20 May 2010

Professor Thomas Francis Lester (1937-2010): A Eulogy

Dr. Thomas Francis Lester died last Sunday. Tommy served as Professor of Sociology, Department Chair of Society & Technology, Dean of the Humanities & Social Sciences Division ("HSS"), and coached several sports teams with Montana Tech. He was with Tech from 1966 until his retirement in 1997 (photo from the funeral program):

I've always thought of the little iconic football player on the entrance to the old gym (now Science & Engineering Hall) as having been modeled after Tommy; kind of looks like him:

I first met Tommy on March 17, 1990, when I flew into Butte, Montana, to interview for a position with the Society & Technology program. Yep: St Paddy's Day. Butte America's biggest holiday: no room at the inn and so I stayed with Tom & his wife Betty at their home on Quartz Street (Tech folks Chris Gammons & Colleen Elliott live there now). Tommy & I stayed up drinking & bullshitting through the better part of a case of beer until it ran out in the wee hours of the morning. Best interview I ever had (Tom as a young man at Marquette, from the funeral program:)

Next morning we ate breakfast at Tom & Betty's favorite joint where I won a few bucks in the poker machine next to our table. We then headed over to their place at "The Acres" on the Jefferson River where we fly-fished a few hours. I caught one nice rainbow and froze my ass off wading wet in a pair of blue jeans, which Betty generously ran through the dryer when we came off the river. We had a few beers and then ate at the Alder Steakhouse where I had the best piece of beef I had ever tasted.

The interview ran two more days with a presentation to the faculty, lots of meetings with administrators, and other crap long forgotten. When Tom called my Doktorvater L. Pearce Williams for a reference, Pearce asked "How's the elk hunting?" "Excellent," came Tom's reply, "and on what we pay he'll have to hunt for food." I accepted the job.

Tommy was part of an era at Montana Tech -- then called the Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology -- a period when the school struggled to transcend its narrow tradition as a mining school, develop new programs, and raise standards for faculty. Tom never fully made the shift, but he was a good transitional figure and an excellent coach if not a great leader. After the Board of Regents stripped Tech of degrees in English and History in 1975 (this was part of a larger attempt to close Tech altogether and merge the little college with Montana State University in Bozeman), Professors C. Thomas Rogers (philosophy) and Vern Griffiths (metallurgy) worked with Department Chair John F. "Black Jack" McGuire to implement a degree in "Society & Technology." This program was a good fit with the traditional mission of Tech and accepted by the Regents. When McGuire was driven out of the department by rebellious faculty who didn't like his style of leadership, Tommy took over as Department Chair and eventually as Dean.

Tom wanted everyone to get along and could not understand disagreement or dissension. When a fellow Dean used a scoring system to game HSS out of a sorely  needed -- and highly deserved -- replacement faculty position, Tommy was simply befuddled and totally incapable of anger. He was this way too with dissent within the department. When the faculty began to split into two new programs -- one in Liberal Studies and the other in Technical Communication -- Tom tried to ignore the looming divide. The two groups were contentious and so we seldom had department meetings because Tom wished to avoid the inevitable confrontations.

Still, Tommy was a good man--outstanding in one-on-one relationships and generous in his support of young faculty like me. He encouraged me to bring my young daughter Emily to school with me once my wife found work. He always managed to scrounge up travel money when I needed to present a paper at a conference. When department faculty voted a tie on my tenure he prevailed on one opposed member to switch their vote. I was granted tenure and Tom (as Chair) was not put in the position of breaking a tie.

Tom, thank you  for bringing me to Butte and helping to keep me here.

The Montana Tech of Tom's career was an intimate place where faculty were cohesive, decisions were made through the "good old boy" network, and conflict was generally not acknowledged even if it did exist. So long as your Department Chair liked you and you didn't make waves, faculty were tenured despite poor teaching, slack service, or weak scholarship. For better or worse, we have largely left those days behind. A few Department Heads and administrators still cling to the "get along, go along" model where acceptability = likability, but academic standards are generally higher now. Furthermore, the faculty union has helped increase transparency and hold administrators to a level playing field.

Tommy would barely recognize the institution today, but I think he would be proud of us nonetheless.


troutbirder said...

Well done. Office politics and institutional history isn't what first comes to mind in a eulogy but I think the unvarnished truth in this case, reveals a good man.

EcoRover said...

Thanks, Troutbirder. I'm a great believer that our day-to-day character -- office politics and contributions to institutional history -- largely define us. Whether it's academe or industry, so many people have the "just taking orders & doing my job" attitude, thinking they are a great human being in their "private" life. Sort of like Hitler--I hear tell he really loved kids & dogs. But when it came to office politics and institutional history, well...