John Pribram

Offered by Eric Wolman, Professor of Physics, on May 7, 2007

In 1970, with a B.A. from Middlebury College and an M.A. from Wesleyan University, John Karl Pribram joined the Bates Department of Physics and Astronomy as an instructor in physics. He was at that time a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Three years later he completed his thesis, received his Ph. D. in physics, and became an Assistant Professor.

A brief summary of an active thirty-seven years at Bates is doomed to be disturbingly incomplete.

Jack Pribram talks with a student outside Chase Hall in the 1990s. Photograph by Dean Abramson.

Jack has been Department Chair, Division Chair, and Associate Dean of the Faculty. Just a few of the committees on which Jack has served are Personnel, Educational Policy, the Bates College Reaccreditation Self-Study Team, two different elected committees developing legislation to revise the faculty rules for personnel, the President’s Institutional Planning and Advisory Committee, and the Honors Committee, of which he is currently chair. In 1977-78, on a full-year leave as a Mellon Fellow, Jack developed long-range recommendations for the Department’s curriculum which have provided guidance up to the present day.

Jack was one of four Bates representatives to a workshop on the liberal arts, out of which emerged our Writing Workshop. Jack has been chair of the Executive Committee of the New England Section of the American Physical Society and has been the New England Section Advisor to the national Council of the Society. He and his wife Hope were for six years Danforth Associates.

Of course listing titles and committees does not communicate much about influence. Jack is influential in part because he considers all arguments carefully and with civility, is a model of integrity, is wise, and is scrupulously honest. One other characteristic, however, truly sets Jack apart, and that is kindness. Kindness is not in short supply here, but anyone who knows Jack knows that he is special. Jack is our guardian. He wants kindness to be the norm at Bates. He wants us to do things properly, he wants everyone to be treated well, and he will step in with a gentle reminder when that is not happening. An interesting consequence of Jack’s kind and gentle manner is that his influence can go unnoticed, which is all right with Jack, because he is not trying to be noticed. He is trying to create an environment in which everyone can accomplish their best.

Jack loves physics, he loves to teach physics, and students love learning from him. Jack’s area of research is solid state physics, specifically fundamental properties of semiconductors. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Illinois, Dartmouth College, and the University of Virginia. In support of teaching and research, Jack has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Research Corporation. Solid state physics attracts student interest, and Jack has supervised many a senior thesis in his lab.

Jack’s teaching reflects a long-standing interest in the history of physics and the position of physics in the liberal arts. He considers it essential that students not only understand physics itself but that they also see the beauty and wonder of physics and appreciate the historical contexts and cultural significance. Jack’s capacity to accomplish this is exemplified in two general-education lab courses which Jack created and taught for many years: Revolutions in Physics: Space and Time and Revolutions in Physics: Light and Matter. Jack has taught almost every course in our curriculum at one time or another, and it is easy to understand why students want to take courses when his name follows the catalog description.

This summer Jack and Hope are moving to Virginia, and as we contemplate their departure, we know we will miss them sorely. We also confront a selfish and rather widespread anxiety. Jack is a walking institutional history, and rarely a week goes by without someone, frequently me, asking Jack to recall how some issue was dealt with the last time it arose, what happened in the discussion of some piece of legislation, when some policy was changed, et cetera, et cetera. We are asking ourselves, “Now what are we going to do?” I am guessing that Jack will eventually be forced to set his e-mail filter to reject messages from Bates that begin “Dear Jack, Do you happen to recall….”

Of course, everyone has shortcomings. I have discovered that when their birthdays come around, Jack’s daughters request that he please not sing “Happy Birthday” to them. Apparently, if you are looking for someone who can carry a tune, Jack should not be your first choice.

On the other hand, if you are looking for someone to shoulder serious responsibilities and attend to them carefully, thoughtfully, and conscientiously, then Jack is definitely the right person. He told me recently how lucky he is to have ended up at Bates. Jack, we’re the lucky ones! Thank you so much for everything.