Remembering Don Avery

March 9th, 2012

My warm memories of Professor Donald Avery were renewed when I read of his death (Obituaries, January/February). I remember him as a slightly disheveled yet approachable polymath who drove an ancient and topless MG regardless of the weather. He was also the best professor I had as an undergraduate. 

I took his yearlong lab course on the history of technology. Don gave the course because he was interested in learning about the subject, and he treated his students as collaborators in that journey. It was this collaborative model that provided me with more in-depth learning, independent research, and critical thinking than I received in any of my other experiences at Brown.

My lab partner and I learned metallurgy, lab techniques, the history and nature of iron and steel production, coal characteristics, forge building, and blacksmithing in our quest to replicate the making of a samurai sword. I have a clear memory of working late at night, our coal-fired forge the only light in the huge, and otherwise modern, engineering lab, hammering away on the anvil, laminating steel and iron as white hot flux splattered off into the darkness. The butcher knife–size blade that resulted from our experiments is still one of my most cherished possessions.

My classmates also had interesting and demanding experiments, and our mutual reports provided us, and Don Avery, with more information on the nature of materials and the nature of technological creativity than we could have otherwise obtained. But what made Don so special was his obvious enjoyment of the company of students. We had the feeling that we were all peers trying to tease out truth on whatever topic. As an engineering professor he nonetheless welcomed collaborating with someone like me with a liberal arts (anthropology) concentration. He loved sailing, and I know that he later ran a course in yacht design so that he could learn how to design yachts.  

If I had to choose one thing above the others that I learned from Professor Avery, it is to never fear attacking new subjects. But that understates his influence on me and on how I work and collaborate with others. I never had the chance to say it while he was alive, so I say it now.

Eric Rodenburg ’69
Arlington, Va.

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Related Issue
March/April 2012