Richard Stephens

Meet Richard Stephens, BFS (GH) Class of '68!

The program in those days required us to take almost all of our courses together for the first two years. ‘Us’ was a mixed bag of a few dozen would-be overachievers with various backgrounds: from a small town high-school in upstate New York, to high-ranked suburban schools, to private academies, and with future aims ranging: from engineering to art, with a healthy dose of premeds.

Our general honors course professors were told that these kids won’t quit - treat them like grad students (from an outburst from Prof. Phyllis Rackin on one sleepily warm Spring day in her course on Comedy). And so they did. Science was redesigned (Nat. Sci 10 and 20) to proceed from Atomic Physics through to Psychology in orderly steps, with a professor for each section teaching first the material and his (I don’t remember any women in that group) enthusiasm. So, the organic chemistry I remember - the limits on reaction rates, competition between energy and entropy, different bondings, etc.- all involve the making of porphyrins: the basic component of haemoglobin and chlorophyll for a Prof. Fritz Adler.

Now the current crop of Benjamin Franklin Scholars might pride themselves on taking similarly tough courses, but the critical difference was that we were all in it together - humanists and techies alike. We had a lounge (left end, first floor of College Hall) where we routinely got together to bewail the uselessness of the humanities courses (the techies) or the soullessness of the STEM courses (the humanists). These arguments went on forever, were never (in my memory) resolved, but broadened our horizons (speaking for myself) in ways that is lost when one selects Honors Courses from the Core Curriculum that most engage one’s interest. The combination of the rigor of these courses that were far from our interests, and then having to engage with articulate apologists for those courses that made a difference.

The organizers of the program (Prof. Walmsley was head one of the years) were curious about our reactions to the program they had set up. I remember someone coming by and asking questions, like did we worry about grades (aside- we had a separate grading system H, HH, HHH with the top grade equivalent to 4.3 - friends not in the program weren’t jealous when they saw the work needed). The answer was mostly no; we all worked hard enough to have very satisfactory grades. What was more important was the test rankings in any given class. In my case, my physics course test score was mostly going to be about 4th, with Rich Robertson (who never studies) mostly first, Frank Kampas 2nd or 3rd. So grades were interesting but not compelling (There were some exceptions - I think David Tong, who ended as an electrical engineer, managed to keep a 4.0 average - perhaps all the way to graduation.)

Of course relative scores was not so clear in Economics or Literature (neither was I near the head of the pack in those), but back in the lounge, arguments on term papers, etc. were hashed out from all sorts of directions. One of my papers, arguing that governments are best served by developing pilot programs and encouraging private companies to take them national, was well (maybe even fiercely) honed in that manner.

So what difference did it all make? The members of our class are, 55 years later, getting on and perhaps it’s time to give an accounting. I went into industrial research in condensed matter physics (first Exxon Research & Eng. Laboratory then General Atomics) recently retiring back in Philadelphia and attaching myself to a U. Penn research group. As for what I learned in General Honors, that section focusing on porphyrins resulted in a research paper suggesting it was an important surfactant for the conditions prevalent in oil reservoirs, with implications for oil-recovery methods. And I did have a reputation for poking my nose into other people’s projects (I was told that a response after my ER&E interview was that ‘we’ve got to hire this guy - he’ll measure anything!) and for clearly explaining my work. I’d like to attribute both those characteristics to General Honors experience.

Or maybe it is that the GH experience allowed those latent characteristics to bloom. That is most evident in a classmate we recently lost: Dr. Andrew Drexler. He had my curiosity and breadth ten times over. Was forever arguing various issues (neglecting, however, to write the necessary paper until the night before, or more typically the night after, it was due). Tried on five majors before he graduated. Then went on to be a Diabetes specialist who led a revolution in diabetes care. He did it by the same kind of wide-ranging curiosity and all-in arguing that we specialized in in the GH Lounge. From talks at his memorial service I realized that his curiosity and fierce advocacy existed as a youngster; still his practice of those skills stood him in good stead. He was directly responsible for the birth of over 200 babies of diabetic mothers, with none of the developmental problems typical of the disease and through his world-wide lectures, indirectly responsible for changing the state-of-the-art in diabetes care world-wide.