The Colgate Scene
May 1999
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Dietz Kessler
Local boy in biology

by Dietz Kessler

I was born in Hamilton in 1936 at 24 West Kendrick Ave., not far from the campus. A year earlier, my dad, Bill Kessler, was finishing up his doctoral degree at Harvard when he was suddenly called in mid-year by Colgate to fill a vacancy in the economics department.

     The difficult depression years, still being felt by the university, were followed by the upheaval of World War II. With little gas for automobiles and no TV to distract us then, my school buddies and I hiked in the woods and fields around the village; hearing the sounds of the spring birds, dissecting fish and squirrels and rabbits, learning the names of the wild flowers and the trees growing around us. My parents were not really nature lovers, but several other members of the faculty at Colgate were willing to share with us their fascination with science. John Fitchen in the art and art history department at Colgate, the father of one of my best childhood friends, took us on nature expeditions, and Alfred Seely Brown, the head of the chemistry department, tolerated my requests for chipped beakers and test tubes for my chemistry set. Ray Myers in biology let me use a microscope for a summer, starting my lifelong interest in the world of microscopic life. The botanist Oran Stanley kindly lent me his personal copies of The American Journal of Botany to read original articles about slime molds, an obscure group of single-celled organisms with very rapid protoplasmic motility, which later became my research interest. I went away to Swarthmore College and became a biology major, but my fascination with the biological world, the real reason I became a biologist, I learned during my childhood years in Hamilton. My friends in high school had already given me "prof" as a nickname, and it was true. No matter how much my father protested that teaching was a low-paying profession (which was especially true in his time), and that I should choose something else for a career, I decided on graduate school and a teaching career. In that last year at college before I entered graduate school to earn my Ph.D. in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Dad died of a sudden heart attack. After that, it seemed even more appropriate for me to enter the teaching profession.

     I was on the faculty of the biology department at Haverford for 20 years -- almost a lifetime, but not quite. Fifteen years ago, I applied for an opening as head of the biology department at Colgate, and got the job!

     I was the "hired gun," as several of the department members at Colgate said, not always in jest. They meant I was an outsider hired as department chair by the administration to try to stimulate the department to change. The department had been exper-

     iencing personality conflicts that had gone on for a number of years, and faculty members couldn't agree on a pedagogical direction. The conflicts of those first years were intense, and I sometimes wondered if we in the department could ever work together. Then I remembered how helpful biology faculty members had been to me as a kid growing up here, and how loyal my dad had been to the institution. My goal was to pass this attitude along to the next generation of teachers in the department. Gradually, we began making decisions as a team, planning an exciting curriculum for the future.

     Olin Hall was renovated about five years after I arrived and provided space for a research-oriented undergraduate curriculum in biology. The stimulus to renovate the building was made with the help of several strong science administrators, Dave Lewis and Charlie Holbrow, among others, to whom I give special thanks. Today, faculty members and students at Colgate do research together in a broad area of biology, from ecology and environmental biology to the new fields of molecular biology and molecular systematics, which have been added to the curriculum. Over the years the faculty has grown much closer personally, making it exciting and fun to participate in the life of the department. Some time ago, a younger colleague, Randy Fuller, became department chair and has done extremely well. It has been an exhilarating feeling for me to realize that this vibrant, young biology department will have a wonderful future at Colgate.

Jim and Maria Nicholls
First family of French

For more than 35 years Jim and Maria Nicholls have taught French to Colgate students, with precision for the language and passion for the literature.

     Theirs have been intertwined careers; sharing a department, at times an office and always a love of bringing things French to young people.

     "I ended up a French professor because of the language requirement," said Jim, who met the University of Wisconsin's demands and then some. During his first year of graduate school, one of the professors contracted TB and Nicholls was asked if he would like to teach a section. He said yes and found himself teaching French 101 four years after taking it.

     "That first experience sold me. Teaching was so dynamic, so interesting, so much fun it seemed the best job you could have."

     The classroom had to wait, however. Nicholls spent three years in the Air Force flying DC-3s with a rescue unit. It was during that time he and Maria married in England. They had met earlier in Pau in the Pyrenees during summer school.

     Maria grew up in Portugal, learning both French and English at home as well as her native tongue. Jim found himself falling in love with all things French ("The food, the bread") and was enthralled to be conversing in French. His solid background in grammar had made the transition from study to conversation easy.

     After teaching stints at Wisconsin and Texas, the Nichollses came to Colgate in 1962, finding a place that has changed dramatically over the years.

     "The whole question of tenure was different. I presume I got a letter telling me I had tenure, but I don't remember it. We've upgraded the faculty. The quality of the people we get is incredibly good -- good teachers and good scholars."

     Nicholls also made note of the changing styles in dress ("I stopped wearing ties years and years ago") and smoking ("I used to hate to go to faculty meetings. The pipes would come out and, of course, Bruce Berlind smoked cigars").

     Students arrive these days with their cultural baggage not nearly as full as in years gone by. "They don't understand famous allusions or know the Bible."

     Women forged perhaps the greatest change, and both Nichollses were involved early on. Jim taught one of the first gender-based courses -- "Women in French Literature" -- and Maria was one of the first women to teach at Colgate.

     Maria became the director of the language lab in 1972 but still filled in whenever somebody was needed in the classroom. Having earned an associates degree in accounting at SUNY Morrisville and her BA through a series of exams, Maria began work toward her masters in comparative literature at SUNY Binghamton and continued for her Ph.D in French literature.

     "I like, of course, the back and forth with students. One student wrote on a SET form, `Mrs. Nicholls forced me to learn French.' To keep students interested is most important, but you can't be too easy."

     In addition to French ("I really like the survey courses, to introduce students to the great writers of French Literature"), Mrs. Nicholls also teaches the western traditions core course, something she continues after retirement.

     Back in 1965 Jim Nicholls and Elwyn Sterling put in motion an idea they had for foreign study. Nicholls had been in Dijon on a Fulbright and it was decided it might be an appropriate place for Colgate students. In the spring of '66 the Nichollses and 15 young men set sail for France.

     "It was a horribly rough crossing -- one kid was green by the time we hit the Statue of Liberty -- but we were treated royally." Thus began Colgate's oldest continuous study group in a foreign country.

     "It's the backbone of the department."

     It is a department Nicholls knows well. In addition to directing seven study groups, he was department chair for several years and served as associate dean of the faculty. He was given the Alumni Corporation's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1990. On the national scene, Jim has held a number of leadership roles with Advanced Placement including Chief Reader, Examination Leader and Chair of the French Achievement Test Committee.

     The Nichollses both share a love of literature.

     "The very best writers in French literature are those that probe," said Jim.

     "Any literature worth its salt tells us about ourselves," said Maria. "It mirrors the world. It can even help us live."

     "I can't imagine a French work without a love interest. No Frenchman could write Robinson Crusoe, " said Jim. "There's analysis of human nature dominated by love."

     Jim and Maria Nicholls brought heart into the classroom. JH

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