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Always Serendipitous, Never Accidental: David Phillips’ 35 Years at Wabash

When I came to study at Wabash in 1971, conventional wisdom held that science should be taught in a meticulous and methodical fashion. Rudimentary concepts were covered first. Then one could move on to basic ideas. These were followed by fundamental principles, and then routine problems. Only after years of practice could one consider creative work.

Given this dogma, one would have expected my freshman orientation to the chemistry department to focus solely on introductory material. Not so with Professor David Phillips’ session. We heard about advanced courses and learned about the most sophisticated equipment. We saw the excitement of the destination before we heard about the struggles ahead.

Twenty years later science educators discovered the "get them to the mountaintops as soon as possible" concept. But Professor Phillips understood and practiced it at the beginning of his teaching career. He and I have never discussed that episode, so I don’t know if the session was the result of planning or was simply instinctual. Knowing David as I do, I can say for certain it wasn’t accidental.

Before would-be chemists were allowed even to approach the "mountaintops" of chemistry in those days, we took General Physics. It is a time-honored tradition that the first science course at Wabash is a shock, and physics was certainly no exception. I recall trying to follow the advice of a high school teacher who’d said, "On your first exam look for an easy problem to build your confidence and then go back and complete the others." I clearly remember getting to the last page of the physics exam without finding that confidence builder. Assisting physics professor "Bullet Bob" Henry with the course was Professor Phillips, and his response that day was equally memorable.

"Of course it was hard," he said. "You wouldn’t expect anything else, would you?"

Hardly the off-the-cuff response it might seem at first glance, this thoughtful and wise approach put a nervous student back on track. It simultaneously said, "it is alright to have struggled" and "you will have to work even harder."

It was only a few years from that first science course at Wabash to my last, but as a student it seemed that a lifetime passed between General Physics and Inorganic Chemistry. The two courses were bookends to my science studies at Wabash. Professor Phillips taught them both. In between, we spoke often.

I remember our many hallway conversations—they had to be in the hallway, as David’s office was way up in the attic behind the water de-ionizer. No one stumbled into his domain by accident. So conversations with David were "chance meetings" in terms of location only; the content was both planned and wise. His comments kept me going when Organic Chemistry, Modern Physics, and Calculus III seemed overwhelming.

As a senior, though, I felt I had matured beyond the role I had created for Professor Phillips. I had sat through an entire year of Paul McKinney’s beautiful but remarkably complex lectures in Physical Chemistry and completed two life-defining advanced laboratory courses from the masterful teacher John Zimmerman. I’d relegated David Phillips to a support role for the high-powered professors who dominated my junior year.

What a surprise, then, when I enrolled in Phillips’ senior level Inorganic Chemistry course. It was the mountaintop of my Wabash science career. Concepts from all previous courses merged and danced in a wonderfully choreographed class. The homework problems were challenging and deep; exams were as taxing as any at the College. At the same time, it was simple and logical. I recall several of us congratulating ourselves on having finally figuring out how to conquer Wabash science courses. I wonder now just how much of our newfound ability to synthesize challenging ideas was due to our natural growth, and how much was due to the remarkable organization of Phillips’ course.

Twenty-nine years later, Professor Phillips has led his last Inorganic Chemistry class. He has taught it every year now for 36 consecutive years. His sabbaticals were scheduled around the course.

But threads of Phillips’ approach will live on in Inorganic Chemistry, and his character will be preserved more visibly in the new science building. For the past three years I’ve watched him, his hard hat donned, walk diagonally across the mall to serve as the College’s supervisor of that project.

Monitoring the work on the science building, he caught inconsistencies in brick pattern that all others missed. He noted assymetry in window alignment. He noticed lights being installed off-center. And the list goes on! As a result of his keen eye, the building is more pleasing and more functional.

But David’s work on the science building reflects his teaching in far more profound ways than simply his attention to detail. He often spoke to his students about "humane rigor," and I think that has served Wabash well for decades. It was also a helpful philosophy in shepherding a $30 million construction process. David interacted with builders in a special way. He expected perfection and demanded it where appropriate, just as he had from his students. At the same time he was reasonable, accepting the fact that humans inevitably make mistakes. His perfect balance between high standards and humane response kept builders striving for perfection rather than trying to cover up mistakes. Things that mattered were either done right or fixed; things that didn’t were discussed and, where appropriate, forgiven.

Recently, David told me that he was proud of his colleagues in science—they had designed a fine building and had stayed engaged through months of meetings. How typical of Phillips—putting in the work, taking care of details, praising colleagues and College rather than seeking the credit; a familiar role.

For decades to come, Wabash students and faculty will gather in the science building in what we call serendipitous spaces. Students and faculty bump into each other "by accident," look around, and there just happens to be a spot with chairs, a table, a blackboard, and a great view. What a fortuitous accident, they think as they engage in a bit of unscheduled learning or share an encouraging conversation. As time goes on, few students will ever know that these spaces are there because David Phillips made sure that the building fostered these "accidental" meetings. A fitting legacy for a faculty member who spent a career making sure that he had the right comment, thought, or expression when it just happened to be needed.