Today, an awards ceremony reminds me that things
are okay after all. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
My 24-hour trip back to
Berkeley gave me a lot to think about. I went to
receive an alumni award -- all the time thinking
there's too much work to do here in Houston. Make
the trip as short as possible. Surely they could
find better candidates for their awards.
Then odd things began unfolding. My son, also a
Berkeley alum, met me at the airport and introduced
me to his fiancee. I liked her -- she gave me a
fine sense of well-being. Next, a party at the
chancellor's home honoring another alum -- a young
astronaut who'd just come back from 15 days in
space. His retired parents showed up in jogging
clothes -- the picture of health in their late
years. We talked. They told me how glad they were
that he was safely back on earth. A bond formed.
I met the chairman of my old department and
realized I'd once taught him in his lab course. The
chancellor, once a colleague of mine, dropped the
business that occupies his every waking second and
talked about his children, born the same time as
mine -- until a regent walked by. Then he was back
Off to the awards banquet. Four of us were being
recognized. The other three were older than I, with
rich histories of accomplishment in electronics,
construction, and corporate management.
We shook hands, gave our talks, posed for pictures,
and swapped stories. My retired thesis advisor gave
me my award. Whatever I thought of my merits, I was
his accomplishment last night.
So worries over who deserved what evaporated. This
was a celebration of a shared experience. My son
was there. Today's undergraduates were scattered
through the crowd. And we told them in our
different voices that joy is to be had in a long
life of hard work at the task of transforming the
world. For that's what we'd all done and it's what
they will do, too.
They too must one day step off the planet as we
know it and go into space. They must ride the
technologies that change the way we all live. As my
former advisor and I walked through the campus, he
furrowed his brow and complained that education is
suffering devastating changes. It is, I suppose.
Change always brings breakdowns of old virtues.
But I look at that young astronaut, at my son and
his wife-to-be, at the undergraduates. Powerful
virtues and values are there -- values that will
transcend devastating change. I gave the award
plaque to my son and asked him to bring it along
next time he visits us. Sure, it was too big for my
briefcase. But what I'd learned in these few short
hours was that it really does belong to him as much
as it belongs to anyone.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds