Phi Beta Kappa Initiation Banquet Speech 2009
by Wesley Pearson ‘54, Professor of Chemistry
Remembering Albert Finholt
I have been asked to say a few words tonight about Albert E. Finholt, who until his death about two months ago, was the last surviving member of the St. Olaf faculty and administration group that brought the Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to campus. For me, right away certain questions come to mind. Why do we commemorate the passing of the last survivor of a group; we do not necessarily note in similar fashion the passing of others in the same group? First of all, this penchant in our society for doing this reflects the thinking that the activity in which the individual was involved had a degree of importance. This is certainly true of the group that brought a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa on campus. At that point in the college’s life it was a major factor in promoting the college’s academic standing and remains so today. Secondly, when we reflect on the passing of the last member we in a sense reflect upon the contributions of all of the group that was involved. Thirdly, the passing of the last member has particular importance if that person had a special influence on the organization and its continued success. All three of these would apply to Al Finholt. The second question that arises is why I have been asked to do this. It’s true that my association with Al Finholt spanned a good many years – 58 years to be exact. But time alone should not be the defining reason and I don’t think it is. I believe it’s that during this time period I associated with Al Finholt in a great number of different capacities. He was my teacher and advisor during college, the person that literally hired me as a faculty member, my colleague and department chair when I was a young faculty member, was the Dean of the college, was once again my colleague in the department upon his return to teaching after being Dean but in a different sort of association as then I was either in the position of being department or divisional chair, and finally during his retirement the continuing a friendship built up through all of our previous associations.
This reflection should not be a eulogy although certain facts about Al’s life are certainly necessary. Neither should this reflection be an attempt at a biography and it will not be as we have neither the time nor have I done all of the necessary research for such a task but at the same time some interpretations of his work and thinking are necessary.
Al Finholt grew up in Chicago, specifically in Oak Park. He attended and graduated from Knox College and began graduate work in chemistry at Purdue University. His graduate work was cut short by his being drafted into the army but after a short time he was discharged as his father had lost his job and Al was the sole source of support for the family. After working at a printing company for a period of time, he picked up his graduate studies once again, now at the University of Chicago. Here he worked at making compounds generically referred to as hydrides which were being investigated as useful agents in the uranium enrichment process as a part of the Manhattan Project. In the course of that work he discovered two different hydrides which ended up having much greater use in chemistry than simply in helping to enrich uranium. A company, Metal Hydrides, was formed with these materials as important products and Al worked there for a couple years before he was recruited to come to St. Olaf in 1949 by then President Clemens Granskou. He taught chemistry from that time until his retirement in 1985 exclusive of his seven year term as Dean. Al always smiled benignly when two items of campus scuttlebutt were circulated: first, that due to royalties from his hydride discoveries he worked at St. Olaf for one dollar a year and secondly, that he was the inventor of Scotch tape.
With this background in mind let me take you through each of my different associations with Al. As an advisee I discovered that Al was a tenacious salesman for the chemistry major. He knew exactly what a proper chemistry major should take. I think I confounded him a bit during our first advising session when I opted to take a history course instead of the traditional mathematics course that first semester chemistry majors took. I think that this was compounded when I elected to take the regular second year German instead of scientific German as a sophomore. But he did not protest either time. I think this points up a conflict that Al had in advising – he was unfailingly devoted to science yet he was also in love with broad intellectual areas of learning, that is, he would have liked to simply advise students to become renaissance people and in a perfect world he himself would be a renaissance man. His own college education certainly affirmed this as he took far more literature courses than the required ones. He greatly admired those who wrote well and philosophy was more than just a passing interest of his; in fact, he spent one sabbatical in Norway studying the philosophy of science. Early in his career at St. Olaf he was part of a group of faculty that produced a book entitled “Integration in the Christian Liberal Arts College” exploring ways in which the various academic disciplines inform each other to create an integrated whole.
Throughout his teaching career Al primarily taught first-year chemistry. Certainly for me as a student and for a host of others he was the initial face of the chemistry department. He championed the quantitative side of chemistry and worked hard at convincing students that the application of the proper algorithms made the solution of quantitative problems logical and easy. Al loved to do demonstrations in class, the more eye-catching and mind-bending the better. For instance, he would touch a balloon filled with hydrogen with a flame resulting in an ear-splitting explosion that would awaken even the most drowsy student, or as a mimic to a grain elevator or flour mill dust explosion he would ignite a finely divided suspended powder in a can with the result that the lid would be blown skyward. Al also loved telling stories about how certain scientific discoveries came into being, stressing the human side of science and therefore affirming his belief that a study of science belonged in the realm of the liberal arts as much as any of the other well-acknowledged liberal arts areas, a viewpoint not subscribed to by certain St. Olaf faculty, some who were members of this society. He would be particularly put off by a student saying, “I’ve finished all my chemistry major courses, now I can take liberal arts courses.” His quick retort would be, “No, now you can take some other liberal arts courses.”
When Al became Dean of the college I was asked to write a piece about him for the St. Olaf magazine. My one remark that I still feel holds true today is that this was the moment that the man and the hour had met; this position was where Al could put all of his ideas to work. Al was always interested in the college’s administrative side because he knew that this provided the base from which educational ideas could be brought to fruition. I don’t remember that he outwardly campaigned to become Dean but he certainly did not discourage all the unseen ways of influencing the process of dean selection. In this position he brought the same conviction that he had as chemistry department chair – that the college should do all within its resources to become the best academic institution possible. He knew that the quality of its students, the expertise and commitment of is faculty, and the administrative allocation of resources would define how far St. Olaf could go in attaining its academic goals. As dean he put pressure on the admissions department to recruit students that would particularly thrive in the college’s challenging academic atmosphere. His tenure as Dean was associated with a growth in the number of students at St. Olaf and therefore involved hiring many new faculty, thus shaping the academic atmosphere of the college for years to come. He also provided the administrative backing necessary for the formation of the Paracollege that alternate system of education fashioned more after the Oxford style, an institution that had about a thirty years existence on campus.
When Al returned to teaching again, he engaged in conducting a number of experiments in teaching chemistry. Ones generally cited are the Personalized System of Instruction that he developed, a self-paced learning system, and his attempt at utilizing developing computer technology as a means of teaching first-year chemistry. As an inside observer I feel that his greater educational contribution during this period was the initiation of the way in which the second semester of chemistry is taught. About 30 years ago the second semester course in chemistry centered around the very classical way of teaching chemical thermodynamics which wasn’t particularly successful. We happened upon a book at this time in which the statistical approach to thermodynamics requiring a mathematical background that our students would have was outlined and I encouraged Al to possibly try teaching the subject in this manner. I knew even without my encouragement that he would do it – he loved to experiment in different ways of teaching and this one fitted in completely with his educational philosophy. In his expert hands this experiment turned out to be a roaring success and with additional input from many in the department since then has become a unique signature trademark of the chemistry curriculum. Another contribution that Al made during the latter part of his career has more import for faculty than students. As a division chair I was on the Review and Planning Committee, ending up actually as its chair. I was very disturbed at the way in which professional contributions of faculty members were assessed and went to Al feeling that in his capacity of a sort of elder statesman at that time that he might be able to offer some advice for improvement. We brainstormed and out of this came the current practice in which each department creates a statement of significant professional activity pertinent to the discipline allowing for a more meaningful and fair assessment for personnel decisions. It’s an idea that has found use in a number of institutions.
We used to sit around the coffee pot in Al’s lab (a practice that no longer would be allowed) and it was here that Al’s philosophy of education was propounded more often than not. I particularly remember one statement, “College is a time for training of the mind.” I’m sure Al meant that this should be interpreted in similar manner to the Biblical injunction in Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way in which he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Training the mind to Al meant developing one’s innate intellectual curiosity, creating a way to examine or test ideas that are spawned, instilling the aspects of critical thinking, refining the means of results dissemination, orally and in writing, and above all imprinting the aspects of an intellectual life. I am sure this is why Al chose to endow the sophomore year award given through this chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. It was his way of pointedly emphasizing his educational philosophy.
It’s therefore very fitting that a reminiscence of this kind in honor of Al Finholt be included in our proceedings tonight. We need to remember all those who fostered the ideals of Phi Beta Kappa on campus and particularly Al Finholt who held these ideals very firmly throughout his academic career and tangibly contributed to their continuance.
Thank you for providing this opportunity to reminisce about my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend, Albert Edward Finholt.