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Sky's The Limit For Professor Graber


Rebecca Lindwall

Harlan "Cot" Graber's 38-year career as a Cornell College physics professor was forged during a boyhood fascination with building things in the basement.

Harlan “Cot” Graber’s 38-year career as a physics professor at Cornell was forged in boyhood. He was forever building things in the basement. The soft-spoken son of a farm- implements dealer, he was fascinated with being able “to manipulate the physical world in some way.”
Young Cot’s creations ranged from a crystal radio set that received its signal from the antenna he strung between two trees, to a small motor he made from supplies such as nails, tape, wire, and a big magnet. Graber grins as he recalls the motor, which he took to his junior high science class in his native Kingman, Kan. “I just thought that was marvelous,” he says.

For Graber, the fun wasn’t only producing something that worked. He also loved understanding the principles behind its operation. Spurred by his interest in sharing knowledge with others, he decided early on that academia was his calling.

Graber, famed on campus for his one-handed set shots in basketball, retired at the end of the school year, but his work is far from finished. Not only does he plan to remain the so-called Noontime Commissioner during lunch-hour basketball games, he also plans to pursue astronomy, which sparked his interest in recent years.

“There is so much good physics in it,” says Graber, who last year gave a campus lecture on “Chaos in Astronomy.”

Physics professor Dick Jacob, with whom Graber has worked for 32 years, says Graber’s approach to astronomy is a perfect example of his ardent scientific curiosity. Having been drawn to the subject after sitting in on one of Jacob’s astronomy classes, Graber went on to learn, as Jacob says, “far more than would be required to know” to teach the course.

Graber, whom friends and colleagues admire as a modest and generous man with a wry sense of humor, has seen many changes in his field. He watched the slide rule give way to the calculator; witnessed the emergence of the computer; and was floored by the discovery of the quark, which usurped the proton as the smallest particle in the nucleus. Amid such scientific breakthroughs, Graber has sought an accessible teaching style that students commend as clear and concise. Craig Vickstrom ’92, now a fourth-year medical student at the University of Iowa, took four of Graber’s classes.

“He is extremely knowledgeable. He is extremely organized. He is extremely clear,” says Vickstrom. “There was never a wasted minute in class.”

Graber, whose nickname Cot (short for Cotton Top) stems from his white-blond hair of youth, remembers professors who rarely lifted their eyes from their notes. He vowed to do better by his students. “One of the things I always wanted to do is teach without looking at my notes or not read my notes, so I am always thinking about what I am doing,” Graber says.

Students, he adds, should not be alone in having to memorize concepts. “I don’t want to ask my students to do things that I don’t have to do,’’ he says.

Graber himself was an ace student. A double major in math and physics at Bethel College in Kansas, he graduated first in his class in 1957 and was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his doctorate in physics in 1964 from the University of Kansas. When Graber was in the job market in the early ’60s, he found himself in a fertile field. The space race had brought science to the fore and physics professors were in demand. In joining Cornell’s faculty in 1962, Graber embraced the school’s familiarity.

“I just kind of liked the atmosphere. There was a friendliness, a community. It felt like home,’’ he says.

Graber says he never dreamed his first teaching stop would be his last. Yet he never had the desire to leave. Cornell’s emphasis on teaching was in line with his own professorial interests, he says. Meanwhile, he had ample opportunity to pursue offsite his specific interest, low-energy nuclear physics. Specifically, he has continued to focus in a field close to his dissertation, which centered on the nature of the energy that aluminum 26 emits when it breaks down. His work took him to the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands on three occasions, starting in 1968 after he received a Sloan Grant for faculty research. He and his wife, Kay, packed up their three young boys to go abroad for a year. He had subsequent sabbaticals there in 1976 and 1991.

Graber conducted similar research at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory and Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. His articles have been published in Physical Review, Nuclear Physics, and Nuclear Instruments and Methods.

Professors like Graber are rare for their roots, says his longtime friend and former colleague, the Rev. Dick Thomas. Thomas says Cornell benefits as an institution from such longevity. “People like Cot have provided a tremendous amount of continuity between administrations. They are the keepers of the flames and traditions,” says Thomas, who retired in 1996 as chaplain and history professor.

With retirement, Cot and Kay, who are active members of the United Methodist Church in Mount Vernon, will have more time to visit their two sons (their eldest, Mark, died following an automobile accident during college). Their youngest, Jack, who is a new father, teaches high school in St. Louis Park, Minn. David, who has a doctorate in Russian, works at the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Without question, Graber will remain a student of science, and no doubt a superior one at that. Doing your best is one of the most important lessons he impressed upon his own students.

“He inspired me toward being excellent at whatever I was doing, and said that being smart isn’t enough—you have to master it,” Vickstrom says.

Rebecca Lindwall lives and writes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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