Epilogue: Forgive Me, Dr. Clark!

Epilogue: Forgive Me, Dr. Clark! McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2003 > Summer 2003 > Epilogue: Forgive Me, Dr. Clark!

Epilogue: Forgive Me, Dr. Clark!

Epilogue: Forgive Me, Dr. Clark!

By John Nixon, BEng'59

In 1956 I arrived at McGill, entering the second year of a five-year engineering program. After a month, I realized that I had covered most of the curriculum in high school in England, so I applied for admission to third year and, surprisingly, was accepted. The move meant carrying two courses from second year in addition to the third-year program, and I soon found myself facing a punishing workload. I realized that I might have to fail one course if I was to survive.

I was tempted to sacrifice Machine Shop Practice, which involved working with tools such as lathes, grinders, radial drill presses and milling machines. I had never seen any of these machines before, and was frankly terrified by the lathes. They were driven by wide leather belts and pulleys from a system of overhead drive rods, with no protective guards in sight. Lathe rotation was started and stopped by means of a suspended wooden lever that the operator would yank in one direction or the other, an arrangement that was positively Dickensian.

But it was General Geology that I decided was expendable. This course involved a nine o'clock lecture every Saturday morning, which proved to be the deciding factor. It was all I could do to get out of bed on Saturday, let alone walk 12 blocks in sub-zero weather to attend a lecture. The course was given by Dr. T.H. Clark, a geologist revered among Science undergraduates. The Harvard-educated, much-honoured Dr. Clark was an intense, voluble man in his sixties, with aquiline features, steel-rimmed glasses and a full head of white hair. Geology was his passion and he lectured without notes but with an enthusiasm that I have seldom seen equalled. The lectures were delivered in a large hall before some 100 Science and Engineering students. Many engineers regarded geology as a bit of a time-waster, but Dr. Clark never failed to entertain.

I began skipping the geology lectures, sleeping in and conserving energy for courses I deemed more important. I attended barely half of Dr. Clark's classes and took very inadequate notes when I did.

On one occasion I was seated in the back row, perusing a copy of the student newspaper, while he waxed with ecclesiastical fervour on the riveting topic of glacial erosion.

Suddenly, I was aware of a pause in the verbal torrent. I looked up from my desk to see a hundred faces turned in my direction, while Dr. Clark repeated in thunderous tones: "Will the student reading the McGill Daily in the back row please leave the room!"

Dr. T.H. Clark

I glanced desperately around in the forlorn hope that it was some other errant student he was addressing. Then, gathering up my newspaper and unopened notebook, I slowly made my way with head bowed down the steps to the front of the hall. There I met the professor's withering glare with a wretched look and fled through a side exit. I stayed outside until the lecture had finished, then approached Dr. Clark to offer my abject apology. He accepted it graciously and had me promise not to repeat the offence.

Too ashamed to attend the remaining lectures, I decided to skip the final exam. At the last moment I had a change of heart. At 11 p.m. the night before the exam, I opened the course textbook for the first time and started reading. The more I read, the more I was hooked! The book was written in a readable style and was profusely illustrated with photographs of geological features and rock formations. I read it from cover to cover until dawn, memorizing whole passages of text. Then I collapsed and slept for two hours, before rising for breakfast and the long walk to campus for the 9 a.m. exam.

When the buzzer sounded, I uncovered the exam paper and started to write as I had never written before. All that dammed-up knowledge memorized hours earlier came flooding out in an unending stream. As I waded through the questions, my answers became whole essays, including verbatim chunks of narrative from the textbook.

When I came to the final question my creative juices were ebbing fast and I was mentally exhausted. The question listed numerous geological terms -- drumlin, caldera and batholith -- asking us to describe each one in ten words or less. By the time I reached the last term -- badlands -- my brain had ceased functioning. For the life of me I could not think what was geologically significant about badlands. In desperation, I scribbled "cactus and cowboys"!

Later I learned that I had earned a first class in General Geology. I was relieved, but not altogether proud of my achievement. However, I felt I had redeemed myself somewhat in the eyes of Dr. Clark.

Over 30 years later I met the great man again in his office in the Geology Department at McGill. Then in his mid-nineties, he claimed to remember that infamous classroom episode. Dr. Clark officially retired at the age of 100, after an astonishing 69 years at McGill, and died three years later in 1996.

John Nixon recently retired after 42 years as a professional engineer, most of them spent designing mining plants in Canada and overseas. He and his wife, Karmiyuni Pratignjo, BSc'60, also an ex-geologist, live in Vancouver.

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