by John D. Hubbard|
James Clippinger '96 took his first Colgate class when he was 14 years old, matriculated at 15 and will graduate this month still shy of his 19th birthday.
Smyrna, N.Y., where Clippinger grew up surrounded by farmland and neighbors who care, is 11 miles from campus but in many ways the distance is far greater. Despite what at times can feel like different worlds, Clippinger sees a proximity between his home and his college.
"Smyrna is less distant than other towns around here," says the mayor's son. "The town has a certain community to it. You can walk by and people smile and say hello, much as they do at Colgate.
"There is also a lot of concern for one another which can be expressed at strange times -- like after the trap shooting incident," says James, referring to the shotgun that exploded, nearly in his face.
"The gun ended up in two pieces which is a good indication something is not right. It was scarier for my roommate, who was down the line," says Clippinger, who suffered only a minor hand injury in the dramatic accident at the Colgate trap range on Bonney Hill.
"I was just happy to get out of it but it has given me a lot of food for thought."
Colgate may look completely different from Smyrna but James Clippinger can attest they share a sense of community.
That sensibility made the transition from high school sophomore to college freshman easier for James at both ends of the journey. "Sherburne-Earlville prepared me well for Colgate. The fact that I could step in here after my sophomore year says a lot for the school."
It probably says more about James Clippinger.
Courses at Colgate
Already advanced in math and with a sophisticated interest in computer science, Clippinger was awakened early one morning after a late night at the State Fair by his mother, who'd had a brainstorm. Why not take courses at Colgate?
James wanted to go back to sleep but the experiment proved successful. During a follow-up meeting ("I skipped my 10th grade English final. Luckily my teacher Linda Leach is a Colgate alum and understood.") with then dean Ellen Kraly it was suggested James drop out of high school and attend Colgate full-time. After a trial semester to see if he could handle the humanities as well as the sciences, Clippinger was admitted.
"We feel so lucky that Colgate was there for James," says Judy Clippinger, the mayor of Smyrna who also works with her husband Scott in his law practice. "We knew they were watching him but he never felt it. We think Colgate does a wonderful job of letting young people grow."
"I think it took me longer than most first-year students to become socially adjusted," says Clippinger. "I was living at home and couldn't even drive so there wasn't much freedom in my schedule."
Despite those obstacles Clippinger made friends and became more and more involved in Colgate life. There was the occasional "weird" scene -- the senior who became unnerved upon learning his computer science tutor was 15, and friends who mention little sisters who are "only 18" (with a raised eyebrow, James responds with a knowing "ooohh") -- but what is most extraordinary is how ordinary the process has been.
"I met a lot of people in the computer science department and they really made an effort to get me involved, to get me in social situations and cultivate my interests."
Hockey emerged. Clippinger coached Quitter and Company, a computer science team, to a second-place finish in the intramural championships. "It was interesting to say the least, coaching when I had never skated, but I talked to some of the varsity players, came up with some strategies and ran the bench."
James "hung up his clipboard" this season to cover the Red Raiders for the Maroon-News. "I knew the team fairly well and I can sort of write," says Clippinger, who especially enjoyed his weekly conversations with coach Don Vaughan. "I got a whole new perspective on the game and learned that what happens on the ice is the fruit of a lot of planning and thought.
"Hockey is, at least to my mind, one of the more cerebral sports. Speed and size help but it is more important to be smart."
In his role as a restaurant critic, along with Brenda Killackey and Joyce Rifkin, James has learned it is important to be hungry. The team brings an offbeat sense of fun to reviews of eateries from Syracuse, Utica and Sherburne. In lieu of the traditional stars the trio saluted a Japanese restaurant with two Neil Grabois and a Mike Cappeto (unheated restrooms precluded a three Grabois experience) and awarded an Italian meal after a hockey win over Union with three Don Vaughans and an Earl Cronan.
"The reviews are about free food," says Clippinger with the bluntness that makes the weekly pieces so charming. "My biggest contribution is that I know the restaurants around here. We're looking forward to doing Hooters in Carousel Mall. I'm sure they have some fine cuisine."
An academic focus
Aside from hockey, dining out and protestations that "It's senior spring," academics is James Clippinger's major focus.
"I love to solve problems, it's great fun for me," says Clippinger. "What I study is referred to as "test-case generation algorithms for NP-hard problems.
"In computer science we define problems, with each individual set of inputs to the problem an instance. An algorithm is the set of steps needed to solve a particular problem in the general case -- what most people call a program."
Clippinger continues: "All problems can be classified by the amount of time needed to solve them in proportion to the size of the instance. The size of the input is generally referred to as `n'; a problem that, in the worst case, can be solved in time linearly proportional to n is called O(n), for `order of n.' If a problem requires exponential time, it is usually referred to as O(2n), or order 2 to the n.
"NP-hard problems are as difficult to solve as any problem in the class NP. While it is believed that some problems in NP require O(2n) time to solve (which means the NP-hard problems need exponential time) it has not been proven or disproven in the 50 or so years this area has been studied. Thus, we're fairly sure you need exponential time to solve NP-hard problems, but you never know."
About the details of his research, which focuses on generating test cases for several scheduling and graph-theoretic problems, James demurs. "I don't think you want to get into this." It is perhaps enough to say he plans to pursue a PhD during the next few years, which he considers found time. There are practical applications for his research and instances already where his computer skills have helped others -- important to someone for whom community has special meaning.
"My Colgate education has complemented what I learned growing up in Smyrna," says James. "You learn human lessons. You learn there is a lot to having a strong community." His parents agree: "One of the reasons we live in Smyrna is all the age groups, all the different economic backgrounds, all the different educational backgrounds. We didn't realize there was such diversity at Colgate and such acceptance of that diversity."
"Colgate has given me a much better perspective on the forces that shape the world," says James Clippinger, who is himself a force and a fine young man.