Pitt Magazine
Homepage Table of Contents


JACK DANIEL'S SEASON BEGINS IN EARLY May, when the cherry trees bloom on the Cathedral lawn and the magnolia outside the student union starts dropping its heavy blossoms. This is the season when the daylight lingers on Pitt's campus long after five o'clock, like a bookish scholar with no place better to go. During most of the year, Jack Daniel, Pitt's vice provost for academic affairs, lingers on campus too, hard at work at his administrative duties. As an associate professor in the Department of Communication, he puts in long hours at his research and teaching, as well.

But come May, he cuts out early every now and then. He takes off on a Friday and drives eastward, heading for his ramshackle camp in the woods near Mount Union, Pennsylvania. And long before the sun sets, he will be wading with his fishing pole into the Juniata River, wearing a battered fishing hat with a rusty Jesse Jackson pin on it and a fishing vest that's stained with ancient fish guts and river mud from nearly the start of time.

Though Pitt's professors are passionate about their intellectual undertakings, many of them have other passions -- like Jack Daniel's fishing -- that enrich their lives and thus, in turn, enliven the University. Though people all over campus recognize Daniel, few know that he fishes, and even fewer understand how much the fishing means.

"Some people know me as 'the African American who came through the '60s and was the first chair of Black Studies when it was the most radical, revolutionary thing,'" says Daniel, who remains prominent for his outspoken advocacy for African Americans' concerns. "Some know me as an administrator or a faculty member. But the real Jack is at fishing camp. The other things," he laughs, "are jobs I do."

For decades, Daniel has been fishing with friends and family. "My son Omari and I have learned the river so well that there are places where we'll both cast and we'll count down to see who can land a bass the fastest," Daniel says, smiling radiantly as he leans back in a chair in his Cathedral of Learning office. The secret, he reports, is that he and his son understand the places where the fish hide and feed. "We know the currents, eddies, logs, boulders," he says gently. "We know the water temperatures just by feel."

Father and son began fishing together when Omari Daniel was a small child. For safety, Jack Daniel used to tie one end of a rope around Omari's waist and the other end around his own. In a father-son collaboration called We Fish, Jack Daniel has been writing a series of essays to accompany poems composed by Omari, now a graduate student in writing. In these works, the rope emerges as a metaphor for the emotional ties among the men at the fishing camp.

Take, for instance, the bonds that form as the fishermen prepare their catch for eating. Young nephews take the fish out of the buckets. An older uncle trims the fins off. Someone skilled and strong does the cleaning and scaling. Jack Daniel and his buddy Henry Harris argue about which of them is the best at filleting. Each person gains pride and expertise and a sense of belonging. "And what Omari and I are doing," Daniel says, "is looking at what happened in the socialization process of our fishing that is not happening with some young African-American men." The Daniels' work will address the plight of young black men and women who must navigate streets as dangerous as the swirling Juniata River, streets where the only people to guide them are their older brothers and sisters. "They don't know the streets the way I know that river," Daniel sadly points out, "and they have inexperienced people on the other end of their rope."

HERE IS ONE OF THE CONTRADICTORY LAWS of leisure: Although people take up hobbies as a way of relaxing, ease and comfort seldom kindle people's passions. The most inspiring activities are often the ones that are most difficult. Take Keiko McDonald, for instance. Her idea of a good time is to run for hours through the cold November rain.

McDonald, a professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, has competed in 29 marathons. She recalls her most memorable race, the second marathon she ever ran: "It was in Philadelphia, and it started out with very fine weather. Then, at the 10-mile marker, it started to rain. By the time we completed the marathon, the rain turned into snow. It was hard, but I was able to push myself, which I never thought I could do. It was really a test of my physical and mental strength."

McDonald started running as a graduate student in the early 1970s, an admittedly non-athletic bookworm. "I had a lot of pressure because I had only one semester to complete my dissertation." Her husband suggested she take up running as a way to relieve stress. "At first I just ran around the house -- two blocks or so -- but gradually I increased the distance. And once I got used to running, I felt so invigorated that I accomplished many things in that short time."

Trophies from marathons, as well as from shorter races, deck the tall metal bookshelves in her Cathedral of Learning office. Most are from races she ran in the United States, although others, tied with small ribbons, come from summer visits to her native Japan.

McDonald says she has been able to channel the positive aspects of running, such as discipline and concentration, into her professorial duties. "You also develop good rapport with others," she adds, "because in those races everybody is in the same boat. Nobody is class conscious or stuck up. And I can mingle with students and faculty with the same attitude.

"When you run," she concludes, "you're relaxed, and your mind is clear. In one evaluation of my teaching, a student wrote, 'She is the happiest professor on campus.' Because running really keeps me in a good mood."

ANO THER PITT PROFESSOR WHO keeps his spirits up by tackling adversity is Robert Vaughn, a professor of anesthesiology in the dental school. Vaughn takes summer camping trips in remote Canada, up where the rivers flow north toward the James and Hudson Bays. He and his companions travel into the wilderness by train. They get the conductor to stop by the shore of an isolated lake, where they jump off onto the rocky ground. From there, they canoe and hike their way back to civilization, carrying 65-pound packs, clearing paths through the woods with machetes to places previously reachable only by plane. "I guess I like challenges," says Vaughn, who strikes a note of glee when he describes the hardships of the trip: "You've got to watch out -- blackflies." They're small, he says, "but they must be all teeth with a wee wing attached, because if they get you, they can make your life miserable."

The other thing Robert Vaughn does for adventure is fish -- not in the woods, but out on the open sea. In his 20-foot, hand-built wooden boat, he motors through the clear green waters off North Carolina until, 40 miles out, he reaches the indigo currents of the Gulf Stream. There, he hauls in 35- to 120-pound tuna. "I started doing this years ago when I took my kids out," says Vaughn, who bought his boat in the early 1960s, "and people thought I was nuts to go out on a small boat like that. But if you've got a seaworthy boat, the length of it doesnÍt matter."

The worst thing that ever happened in the boat took place not on the Atlantic, but on Lake Erie. Caught out after dark when the wind picked up, Vaughn, his two sons, and his brother-in-law sheltered under a canvas top as 10- to 14-foot waves assaulted the boat. "All we could see were the lights of Erie„and we could only see them occasionally," he recalls. The Coast Guard put him in contact with a nearby boat that radioed, "Come on in. You're doing all right." But Vaughn figured out, from the booming sound of the waves as they broke, that he was headed right for a sandbar. He made a dramatic turnaround, then set his own course eastward until he finally spotted the green lights that guide boats to a channel into port.

Vaughn sees parallels between his seamanship and his practice of anesthesiology. His profession involves not just putting patients under, but also making sure they stay alive as the anesthesia depresses their vital functions. "You've got to think on your feet," says Vaughn. "The patient could go into anaphylactic shock -- someone could even have a heart attack -- and you have to do something about it quickly. You can't stand around wondering who's going to help you." It's the same when he's out fishing: "You're responsible for every inch of that boat, and if you don't know how to cope with the water, then you'd better not be offshore."

N THE COLDEST NIGHT OF THE WINTER, Jan O'Donnell slides the barn door open. "Hi, guys," she sings out. In response come snorts and a shuffling of hooves. "Norman! Norman Bates!" she hoots, greeting a black horse through the window of his stall. This Hitchcock-influenced nickname for the horse is her own invention. "They used to call him 'Stormin' Norman.' I thought that was boring," she explains.

From a workroom, O'Donnell drags two buckets, sets one down, and lifts the handle of the pump. When the first bucket is full, she dips the empty bucket under the stream, hoisting the full one out of the way. Moving rapidly, alternating buckets, sliding stall doors open and shut, she pours water for each of the barn's 14 horses. She lets her own old chestnut mare (named Mare) wander out into the barn. Later, she leads a younger, feistier horse into Mare's quarters. Then she shovels out the younger horse's stall. "A lot of people think that this is tedious work, but I do my best thinking here," says O'Donnell, who teaches courses in theories of rhetoric and in public speaking in the communication department. Leaning on her shovel, she adds, "I wrote a lot of my dissertation while I was cleaning poo."

O'Donnell, a champion show rider, boards three of her own horses here and works for the stable owner, Sue Stepusin (Arts and Sciences '86, '74). Stepusin gives O'Donnell invaluable training for competition. "At first, my show horse, Harold, wasn't very talented," O'Donnell recounts. "Sue said, 'He's never going to be able to jump higher than two-foot-six.' But the next summer, he knew what to do all of a sudden. And Sue worked and worked with him and really made us a team."

Like McDonald and Vaughn, O'Donnell finds connections between her personal passion and her work at Pitt. For one thing, she uses examples from the riding world in her class on small group communication to give her students insight into the remarkable versatility of language. She tries to show students that the same words can mean different things to different groups of people. For instance, she might ask her students, "If I said, 'I had to take Eliot to Ohio State,' what would you think? If you were horse people, the first thing out of your mouth would be, 'Oh my God, is he all right?' because Ohio State is a vet hospital, and horse people would know Eliot was a horse."

Then there are her public speaking courses. O'Donnell guides students in these classes to an understanding of how to give interesting talks. As a teacher, she wants to steer them away from knee- jerk statements on subjects they know little about. Instead, she encourages them to speak about their own experiences. In her own irreverent way, she uses her experiences at the barn to demonstrate how fascinating the most unlikely topics can be when you know them in detail. "I can talk for hours about the different kinds of horse poop," she says with a glimmer of humor, "what it looks like after they have eaten hay or after grain." She concludes, "Things will take off when I say bizarre things in class. It's boring to stand up there and say, 'The three ways to do an introduction are....' I eventually just started being my normal barn self, and it was a lot more fun."

WHE N YOU ASK PROFESSORS ABOUT THEIR personal lives, you never know what surprising juxtapositions you may find. Don DeFranco, an associate professor of biological sciences, for instance, once considered a career as a professional dancer. As an amateur, he has participated in jazz, ballet, and modern dance classes and performances over the years.

Does the dancing provide DeFranco with a creative outlet that gives relief from the left-brain rigors of research? Not exactly, he says. Instead, what the dance and the science have in common is the creativity: DeFranco, who has based much of his research career on finding new ways to study a quirk in the behavior of a certain hormone receptor, says, "I think that there is creativity to this job. There has to be. Especially now, with the funding as tight as it is, doing good science isn't enough. You have to be novel."

Herschel Frey, a professor of Hispanic languages and literatures who also breeds exotic finches and other birds, finds the link between his scholarly work and his hobby at a very basic level: "The connection is curiosity, I would think." Like scholarship, breeding birds requires close study and careful thought. Through trial and error, breeders must investigate what to feed and where to house the birds, not to mention how to match compatible birds so that they will fall in love. Of course, bird breeders also need to know about genetics. They get recognition for using breeding techniques to "fix" natural mutations. Frey, for instance, has won awards for developing a white-breasted rather than purple-breasted strain of the brilliantly colored Lady Gouldian finch. "When you're curious about things, then you want to find out about them, so you work them. That's the main connection to academics. Otherwise, maybe I like it because it is so unconnected," he grins.

For some faculty members, however, personal and professional fascinations remain inseparably intertwined. As a young girl, reared by her grandparents in Mississippi and Louisiana in a traditional African-American home, Anna Lou Blevins developed a curiosity about Africa: "I had a picture that the sun didn't shine there," she says, "because everyone talked about the 'dark continent.' My grandparents took time to correct that and to tell me that Africa was a beautiful place."

As an adult, Blevins, a professor of instruction and learning in Pitt's School of Education, has traveled the world, visiting Africa not once, but many times. Sometimes she has gone as a scholar, observing the ways that people care for and educate their children. At other times, she has gone as a Christian missionary. In Klaarwater, South Africa, for instance, her mission included helping a Zulu community establish a rural child development center, writing grants for everything from food to baby beds to multi-racial dolls, a one-time rarity in South Africa. Later, with assistance from the University of Pittsburgh, she returned with a team that trained local women to provide basic health care.

A collector of African art, Blevins' interest in these objects has grown out of her fascination with the people's lives. Once, intrigued by some beaded tablecloths she saw in South Africa, she visited the women who had made them. "I said, 'I want to create a dinner that would be symbolic of twins born in a family (a private celebration I had experienced in Kenya). What would I need?'" The artists drew her a picture to show how to lay out the meal. They helped her choose the tablecloth and the wooden and woven dishes she would need. "I want the whole picture, the whole story, rather than buying a piece of art that tells only part of the story," Blevins explains.

Similarly, a love of African cuisine grew out of personal bonds. In her first year as a Pitt researcher, she traveled with her husband, a man from Kenya, to his home country where she studied child rearing among the Dhuluo people. "I spent about 12 weeks there. My in-laws and the people around the area taught me many things.

"Among the Dhuluos, I began to see how they cooked various foods that were common to black people here in America. The way they prepared their maize for edible purposes was very similar to the way we did it in Mississippi and the Creole sections of New Orleans," she says. In the preparation of other Dhuluo dishes, Blevins also recognized foods of her upbringing: "I used to be ashamed to let people know that I ate those things -- the beans and the peas. But I acquired not only a respect, but also a willingness to share my respect and my great appreciation for traditional African foods. Having now acquired substantial collections of art, storytelling skills, and knowledge of history from various African nations, the whole story of Africa fits into my classroom and into my home."

If there's one thing that unites the divergent pastimes of these professors -- of the rider and the dancer, the art collector and the runner, the catchers of fish and the breeder of birds -- it is a bright, burning spirit of inquiry, a fierce curiosity about the limits of human athleticism or the needs of an animal or the people of the world. These Pitt faculty members are conducting a kind of personal research into the things they love. This profound human research, in turn, makes them better prepared to teach us all a thing or two about who we really are.

Pitt Magazine
Homepage Table of