bring you closer together.

WM: You’ve been a student, teacher, dean—you’ve done pretty much everything a person can do at Wabash. When did you feel closest to the College?

McKinney: I’ve 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 returned.

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 we’d 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 we’d anticipate more instruction in good behavior coming.

WM: What kind of messages did you leave?

McKinney: I’m 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 sophomore year.

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 seat.

I took pre-med, and was admitted to medical school at IU. But after studying with Ed Haenisch and Lloyd Howell—and Doc and I didn’t get along at all—I decided I wanted to go into chemistry.

WM: You and Doc Howell didn’t see eye-to-eye. When you were a student?

McKinney: Yes. I didn’t 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 I’d get close to the end, the darned things would crack one me. That happened to everyone, but they gave up on it before I did.

Howell saw that and was ready to flunk me. We had a personally conflict, too. I didn’t like the way Doc did things, so I fought against him when I shouldn’t have. I should have tried to work with him.

But I don’t agree with that approach to teaching. I don’t 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 process.

I try to use the metaphor of the fire to start my class. I try to talk about creativity, and it doesn’t have to be in the sciences, it’s sort of a human drive. I think what one tries to do is to work with students so that you’re 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 didn’t have time to get all these things accomplished.

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 it’s 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 that—that 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. That’s controversial with some faculty members, but…

WM: You mentioned earlier that you liked to work equations when you’re not feeling well. Do you take your equations to your chemotherapy sessions?

McKinney: Of course I do. It’s the only way I keep my sanity. If I don’t keep my mind off it, I’m in big trouble.