Early Years & Public Education

Post Office Augusta Kansas 1940

Although I was born in Kansas City, Mo., my “formative” years were spent in Augusta, KS (half-way through my freshman year of high school) and Osawatomie, KS (until my high school graduation). The years of my early childhood were somewhat unstable. I was born at the very beginning of the depression, and my father’s employment situation was precarious and then disastrous, as he lost his job in the course of a strike at the battery manufacturing company where he worked. Our family lived with my mother’s parents for a while, and we were “on relief” (welfare) during that time. We moved several times, and my father earned some money by painting and hanging wallpaper, skills he had somehow acquired. Those years left my parents with insecurity about the dependability of the world around them and a social and economic conservatism that I reacted against, sometimes over-reacting by a good bit. At any rate, I grew up wanting to control my own destiny.

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My parents, to whom I owe much gratitude for what I believe to have been a good assortment of genes (although for a long time in my life I would have been even more grateful if I had received the genes required for great pitching or passing), were simple people of simple tastes, interests, and ambitions. My father, a farm boy, had not finished high school; my mother had finished and also had some secretarial training. They were quite religious and I am sure did not at all know how I had happened to them and what to make of me. They did, however, consistently encourage me in school and allowed me more freedom than I deserved. They were, as I have noted, optimistic by nature, and they were also very much oriented toward other people, had close friends, and were unfailingly helpful when other people got into trouble or were in need.

I was born on New Years Day in 1929, one of my great grandmothers also having been born on New Years Day. As I grew a bit older, that always gave me a sense of being a bit special, different from others; it also deprived me of the birthday celebrations, usually with cupcakes, that most of my classmates always got at school. But that birthday was fateful in another way. At that time in Kansas City, children could start school either in September or January depending on their birthdays. My birthday meant that I could not start school until January, when I turned five. Then, just as I was finishing second grade in December, my parents moved to Augusta, KS., where my father had been hired as a painter in an oil refinery. So I arrived there having finished second grade but without a beginning third grade class to enter. Apparently teachers thought that I would do all right if I entered the third grade class that was already at mid-year. That was a difficult time, and probably had some consequences for my psyche; it did have one practical consequence.

When I entered third grade, all the other children had been taught to write in script, but as a second grader, I was still printing. I was never very dexterous anyway, and writing, which teachers insisted I do, was torture for me. I grew up with a strong antipathy toward “essay” type examinations on that account, much preferring multiple choice tests. I suffered, as I suppose my teachers did also, through my bad penmanship for five years or so when, again, my family moved and I persuaded my freshman high school teachers to let me revert to printing instead of handwriting. I have never written since save for my rather awkward signature and the writing required for checks, which I was always told never to print.

What that move also did was to instill a degree of insecurity about myself as a student—and as a person, I am sure. I went from being one of the very oldest in my second grade class to being usually the youngest among all my classmates. That move also meant that I was to some extent an outsider among my third grade classmates, most of whom had known each other since kindergarten. That experience was then repeated when half-way through my freshman year of high school, my family again moved, from Augusta to Osawatomie, KS, where my father took over the running of his uncle’s small and somewhat hardscrabble farm.

Lee  about 14 Augusta, Ks

Once again I was an outsider and uncertain of myself. I reacted by what may be called by serious psychologists “overcompensating” and became more than a little brash and perhaps have remained so. For whatever reasons, I tended to be best known among high school students who were a year or two older than I, and they gave me and called me by two nicknames that reflected my brash ways: “Muscle Juice” and “Vitamins.” The high school was a small one, and some of the older students were athletes who tended to be among the better known and more popular students in the school. One of the things that they discovered about me was that I was pretty smart, and so they sought me out to help them with their school work, up to and including actually doing work for them. In particular several of them had to do “timelines” for some class or other. How that task fell beyond their capabilities I do not know, but they persuaded me, even bribed me, to do their timelines for them. I probably manufactured three or four of them in return for some small amounts of money.

That was the first pay I received for academic work. What I did learn from that experience, I think, was to value my intelligence and intellectual activity. I do not believe I had thought much about it before, but I began to see that there was something to be gained by one’s intellect other than just reading faster and more than most other people. At the same time, I was learning a little bit about the role of luck and having my optimism reinforced. As noted earlier, I was not very good with my hands; I was downright awkward in fact. I had somehow or other gotten into a “mechanical drawing” class, a task at which I was wretched. I was regularly getting D grades on my drawings and was working on the major assignment that would determine my grade for the semester. My drawing was, as usual, a mess, and I was about to get my first D or even worse grade in school. At that point a miracle occurred. Some of my classmates were horsing around, and one of them bumped my drawing table, spilling a bottle of ink all over my nearly finished drawing. He was a nice guy and was very contrite. He even offered to do my drawing over for me. What luck! My drawing got spoiled by one of the nice guys in class and, as it happened, by the best draftsman in the class. I ended up getting a B in the class as I recall. I never forgot that I did not really deserve that grade, although I did not reject it, and I never forgot that it helps to be lucky, to be in the right—or wrong—place at the right time. My career has been marked and uplifted by good luck and any number of junctures.

I have always been curious. I always wanted to know how things worked, to know why things as they were, to know what was on the other side. I was given to taking things apart (but not always to putting them back together). I was a regular instigator of “explorer” expeditions among my friends, including into an abandoned hospital building and a tunnel that connected it to another building whose function I have now forgotten. I read omnivorously and longed to see all the strange, sometimes exotic, places I read about. I have to admit that although I read a lot, nearly all my reading was of fiction, and I do not remember reading anything that would be regarded as more edifying than Hemingway or Fitzgerald. I definitely was not reading science, history, philosophy, or anything of that sort. There was nothing precocious about me, and I finished high school in a state of generally blissful ignorance. I made reasonably good grades because I was an intellectual flim-flam kid.

Curiosity is an essential attribute for a scientist, at least if the scientist wants to be other than a plodding technician filling in the gaps. I think curiosity is inborn. Perhaps it may be crushed and perhaps it may be nurtured somewhat, but I doubt that it can be instilled from scratch. I have always been impressed by how uncurious many people are. They read headlines, perhaps, they want to know in general what is going on; but they are not much interested in the details. They have little interest in what is going on in the next town, or county, or country. They do not care much about how things got to be the way they are. Such people would make poor scientists even in the unlikely event that they would happen to become scientists in the first place. A lot of psychologists are, unfortunately, uncurious. They just want to do something; it does not much matter why. They want to learn the tricks of the trade and go out and help people. The theory underlying their tricks or the tortuous empirical paths by which we may have gotten to those tricks do not matter much to them. Too bad.

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Osawatomie High School was not a very good school, although I do not know how much that may have mattered in my life. I was not all that interested in being educated anyway. But I did not have a single teacher whom I would describe as having been inspiring and some were not, I now think, at all competent. I did not have to work very hard. I remember being assigned a monumental and turgid novel, Anthony Adverse, in an English class, and, even though I read constantly and with fair speed, reading it was not an appealing idea. I believe that I did not read at all beyond the first page, but I still managed to get a good grade in the course. It was about that time that I began to discover that I did not “appreciate” literature. I had always read fiction to be entertained, but in high school English classes, I learned that I was supposed to see hidden meanings and themes and messages behind the text. I came to hate the term allegory and still would not know one if I, god forbid, should come upon it. I enjoyed what Mark Twain and others sometimes referred to as a “rattling good tale.” High school did not, in any case, prepare me for later on in life. Well, one thing: I did, sort of, learn to type, which may have helped to preserve me from the infantry once I was in the Marines.

Like so many other characteristics, though, curiosity needs to be bridled, to be made useful in the pursuit of truth. Otherwise, curiosity may be merely the motive power for a game of life, or it may, like the cat, kill, if only figuratively, its victim. It was partly curiosity that led me to join the U.S. Marine Corps immediately upon graduation from high school. I was not yet 17.5 years, and I wanted to see what was out there, on the other side. At that time, I had, I think never been more than 150 miles from Kansas City and had set foot in only four states (Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and the latter for only one afternoon). That curiosity did not kill me, but it could have as I landed later in 1950 in North Korea. More to the point, however, is that my curiosity tended so much to be personal so that as soon as my own curiosity was sated, I tended to lose interest in the question and would move to some new question. Regrettably (maybe), I did not always want to stop and do the follow up work to arouse and then satisfy the curiosity of others, e.g., other researchers, other psychologists. Unbridled curiosity can dither out into dilettantism, of which I have long and egregiously been guilty.

As I noted earlier, I came from a family of very ordinary persons, mostly blue collar workers and farmers. I was the first member of my family to go to any college. My parents always seemed to assume that I would eventually go to college, and I sort of did, too. Osawatome was not a town (population about 5000) that nurtured intellect, and at that time, up to and including World War 11, not many high school graduates did go to college, and the junior/community college system had not developed. For quite a while I had supposed that I was the first person from Osawatomie to get a Ph.D., but I later found out that Robert Eichorn (that name was one of the old ones in town) had gotten a Ph.D. in sociology after WW II, but he finished high school some years before me. I met him when I was asked to serve on a study section that he chaired for what was then the National Center for Health Services Research. We had ended up sharing an interest in health services research.

One additional digression on a matter that has always seemed remarkable to me is that I entered the Marine Corps on May 28, 1946 (some dates one never forgets), in the company of four of my classmates who I had persuaded to enlist along with me. I cannot reconstruct the process and interactions that led to that occurrence, but I do know that I was the instigator and organizer of that enterprise. As it happened, I was the only one of the five of us who liked the Marine Corps and stayed in for more than the minimum time. Two of the five were discharged early for medical reasons of one sort or another, and two others went into the air wing (not the real Corps) and extricated themselves from the USMC and the earliest opportunity. In my later work, I learned the distinction between “successful” (getting people to follow) and “effective” (accomplishing the goal) leadership.

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