Seeing college more clearly
It was professors like Leslie Foldy who made Case great
By Carl Helrich ’63, PhD
Leslie L. Foldy, Professor of Physics, cast a long shadow over many of us. He was known affectionately as “Laughing Les” because of his perpetual smile. Even while he covered the board with a quick hand, the smile was there.
I first encountered Foldy during the summer after my junior year. I was working for Professor Scanlan in CE during the day and considering the effect of a magnetic field on the transport properties of polar molecules in the evenings. I was an Engineering Science (ES) major, so when I tapped on the door of Foldy’s office looking for help, he had never seen me before. That made no difference. He stopped what he was doing and concentrated on me. After jotting a few lines on a piece of paper, he led me to the reading room and pointed me to the solution to my problem in a publication.
When I was a senior, Foldy allowed me to audit his graduate course in classical electromagnetic fields (P 202). Foldy was magnificent. Before class, he stood off to the side and paged through his notebook. Then, when class began, he covered the board without once looking back. I took rapid, scribbled notes with my eyes glued to the board. As soon as I got back to my apartment, I recopied them while my memory was still fresh.
Foldy presented first the experimental basis for each law and then developed the law, just as Newton had claimed it should be done. Everything was crystal clear. But Foldy could still knock you down with exam questions. If you took more than half a page on a Foldy question, you had missed the point, and you were doing the problem wrong. So you had to be on top of things and think clearly. I used the same approach in my textbook The Classical Theory of Fields. His spirit inspired me.
I left Case for Northwestern to finish a PhD program and did not return until the Michelson and Morley celebration 20 years later, as a professor of physics at Goshen College. It was an emotional experience to return to Case. I walked alone
into Strosacker Auditorium, into the lecture hall in Rockefeller Physics and then to the room where I took P1 as a freshman.
Case was not easy when I was there. I left with unpleasant feelings. I have come to realize, however, that Case was great. Case was small with absolutely top people. So you knew who they were and could talk to them. Leslie Foldy and Martin Klein were among those. I did an undergrad thesis under Jerzy Moszynski (Mechanical Engineering). He later nominated me to the Sigma Xi.
A student of mine at Goshen College got a summer REU position at Case and spent a few weeks with Foldy. I took the opportunity to drop by and talk with my former professor, honestly telling him of his influence on me. In the last years of his life, I would say Leslie Foldy was a friend.
I know that I am not the only one who has needed to return. Case has molded each of us in a way that we cannot describe easily. And we must come to appreciate our experience in terms which will not be familiar to others.
Some of us need to return to our roots to understand what Case really was.
Helrich is a Professor Emeritus of Physics at Goshen College.
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