Mail Room

By The Editors / September / October 2004
June 15th, 2007

Thinking Big

Congratulations to the Brown administration for initiating a true master plan (“Blocking Out the Future,” May/ June). Architect Frances Halsband’s vision is enlightening, challenging, and long overdue. Interestingly, more than thirty years ago the 1972 Liber Brunensis speculated about what Brown would look like in twenty-five years and concluded that “the main thrust of the future campus … is the integrating of various parts of the University through green spaces, pedestrian walks, and strategically located paths linking the campus visually as well as physically.” Halsband’s proposed walkway from Pembroke to Lincoln Field will help to mitigate the Meeting Street wall that separates Pembroke from everything to the south. Students walking the completed pathway will encounter challenging street crossings, however. Angell and Waterman streets have become high-speed, high-volume conduits for traffic from the east to downtown. Highlighting these crossings with lighted bollards and stone pavings would help. If we really are to think big, sending cars underground there would help create a true connected campus. Just imagine Waterman Street disappearing from Prospect to the entrance to Leeds Theater. Several years ago Harvard connected the entire area north of the Yard in such a manner, with dramatic results.

Halsband’s suggestion for the conversion of many small houses into faculty homes deserves the highest priority. Even if they have to be moved, we cannot lose these gems, which give Brown its human scale. As David Macaulay observed in A Sense of Place, his 1992 video tour of the campus, “They are the glory of the Brown campus, moving like currents and giving Brown its special texture … Brown is part of a living neighborhood and is held together by its streetscape.”

Finally, the University needs to address the proliferation of motor vehicles, which have overrun the campus. President Simmons’s vision of a campus visit in 2019 assumes that people will know where to park when they arrive. Such is not the case now. Closing portions of streets, such as Brown (from George to Benevolent or beyond), Magee, and Benevolent, would make the campus a safer, more livable place.

We need to do all in our power to help Brown maintain its charm and scale. The proposed planning framework will help guide the way.

Peter A. Mackie ’59
Lexington, Mass.

A Noble Job

I tip my helmet to Zac Unger ’96 (“Into the Fire,” July/August). He doesn’t know me, but he played a part in my decision to become a career firefighter.

I discovered him in the summer of 2001, shortly after I joined a volunteer fire department. I wanted to learn more about the fire service, and he’d posted a diary on describing a week at work. Those stories, like the one in the July/August BAM, showed a funny, fascinating, human side of the job that appealed to me more than the firefighter stereotypes I was familiar with. I’m glad to say that the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen have much more in common with the fire service as Unger describes it than with movies like Backdraft.

In August, I enter the recruit academy of the Syracuse Fire Department. It will, I hope, be the start of a long and happy career. I also hope Unger will keep writing and inspire other Brown students to have open minds about the many wonderful careers out there that people with Ivy League degrees don’t traditionally pursue.

Sara Errington ’00 PhD
Syracuse, N.Y.

I read “Into the Flames” with  great interest because my husband, Paul Pender ’77, a lieutenant with the Brookline, Massachusetts, fire department, has been a firefighter for the past twenty years. I thought he was the only Ivy League firefighter from Brown, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn that at least one other alumnus has chosen this noble profession. After 9/11 there was a renewed appreciation and respect for the courageous men and women who daily put their lives on the line for all of us. Brown can certainly be proud that at least two of its own are among this elite group of professionals.

Beth Pender
Westwood, Mass.

I applaud Zac Unger for following his heart toward his calling, and I wish him a long and safe career.

His story reminded me of another unusual Ivy League tale told to me by a former client. His plumber, in the Boston area, had an MBA from Harvard. Growing up, the young man worked part-time in his father’s plumbing business and had loved it. Upon graduation from high school, he planned to work for his dad, who wouldn’t hear of it and insisted that he attend college. Throughout his undergraduate years the boy continued working part-time as a plumber’s helper. Baccalaureate in hand, he again asked his dad for employment. Aghast, dad sent him off to graduate school. With master’s degree in hand, the son then delivered the coup de grace, saying, “Dad, either I work for you or you have a competitor who not only knows your clientele, but who has an MBA from Harvard.” Dad relented.

To finish on a politico-economic note, neither firefighters nor plumbers are at risk of having their jobs exported. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge notwithstanding, parents take heed and caveat scholar.

Hal Bander ’58
Virginia Beach, Va.

“Into the Fire” is superfluous and borderline offensive. Reprinting such shameless self-promotion, adolescent ruminations, and disassociated affection is a venture into the realm of the ridiculous. Although I think the BAM is one of the best magazines in the world and I gleefully read it from cover to cover, the lack of Brown relevance in this subject makes the article unfit for the magazine.

The front cover calls Unger’s article “The Making of an Accidental Fireman,” a line that is hardly accurate because the author had visions of being “a hero” since he was a boy. There is nothing accidental about Unger’s becoming a fireman; he was just fulfilling a commendable childhood vision of himself as an adult.

Lastly, and offensively, the article does not bring to light the story of Lt. Charles J. Margiotta ’79, who gave his life to save others on 9/11 in the World Trade Center’s south tower. The intellectual shallowness of “Into The Fire” is nothing more than the scribbling of a thrill seeker, and the decision to print such an article must be denounced. Perhaps BAM’s follow-up cover should be entitled “Fireman Hunks of Brown.”

With the exception of a small post-9/11 blurb in BAM, I don’t think I have read any follow-up on how the Margiotta family is faring or what numerous Brown events have been inspired by a true hero graduate of Brown.

If action is a new parameter for your magazine then a BAM reporter could write about Dimitrios Gavriel ’98, who is now in Iraq and who joined the Marines after experiencing anguish due to 9/11.

Please keep the BAM real and relevant.

Bruce Alterman ’79
New York City

Far from neglecting Chuck Margiotta and his legacy, the BAM has in fact included several follow-ups about him since our original article about his life and death in the November/ December 2001 issue. In the very next issue, for example, we printed a photo of his family accepting his framed jersey during a memorial for him at halftime of that season’s Dartmouth game, as well as a photo of his former FDNY colleagues attending the memorial to honor him. Two issues later, we worked with Delta Tau to publicize a memorial for all Delts, including Chuck, who perished in the attacks, and we followed up in July/August 2002 with coverage of the event itself. In the November/December 2002 BAM we ran a story about the first recipient of the Lt. Charles Margiotta ’79 Memorial Scholarship Fund, which also included the news (with photo) that his nephew Michael Margiotta ’05 had transferred to Brown.—Editor

Good for the Goose

Stephen Johnson’s fascinating article about how the presence or absence of the chemical oxytocin affects the bonding instinct of creatures apparently applies to ducks and geese as well (“The Brain in Love,” July/August). From my porch I am able to daily observe the habits of mallard ducks and Canada geese, and apparently the geese possess oxytocin while the ducks do not. Promptly after baby ducks are born, the father shows no interest in either the mother or the ducklings and wanders off on his own. With geese, the gander not only remains close to the mother after goslings arrive, but is extremely protective of them when other geese are in the vicinity!

Bruce Williamson ’49
Clifton Park, N.Y.

Getting Out the Vote

When the Pembroke class of 1959 gathered for our 45th reunion luncheon (The Classes, July/August), a remarkable number among us expressed serious concern about the changes in our communities, our country, and our world since last we met.

Several of us felt we should communicate our thinking to fellow alumni. We believe that women must continue their historical concern with the future. Although we are members of the 1950s’ “silent generation,” many among us chose activism that laid the groundwork for progressive 1960s social movements.

It is now time, we feel, to take up these challenges again. We agreed on the need to be active politically. We pledged to express our concerns about the future of our environment, our children, and our constitutional democracy wherever and whenever we can. We each pledged to “adopt” at least one new voter, whom we will help register and get to the polls.

These may seem small steps, but, as Nobel Laureate Sherin Ebadi said during Commencement, “One person, standing on principle, can make a difference in the lives of many.” We can each be that person and call on other Brown graduates to join with us in being truly active citizens in this crucial election year.

Carol Canner Gjelsvik ’59
Tappan, N.Y.

Other members of the class of 1959 who signed this letter are Doris Stearn Donovan, Laura Thomasson Fishman, Nina Wiita Krooss, Eleanor Levinson Lewis, Nancy Wernick Menzin, Ariel Follett O’Hara, Margo Aramian Ragan, Diane Scola, Jean Sheridan, Judy Cohen Zacek, and Linda Logowitz Zindler.

Ray Charles at Brown

I happily participate in Brown reunion weekends as the husband of Barbara Feibelman ’73 and the uncle of Abigail Orenstein ’93 (The Classes, July/August). In particular, the reunion’s pops concert is always a pleasurable evening of socializing and musical entertainment.

But at the 1998 concert, performer and performance elevated the evening far beyond the level of entertainment.

A perfect sublime moment occurred to me and, I am sure, to many others when, midshow, Ray Charles sang “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” This song is Kermit the Frog’s lament about his feelings as an outsider, someone different and discriminated against because of the color of his skin. Most of the audience knew most, if not all, the lyrics; they had either been raised on Sesame Street or had looked on while their children’s imaginations ranged there.

By choosing this song, Ray Charles, who had overcome or ignored barriers throughout his life, was conducting a master class on the commonality of all humanity in a way no honored and chaired professor or course syllabus could match. Watching his million-watt smile as he sang in his inimitable way about the troubles of being green while the audience spontaneously joined in was quite remarkable.

When the song ended, the entire Green erupted in heartfelt cheering and applause for the song and for Ray Charles’s artistry and respect for humanity.

Ken Orenstein

Taking Sides

I was ashamed to hear the news that Brown had opposed the unionization of graduate-student assistants (“No Deal,” Elms, this issue). The University has clearly answered the fundamental question “Which side are you on?” with a slap in the face to the dedicated people who do so much of the teaching and research upon which it bases its reputation, and has assured its future place as a leading academic sweatshop.

Mark Camara ’82
Toledo, Ore.

Words Matter

As a recent graduate of Brown, i know well how much the University values and promotes religious diversity. As the former vice president of social programming at Brown Hillel, I worked hard to ensure that each program I planned was welcoming to all members of the Brown community. Before arriving at Brown, I worked with the National Conference of Community and Justice to promote cultural, religious, and racial diversity. Currently, I work at an alternative high school in Brooklyn, New York, as a counselor to mentally ill, chemically addicted inner-city students. I plan to dedicate my life to social justice work, and consider myself an extremely tolerant person.

I was very excited that this year’s Baccalaureate speaker would be Shirin Ebadi (“Side by Side,” July/August). President Simmons’s introduction of her intrigued me, and I was eager to hear her words of wisdom for the class of 2004. Coming from an Iranian woman and democratic freedom fighter, her speech promised to be inspirational and educational.

Imagine my surprise when, a few minutes into her speech, Ms. Ebadi stated that there are Jews in this world who are intolerant of others. At that moment, not only did she insult me and alienate more than 30 percent of her audience, she also used her powerful position as a Nobel Peace-Prize winner and Baccalaureate speaker to spread words of hate. I was further insulted when Brown awarded Ms. Ebadi an honorary degree at Monday’s Commencement ceremony.

I was present for President Simmons’s apology on the Main Green, in which she claimed that Ms. Ebadi’s anti-Semitic words had been an error in translation. I do not speak Farsi, but I do know that if in fact the translator was at fault, the University needs to be more careful when hiring translators. I also hope that Brown will use extreme care and better judgment in the future when appointing the Baccalaureate speaker. Finally, if Ms. Ebadi did indeed say that Jewish people are intolerant, I hope that the University will consider revoking her honorary diploma, since I cannot imagine that an institution that prides itself on diversity would feel comfortable honoring such a narrow-minded person.

Rachel Ezrine ’03
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Last Words on Newdow

The letter from the Rev. Tony Beck ’65 is disquieting (“Newdow: Right or Wrong?” Mail Room, July/August).

First he accuses Michael Newdow ’74 of trying to force his viewpoint on society. On the contrary, Newdow is trying to keep society from forcing a religious viewpoint upon his child. Isn’t this the right of his child, or any person, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?

Then Rev. Beck denigrates Newdow’s scientific worldview, while trumpeting his own preference for placing faith in God. Not surprisingly, Rev. Beck seems to be saying that anyone embracing anything other than a spiritual worldview has it all wrong. I certainly don’t object to his feeling that way, but am relieved we have a Bill of Rights that prevents his forcing that viewpoint on the rest of us.

John M. Harmon, Jr. ’57
Pittsburgh, Penn.

In his letter commenting on Newdow’s suit, my classmate the Rev. Tony Beck has allowed his enthusiasm for God and the Bible to get away from the facts. His letter contains many errors of fact and logic, but one is particularly egregious and should surely not go unchallenged.

Tony observes that “the Bible contains eternal truths that are not subject to change.” That may or may not be true. But the Bible is necessarily interpreted by human beings, and the interpretation and understanding given many Bible verses has changed considerably over the years. And in any case, given the Chris­tian view of human beings as grossly imperfect and sinful, how can he be sure his understanding is correct?

Howard Karten ’65

So the atheist Newdow founded a religion which has a central “suggestion” to “do what’s right.” Without a God telling us so, the issue of right and wrong merely becomes the view adopted and enforced by the majority and the powerful. Even our own conscience on the issue can either reflect our Creator’s ideals, or can be so warped by our rebellion from Him (see Romans 1:28).

I hope and pray that Newdow will get to see more of his daughter—too many children today grow up with missing fathers. Alas, atheist Newdow ignores the opportunity to pray about his fatherly concern.

Polly Seidler
Sydney, Australia

Plastic Politics

It has come to my attention that many Brown alumni are inadvertent supporters of the Bush reelection campaign.

The Brown Alumni Association (BAA) is supported in part by MBNA America Bank, which issues the BAA’s Platinum Plus credit card. According to the BAA’s Web site, MBNA America, the exclusive issuer of the card, makes a contribution to the BAA for every account that’s opened and for every purchase made with the card—at no additional cost to you.

That depends on your definition of cost. Unmentioned is that MBNA Corp. is one of the top three career donors to George W. Bush. (According to open­, MBNA is right behind Merrill Lynch and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.) Of course, given the campaign finance law, the relevant contributions do not come directly from the corporations themselves, which instead effectively coerce their employees to contribute and to seek contributions from others. Nevertheless, the end result is the same, since the contributions are bundled and the corporations get political credit for them.

I am appalled to discover that supporting the BAA might amount to promoting the continuance of a disastrous presidency. Thus, I encourage the BAA to find backing from a financial institution whose politics are more consistent with the views of those the BAA purports to represent; until then, I encourage all carriers of the BAA Platinum Plus credit card—or, for that matter, any MBNA card—-to follow my example: close your accounts and transfer any outstanding balances to another bank.

Jason Leddington ’96
Riverside, Calif.

Vice President for Alumni Relations Lisa J. Raiola ’84 replies: Through its partnership with MBNA, the BAA offers alumni a competitive credit card product while earning the revenue to provide significant benefits to Brown alumni. The affinity credit card program (in which more than 10,000 alumni participate) funds more than 60 percent of the costs of basic programs for Brown alumni, including seminars with Brown faculty, career support, and college advising for alumni children, as well as alumni community groups such as Brown classes, clubs and affinity groups. 

There is no political agenda, inadvertent or otherwise, attached to the BAA’s connection with MBNA. As a corporation, MBNA is prohibited by law from contributing to political candidates; Mr. Leddington’s comments refer to donations made by individual MBNA employees acting as private citizens, who have made donations to Democratic as well as Republican candidates.

We are grateful to the thousands of alumni who use the BAA credit card, and encourage all alumni to continue your Brown experience through the BAA. Visit to get started.

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September / October 2004