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Reader Mail

Tom Phelan’s Touch

Spring 2006 Cover
I did not know the Reverend Thomas Phelan, RPI chaplain for more than 40 years, who died on March 31 [Rensselaer, Summer 2006]; but I remember him fondly for an object lesson he taught me and many fellow RPI students in 1969-1970. Those were years of intense feelings against the Vietnam War. Father Phelan joined us at several weekly silent antiwar vigils on Fifteenth Street, in front of the then-new Student Union. At first there was only a handful of protesters, but as the war continued the weekly protests grew to a much larger group.

In the spring of 1969, a large antiwar rally was held at the RPI Field House, and many students spontaneously started to hand in their U.S. military draft cards as a symbol of protest. I saw Father Phelan move to collect the draft cards from the floor himself. After the rally, I wondered what would become of the draft cards: Would they somehow wind up at the draft board?

After returning home for the summer, I received a plain white envelope in the mail, addressed to me with no return address. Inside was nothing but my draft card. It must have been from Father Phelan, protecting us idealistic but callow youths even from ourselves.

Alex Eckmann ’70
Washington, D.C.

Road Trip!

I read with interest about the special trip made by “Jack” Newkirk ’41 on a motorcycle in the summer of 1939 [“The Road From Rensselaer”]. What are the odds of another similar trip occurring in the summer of 1939? This one was by automobile and it was after I graduated from RPI in 1939. In August, accompanied by my mother, we set out to take a trip from Connecticut to California and back.

The car was a 1939 Mercury V-8, the first of the Mercury Series. This trip spanned 30 days and we traversed over 8,000 miles. At that time there were only a handful of motels in the entire country, and we took advantage of that luxury in California. Gasoline mileage was 21 mpg and we averaged 21 cents per gallon. A 30-day trip of 8,000 miles cost (for two) the magnificent sum of $80 for fuel, $80 for food, and $80 for lodging, or a total of $240. Most nights we stayed at tourist homes on the outskirts of cities along the way at a cost of 75 cents or $1. In the motels the rate was about $4 or $5 per night.

We went out on the northern route through Chicago, Yellowstone, Reno, and San Francisco. We returned via Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, and the Grand Canyon. While in San Francisco, we saw the Golden Gate Exposition, and of course visited the New York World’s Fair in 1939 too.

This same trip taken today could cost upwards of $6,000.

Lou Shornick ’39
Madison, Miss.

Science Can Explain Everything

I read recently with some dismay your cover story on spiritual faith in the Spring ’06 Alumni/ae Magazine. I think it unfortunate that you chose to feature twice in that article a particular quote by Kristen Clark ’09 (both in the third paragraph of the article as well as in a legend to one of the figures).

I am referring to the following sentence: “Science can’t explain everything.”

I firmly disagree. Science can and will eventually explain everything. The simple fact that science has not yet explained everything does not automatically prove the existence of a creator or the weakness of the scientific method. In choosing to feature that particular point of view in your piece on students and their religious observances, you provide tacit approval to those who would elevate faith over science.

I expected a publication produced by one of the nation’s leading technological universities to have a more forward thinking point of view. What can I expect in the next issue, a cover story promoting intelligent design?

Roger Sloboda ’74
Ira Allen Eastman Professor of Biological Sciences,
Dartmouth College
Hanover, N.H.

The Future of Energy: Wrong Solution Again?

The Rensselaer community must understand that the problem of energy is a social one, not a technical one. The central question is not “What kind of energy technologies do we need?” Rather, it is “What kind of world do we want to live in?” The answers will not be found through research and development in the classroom, laboratory, or engineering firm but through civic engagement in the town hall.

RPI is home to one of the world’s leading departments for Science and Technology Studies. If the Institute hopes to contribute any significant and lasting solutions to the energy problem, it would do well to engage those faculty and students instead of joining the mad dash for the illusive — and ultimately unachievable — technological fix.

Brent Voelker ’91
New Hartford, Conn.

We’d love to hear from you! To provide space for as many letters as possible, we often must edit them for length. Please address correspondence to: Rensselaer Magazine, Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180, e-mail to, or call (518) 276-6531.

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