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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website

  Are you a member of the Oberlin College Class of 1969?
  Click the image at the left and then click on “Join Here.”
  You can reconnect with classmates and offer your own
  ideas for our 50th Reunion, coming up in May!

><>  You might be interested in some Oberlin articles recently posted here on my personal website:
><>  Our Reunion Planning Committee met last fall, and we learned a lot.
><>  An Olympic gold medalist was once our president; his cousin could have been everyone's president.
><>  Revisiting "My Favorite Year" concludes with recollections of December 1968.
><>  A stash of WOBC Program Guides recalls our campus radio station in the Sixties.
><>  More articles are still to come!



Drabble by Kevin Fagan (2018)



Why is this young man smiling?  He's “wolfing.”  Having noticed a cute blonde on campus yesterday, he has now joined her on the parlor couch.

She, however, is not smiling.  In fact, she's leaning away from the wolf, the better to watch Uncle Miltie on TV — because it's 1950.

All the 20th-century rules of propriety are being observed.  Of the couple's four feet, the prescribed minimum of three are on the floor, and the parlor door has been propped open with a wastebasket to discourage surreptitious shenanigans.

But how did the young man learn the blonde's name and address?  He used his Wolfbook.  The cartoon above appeared on the cover.  The photos inside included one particular freshman who today is an 86-year-old emeritus professor, still living near the campus.

My latest article gives you a peek at Wolfing in 1950.



It was on this date 160 years ago — February 14, 1859 — that Oregon joined the Union.  The new state's first two Senators were Democrats Joseph Lane (far left) and Delazon Smith.

Oregon had been admitted as a free state, but Smith, despite having studied at abolitionist Oberlin College, “did not subscribe to anti-slavery sentiment.”  Having drawn the shorter straw, he received the shorter term, which would expire when the 36th Congress was sworn in on March 4, 1859.

Unfortunately, Oregon's legislature declined to re-elect him, so he was out.  He had served only 18 days as a United States Senator.  The seat would remain empty until a Republican was named in the fall of 1860.

Decades earlier, when Delazon Smith was an Oberlin student, he also served less than a full term.  “His disagreement with school policy and philosophy ... earned him an invitation to leave and not return.”  Thereupon he promptly published a book telling what was wrong with the college — including even the vittles.

The institutional food served in college cafeterias and dining halls has always drawn complaints.  That's why so many present-day students will instead send out for pizza.

In Smith's 1837 pamphlet Oberlin Unmasked, the disaffected former student described far worse fare at his boarding hall.  Article 5 of the Oberlin Covenant had proclaimed, “That we may have time and health for the Lord's service, we will eat only plain and wholesome food ... and deny ourselves all strong and unnecessary drinks ... and everything expensive that is simply calculated to gratify the palate.”

The college's leaders therefore prohibited such sinful substances as pork and pepper and coffee and tea.  Students sometimes had to subsist on bread and water, like prisoners!  They were, however, allowed salt.

Smith bemoaned the ban on all types of tea, including Bohea and Imperial and Gunpowder.  He claimed that folks from other towns could tell that a young man was from Oberlin by his emaciated appearance, his “lean, lantern-jawed visage.”

He was so appalled that he exclaimed, “We are led to cry out in the language of the poet!”  The nine-stanza tirade that resulted is the highlight of this fortnight's installment from Smith's book, entitled Board and Mode of Living.



On this date 172 years ago, Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio.  There was a college in the next county, but he never enrolled there.

On Edison's 29th birthday, Elisa Gray — who had in fact attended that college — drew a sketch in his notebook.  It depicted “an electrical apparatus for talking through a telegraph wire.”  In other words, he'd invented the telephone.

The sketch was dated February 11, 1876.  Alexander Graham Bell's patent drawings wouldn't be filed until three days later!

My latest article tells about Elisha Gray, The Edison of Oberlin College.



Here are three 10-dollar bills that won't buy you a hot dog.  The first is play money, of course.

The second is smeared because it was printed poorly in some guy's basement; it's counterfeit.

And the third is Confederate.

In the early 1950s, when I was beginning to read, I didn't know much about history, but I did run across stories about hapless folks being paid with worthless money.  Sometimes it was called “counterfeit” and sometimes it was called “confederate,” and I thought those similar words must mean the same.

Back then, a few Civil War veterans were still alive.  Confederate currency was less than a hundred years old, and it was still mentioned occasionally. 

Now it's more than 150 years old, and you don't hear about it anymore — unless you're a collector, which I'm not.  However, the many variations of these “graybacks” and other denominations are interesting.

Below is a note from the third series, issued in 1861 and signed and numbered by hand.  Although backed only by bonds, within the Confederacy it was supposed to be “receivable in payment of all dues except export duties” and it would have been worth real money if the South had won the war.  “Six months after the ratification of a Treaty of Peace between the Confederate States and the United States, the Confederate States of America will pay to the bearer Ten Dollars.”

The man on the lower left is the CSA Secretary of State, Robert Mercer Taliaferro Hunter.  To balance the design, a stock image of innocence was chosen for the lower right.  Later it was discovered to be a vignette of one Alfred L. Elwyn.  But in 1861, Elwyn was no longer a child.  He had graduated from Harvard and co-founded the Pennsylvania Institution for the Blind as well as a school for mentally disabled children.  Now he was serving as the treasurer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  And, of course, he was an abolitionist.  


FEB. 5, 2009 flashback   HOLOGRAPHIC TV

One of the pleasures that youngsters receive from playing with scale models, like dollhouses or model train layouts, is a sense of empowerment.  As they tower over the Lilliputian scene below them, they are no longer children; they have become giants, and they're in control of all they survey.

I was 14 years old, and the Ohio State Buckeyes were NCAA basketball champions, when I realized it might be fun to watch a televised basketball game not as a picture on a screen but as a three-dimensional miniature.

Imagine a basketball arena reduced to 1/20 scale, with a court the size of a Foosball table and the players four inches high.  You and your friends gather around the table and watch the action from any angle you choose.  Or maybe instead of little athletes, you could see little actors performing a play.  I actually wrote up my idea as an essay, now long lost, for my eighth-grade English class.

How would it work?  I guessed that the positions of the players on the court could be detected with some sort of radar beam, or perhaps with one of those newly-invented "lasers."  That would constitute the camera.

In your living room would be the receiver, a transparent rectangular cube about four feet on a side.  Inside the cube, electronic circuits would precisely schedule the firing of millions of little guns, shooting tiny particles from one side of the interior to the other.  The guns would be timed so that 30 times a second, the particles would have reached positions in space corresponding to the surfaces of the real players.  At that instant, a strobe light would fire, illuminating the particles and forming ghostly images of miniature players.  A thirtieth of a second later, the next firing of the strobe would reveal a new set of particles in slightly different positions, and your eye would fill in the gaps.  Of course the expended particles would fall to the bottom of the box, and eventually you'd have to empty the litter tray like a birdcage.

My English teacher Mrs. Endsley said that she had no idea what I was trying to describe, but it certainly sounded clever.

Half a century later, in the January issue of Broadcast Engineering, Anthony R. Gargano muses about the state of television technology.  He seems to share my vision from long ago.

Further into the future is holographic television, a technology that's in the Stone Age today.  During its recent presidential election reporting, CNN used a scheme requiring 35 high-definition cameras to capture not a true hologram but a 360-degree image of a single reporter to transport her to the studio set.  Was it holographic video?  No, but it's certainly food for thought.  Clearly, we are in the early stages, taking small steps on the road to delivering the virtual reality of 360-degree holographic video to the home.

The MIT Media Lab has demonstrated the rendering of full color holograms as 1-inch cubic images that are updatable at video rates of 20 frames per second.  A research group at the University of Arizona demonstrated updatable monochromatic holograms at the size of a 4-inch cube.

Key challenges in progressing true holographic television are the sheer amount of high-speed memory and the computational horsepower required to generate motion video.  Given that many of today's cell phones have more computer power than the first space shuttle, clearly it's not a matter of if but just a matter of when you can watch that Sunday NFL game with 3-D players running on top of your coffee table-like imager as you walk around it checking the action and the views from end zone to end zone.

The proposed technology may be completely different, but my dream from 1960 is still alive!


Daniel Smalley and a team of engineers at BYU are developing a version of my 1960 particle-based idea!  Here's an excerpt from the February 17, 2018, edition of Science News:

A new laser system renders full-color 3-D images in thin air, researchers report in the Jan. 25 Nature.

This system works by trapping a cellulose particle that's mere micrometers across in a beam of nearly invisible laser light.  That laser repeatedly moves the particle along a specific path through the air.  At each point on the particle's path, other lasers illuminate it with red, green or blue light, which the particle scatters in all directions.  This creates a single image pixel that can be viewed from all sides.  Because the particle whizzes through the air so quickly and loops through the same path over and over again, all the pixels blur together.

The team could create only small images.  Smalley says he is already imagining a system that manipulates 100 or even 1,000 particles at once.  With those improvements, "the sky becomes the limit,” he says.


FEB. 3, 2019    STAGING

It was the second Tuesday of September in 1969.  Some 120 miles to the southeast, they were still cleaning up from the Woodstock music festival, though it had been over for three weeks.  I myself, however, was on the campus of Syracuse University.  With about 70 other young adults, I was joining Sequence 22 of a Master's degree program in Radio and Television.

We entered the gleaming marble lobby of the Newhouse Communications Center.  (Two more units have since been added, and this building is now known as Newhouse One.)

Publishing billionaire S.I. Newhouse's antique printing press stood next to the lobby's impressive double staircase, reminding us of the roots of our chosen field: communication.  He had given the money to construct the Center, which had been dedicated by the President of the United States just five years before.

But over the next few weeks, I became interested in the staircase itself.  Not the tangled Pegasus on the wall.  Not even the Newhouse quote below it:

A free press must be fortified
with greater knowledge of the world
and skill in the arts of expression.

No, I was fascinated by the bottom four steps.  "You know,” I thought, “this  almost constitutes a ‘thrust’ stage, a good place to present Shakespeare. 

“All we'd need to do is punch a few holes for entrance doors.  We could even add an upper window at which a singer or a Chorus or a deus ex machina could appear without the need for a machina.”

I sketched my concept of the lobby redesigned as a theater.  Now, almost 50 years later, I've added arrows to indicate those doors.  The staircase and the drawing are in this month's 100 Moons article.



When it was founded in 1833, my alma mater advertised that “the Collegiate Department will afford as extensive and thorough a course of instruction as other colleges, varying from some by substituting Hebrew and Sacred classics for the most objectionable pagan authors.”

The official seal depicts Tappan Hall, with its four classrooms and ninety student chambers, surrounded by majestic elm trees — and a wheat field.

Students learned in the Hall, but they also labored in the field to defray the cost of their tuition.

One such “Manual Labor System” had been established in 1827 by Charles Finney's former pastor, Rev. George Washington Gale. Gale's new Oneida Academy along the Erie Canal prepared students for advanced theological training, but it also required them to perform manual labor.  This made it affordable to more people, including Black students who were admitted there on an equal basis in 1833.

In 1835, Finney arrived at Oberlin, which likewise began admitting Blacks.  In the same year Oberlin also enrolled Delazon Smith.  The latter might have been a mistake.

Smith observed at close hand the school's vaunted academic and financial-assistance programs, and in 1837 he exposed their shortcomings in his pamphlet Oberlin Unmasked.  The heading of my latest fortnightly installment of that book is Course Of Study, And Manual Labor.


JAN. 30, 2019    SMALL EFFECTS NOW, BUT...

FICTIONAL UNINFORMED INTERLOCUTOR:  Have you seen how cold it is?  I'm freezing!  Whatever happened to your “global warming”?

CLIMATOLOGIST:  It's still happening.  World-wide averages have already risen about 1° Fahrenheit this century, and the rate is increasing.

FUI:  One degree?  That's all?

C:  Even one degree affects things like sea levels and growing seasons.  The real damage comes later this century if temperatures rise even faster.

FUI:  Phooey!  There's no warming.  It was ten below at my house this morning!

C:  And if there had been no warming, it would have been eleven below.  You should be thankful.


JAN. 29, 2009 flashback   NOT NOBODY

Quotes from Yogi Berra are funny because their imprecise language makes them seem nonsensical.  Yogi once claimed that not all his alleged sayings were authentic.  But his claim got another laugh from its unpolished phrasing:  “I didn't really say everything I said.”

Another Yogi-ism:  “Nobody goes there anymore.  It's too crowded.”  What he meant, of course, is that now that the place has become popular with the masses, nobody among his acquaintances goes there anymore.

We often say “nobody” when we mean “nobody I know.”

Thirty years ago when I worked in Washington, PA, we avoided scheduling TV programs after 9 pm on Mondays in the fall.  Who would watch our local channel when they could be watching Monday Night Football?  We knew that we were certainly going to tune in to the NFL game, as did 33% of the nation when the highly-rated series premiered on ABC in 1970.  But two-thirds of the nation was not watching.  Two-thirds is not “nobody.”

Update:  The clinching game of the 2018 World Series was seen by 18 million viewers, a noticeable drop from the year before.  That led Mark J. Burns to opine, “I think traditional sports are dead.  Nobody knows who won the World Series.”  Are 18,000,000 fans nobody?

Small-town Americans sometimes assume that because all their friends attend the local Baptist church, nobody could possibly object to having the Baptist preacher invoke the blessings of Jesus before the high school football game.  But there are some non-Christians in town, and they are not “nobody.”

So even if every one of your buddies loved that new movie, that doesn't make their opinion universally unanimous.



Is it going to be frigid next week where you are?  Personally, I'm getting too old for winter.

I've had to plan the next five days by carefully consulting the forecast.  This chart from Weather Underground uses a light background for daytime and a darker background for night.

The red trace predicts actual air temperatures.  The purple one, accounting for wind chill, predicts “feels like” temperatures (FLT).  These are the numbers than numb men's cheeks.

Here in the Pittsburgh area, Monday will be above freezing in the afternoon, so I'll lay in some groceries.  Tuesday I'll probably have to shovel a couple of inches of snow.  But then I'll stay huddled inside my apartment for the next 72 hours straight, because at dawn on Wednesday the FLT will be -5° and at dawn on Thursday it will be -22°!  I won't venture out again until Friday afternoon, when I'll be able to collect three days' worth of morning newspapers because the FLT will have climbed to a bearable 10° above.

A local NWS meteorologist calls this the worst cold snap in a quarter century.  “The last time we had an outbreak like this was 1994,” says Lee Hendricks.  “And before that, 1985.”  Fortunately, once we get past Groundhog Day the actual temperature is expected to moderate into the forties.



The folks above are ignoring a few snowflakes as they depart from the dormitory known as Burton Hall, on the north end of the Oberlin College campus.  Presumably they're on their way to class.

I know that route.  I walked it a third of a mile to breakfast each morning when I was an Oberlin freshman, 53 years ago.

On the recent aerial view at the right, the blue arrow depicts the first half of my daily journey.

I've outlined in orange the place where a science building once stood.  It seemed to block my way, yet I magically passed right through it.  Nowadays the eastern half of that building is gone, but I remember the orange-juice can in the display case.

I'll tell you all about it in a short new article about Passing through Kettering.


JAN. 22, 2009 flashback   CHURCH AIN'T OUT; STOP GIGGLING

True story, as far as I know...

In 1893, James M. Black was a Methodist Sunday school teacher in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.  One day he was taking attendance.  Bessie, the daughter of a drunk, had failed to show up.  Black thought to himself:   if our names were called from the Book of Life in heaven and we were absent, how sad it would be!  He grumbled something like, "I called the roll and she's not here, but I trust that when the roll is called up yonder, she'll be there."  He searched the songbook for a hymn to that effect, but there was none.  When he got home, he sat down at the piano and wrote one himself.

    When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
         And the morning breaks — eternal, bright and fair;
    When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore
         And the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there.

A few years later, in a church in Kentucky, Lydia Morton (my future Grandmother Thomas) joined in the singing of "When the Roll Is Called up Yonder."  She later described how the song leader stood before the congregation, holding a hymnal in one hand, conducting with the other, index finger outstretched.  Usually his swinging finger pointed upward.  But when he reached the final note of "I'll be there," he pointed down.  Apparently, at the time of the heavenly roll call, he himself would be in the lower regions.  My grandma and her friends giggled.

Fictional story that could well have happened...

In 1953, the Sunday services at a small Texas church always followed the same pattern.  After forty minutes of preliminaries, the pastor would preach a long-winded sermon.  Then there would be a prayer.  The congregation would sing a psalm.  Next the offering plates would be brought forward; there'd be another prayer; the plates would be passed around and returned to the altar for yet more praying.  Finally, the preacher's plump wife would sit down at the piano and accompany herself as she sang an inspiring hymn.  Then the preacher would recite the benediction and the service would finally be over.

One Sunday, little Ernie got restless as the plates were being passed.  "When is this gonna end?" he whined.  "I wanna go home!"  His older brother shushed him, reminding him that "Church ain't out till the fat lady sings."

That struck the kinfolk as comical.  People weren't supposed to mention the preacher's wife's corpulence.  The story was whispered around town to much giggling.

Another true story, thanks to Michael Quinion...

A 1976 booklet called Southern Words and Sayings actually printed the line "Church ain't out till the fat lady sings."

That same year, a Texan named Ralph Carpenter, "one of the world's funniest guys," came up with a variation.  He was the sports information director at Texas Tech.  In the finals of the Southwest Conference basketball tournament, his team seemed to be on its way to an easy victory.  However, Texas A&M came from behind to tie the score at 72-72.  Bill Morgan of the SWC said, "Hey, Ralph, this is going to be a tight one after all."  Ralph replied, "Right!  The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings."

Perhaps Ralph revised the saying because it didn't seem right to joke about "church" in a press box.  At any rate, his comment caused an uproar among his colleagues.  Two years later another Texan repeated it on national TV, and it became a proverb.

The meaning, of course, is that we shouldn't assume that the outcome has already been determined just because one team is ahead.  Until the game is actually finished, the losing team always has a chance to come back and win.

But why the metaphor about pudgy vocalists?

Some people assume that it's an actual operatic reference.  To think of fat female singers is to be reminded of Wagnerian sopranos — although these divas generally start singing well before the final act.

Other people assume that it must be a Yogi Berra quote, because of its similarity to his famous tautology "It ain't over until it's over."

However, there's a website called "World Wide Words."  In one entry, Michael Quinion explains how the term "dry run" for a rehearsal may have arisen from certain competitions.  (I helped televise such contests back in 1970.)

And in another, he documents the story of "the opera ain't over until the fat lady sings" — the one that I've outlined above.