More from a remarkable couple

More from a remarkable couple

Trying to sum up the life of Ned and Lizie Goldwasser is one of the tougher assignments I’ve had as a reporter.

Today’s “Are We There Yet?” column in The News-Gazette focuses on their 70 years of marriage, and the active life they continue to lead. The Goldwassers, 92 and 91 years old, respectively, still drive across the country to visit their five children and grandchildren and zip off to Europe for various anniversaries. Up until last year, when he was sidelined by a stroke, Ned swam several days a week. He also loves tennis, something he asked Lizie to learn when they got married, along with playing bridge and opera (which she now adores).

But Ned’s career as a physicist and University of Illinois administrator, and their family history, could fill a book -- i.e: a story about Ned's meeting with former President Lyndon B. Johnson on plans for a high-energy physics lab in the Midwest; a photo of FDR shaking hands with Lizie’s grandmother, a feisty Democratic soapbox speaker who was routinely sent to neo-Nazi areas of New York City because party leaders figured no one would attack a 4-foot 10-inch old lady.

I thought I’d share a few of the stories they related last week, when we spent several hours reminiscing at their Urbana home. We also put segments of the interview online, so you can hear them in their own words.


Ned Goldwasser initially chose physics as a major at Harvard because he’d done well on a high school physics exam. His father had hoped Ned would follow him into business, a career he had adopted after first working as a teacher and principal. But Ned wanted to do something he loved. He eventually became deputy director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, which has led to major discoveries in medicine and our understanding of matter, energy and the origins of the universe.

His own research, in partical physics, was highlighted by his work with pi mesons, or pions, subatomic particles that helped explain nuclear force. But he said his biggest contribution was as a scientific organizer, bringing together researchers to work on experiments and “grease the wheels to make it go,” as at Fermilab.

“One of the things I loved about physics: It’s a truly international occupation,” he said. “Physicists all work on similar problems. Everyone is trying to understand the world better than we do.”

He’s proud that, during the Cold War, he persuaded President Richard Nixon to allow scientific exchanges with Soviet physicists at Fermilab. The Soviets were doing similar work, and "we had the most powerful accelerator in the world," he said. "The things we were doing were so far removed from applications of defense or anything to do with it."

The first year, the Russians came with a "commisar" to look over their shoulder, he said. The next year, they came alone. The year after that, they brought their spouses, and the next, their children.

“That’s the way the world should work," Goldwasser said.

But he also had to stand up to the Soviets, who once refused to invite the recommended number of Israeli physicists to an international physics meeting in Tblisi. Goldwasser, who headed the organizing committee, threatened to cancel the meeting. The Soviets backed down, but warned him, “You won this time; don’t try it again.”


Goldwasser learned Italian from a fairly famous teacher: Laura Fermi, the wife of Nobel prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi.

A high school physics teacher and author of other science books, Laura Fermi was working with a committee of scientists, including Goldwasser, to develop a new high school physics curriculum in the 1950s. Goldwasser mader her an offer: teach me Italian, and I’ll buy you dinner every night for a month.

Still, he didn’t feel confident enough to lecture in Italian when he arrived in Rome for a year while on sabbatical in 1957-58. For his first talk, he carefully translated an introductory paragraph into Italian, explaining why he would have to deliver the rest of the speech in English.

A man in the audience raised his hand and said, “Sorry, Ned, nobody in the audience speaks English.” He lectured that entire semester in Italian.


The effort to secure federal funding for a high-energy physics lab in the Midwest took 10 years, culminating in the creation of Fermilab in 1967.

Four years earlier, Goldwasser had accompanied a group of scientists to Washington pushing for a slightly different type of accelerator in Wisconsin. Their proposal was being considered for funding, but budget cuts were also on the table, so the group was scheduled to discuss it with President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had just succeeded the late John F. Kennedy.

Goldwasser was eager to get a lab in the Midwest, and told federal officials that Midwestern universities could be graduating more physicists if the region had a facility where the brightest scientists could do their research. One of Johnson's advisers dismissed the concern, saying most scientists were from the east and west coasts anyway.

Goldwasser had been greeted by Johnson as he got off the elevator, the president throwing his arm around Goldwasser's shoulders like they were old friends. The next person to arrive was Hubert Humphrey, who was disgruntled that the president had killed a project for another lab in Minnesota that Johnson had supported as vice president.

Johnson replied, “Well Hubert, it’s like this: now, I’m president."

The president then announced that the Wisconsin project was also being canceled, his mind clearly made up before the meeting started, Goldwasser said.


Later, Goldwasser and Fermilab’s eventual director, Bob Wilson, attended a hearing of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy on the proposal to build Fermilab. A senator from Rhode Island asked a witness from the Atomic Energy Commission what use Fermilab would be for the defense of the country. He didn’t have an answer.

According to Goldwasser, who recalled the story years later in a speech at Fermilab, Wilson stood up and said, “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

“It was such a beautiful answer to that question," Goldwasser recalled last week. "It’s so true. Funding science does nothing to make you a better coffee pot. But it does make meaningful contributions to a better understanding of our world and ourselves, and that’s what makes this country worth defending.”


The Goldwassers traveled to China with a group of other physicists during the Cultural Revolution, in July 1973, just after President Richard Nixon's historic visit. The group was shepherded around the country by "apparatchik people" as they visited Shanghai, Beijing and Hanjo, Lizie Goldwasser said.

It was unusual in those days for westerners to be in China, and the group was always surrounded by people. The Cultural Revolution turned out to be a "terrible thing" for opponents of the government who were jailed (and worse), Lizie said, but “there was a kind of purity around China at the time. Not like today, with capitalism and pink plastic.... It was all for the people.”

The new regime had yet to figure out what the school system would look like, or even health care. "It was all very new," he said.

"Barefoot doctors" would travel to villages dispensing medicine and birth control pills. The Goldwassers saw acupuncture used to treat patients with schizophrenia and as the sole anesthesia for thoracic surgery and a Ceasarean-section delivery.

"It was an amazing trip," Lizie Goldwasser said.


Goldwasser was on the UI faculty from 1951 until he was hired by Wilson at Fermilab in 1967. He remained on leave from his UI post, and 10 years later was recruited back to campus as vice chancellor for research and graduate dean by then-Chancellor William Gerberding and Morton Weir, vice chancellor for academic affairs. Goldwasser called it a "very hard decision emotionally," but felt the campus was an interesting place with bright people at the helm.

The following year both Gerberding and Weir left the UI. In what he called "one of the stupidest decisions of my life," Goldwasser agreed to serve as both vice chancellor for research and vice chancellor for academic affairs.

That arrangement lasted for one year, when Goldwasser resigned from the research position. He continued as vice chancellor for academic affairs until his retirement in 1986.

In his view, one of his chief accomplishments was saving University High School. It was yet another time of budget cuts, and Goldwsser asked the College of Education to trim several hundred thousand dollars. Without consulting Goldwasser, the college decided to close Uni High and instructed stunned students to look for another school.

“I had 50 or so students in my office crying and screaming about saving their school," Goldwasser said. "I decided that if the College of Education felt it wasn’t important to keep Uni, then my office would take over administation for it" -- but the college would still have to cut $200,000 from its budget.

Goldwasser and others felt Uni was "tremendously important" to the UI's ability to attract top faculty. Nobel-winning physicist John Bardeen wrote to Goldwasser, offering to back his decision publicly if needed. “I would not have come to Illinois if there had not been a Uni High," Bardeen said at the time.


Goldwasser also worked hard to secure research funding for faculty, especially new professors who needed money for startup projects; revived an honors program for undergraduates that had “lain fallow” for years; stepped up minority hiring at both the UI and Fermilab; and created a spousal hiring program to help the campus with faculty recruitment.

The UI had an anti-nepotism rule, so a husband and wife couldn't both be hired on the faculty. That left spouses (usually women, back then) with few options, unlike Boston, New York or the Bay Area where they could find jobs at other top universities.

Goldwasser's office would provide money for spousal hires for the first few years if individual departments didn't have the money to cover the position, as long as the person was desirable.

“I didn’t want to foist some clod on a department," he said.


In a speech for Ned Goldwasser's 80th birthday, his youngest son, Rick, said his father's "dedication to his profession is completely dwarfed by his dedication to his family. I can not remember one time during my childhood when I felt like he didn't have time for me, whether it was for a silly children's game like Chutes and Ladders or for help with my homework on the rare occasions when I got around to doing it."

Rick, a tennis instructor and photographer, said he cherished his father's "complete and unwavering support in whatever decision I have made. I am sure that it didn't seem right for a man who holds degrees from Harvard and Cal-Berkeley to have a son who couldn't finish his undergraduate work at Northern Illinois University. But I never once got the feeling that he disapproved of what I was doing."

When Rick was 8 years old, his parents took him to a Chicago White Sox game. They left after the first game of a double header, with few other fans on the street. As Rick watched helplessly, his father was beaten and robbed at gunpoint, "the most horrifying thing I have experienced in my life."

Four years later, Rick and his friend rode the train to a night game at Comiskey, unaccompanied. Rick later asked his father why he and Lizie weren't afraid to let him go.

"He said he was so happy that I wasn't scared to go back to Comiskey Park and he didn't want to give me the impression that what had happened to us that day was a normal occurrence," Rick wrote. "He said that so many parents and people in general live their lives trying so hard to avoid negative things that they are not really living life."



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dw wrote on March 29, 2011 at 9:03 am

Interesting stories, but would like to hear about Mom Goldwasser, if this is about a couple it seems at least from these clips that the coverage is one-sided.

Also, recommend some edits: "origins of the university" is most likely "origins of the universe" and "Unit was "tremendously important" to the UI's ability to attract top faculty." should most likely be "Uni was..."

Julie Wurth wrote on March 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm
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Thanks for the editing! You may want to read the original column that was in Tuesday's News-Gazette, which I posted on the blog later today.

kagni wrote on March 31, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Great article in the News-Gazette, but I have one correction - Ned is a physicist, not a former physicist. No matter what he may have, modestly, told you, some things you are forever.