Last December 13, 2013, I received a cellphone call from my mentor and dear friend, former Clinton U.S. transportation secretary (1997-2001), Rodney E. Slater. He informed me that he had just read in The Washington Post that my longtime mentor and dear friend, Charles Marstiller Vest had passed the day before on December 12, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia from his brief battle with pancreatic cancer.
Tears flowed immediately.
Secretary Slater, equally sadden by the loss of a great public servant colleague, comforted me saying, "I read his story in The Post and I immediately thought of you and your close relationship with Chuck. You know he told me to hire you immediately and I did."
Because of Chuck's personal recommendation to him, Secretary Slater sent the decision memo to his boss President Bill Clinton to sign and appoint me as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of transportation for technology policy (1999-2001).
About the seminal treatise, Science, The Endless Frontier, science historian Daniel Kevles later wrote, MIT electrical engineering professor, Vannevar Bush "insisted upon the principle of Federal patronage for the advancement of knowledge in the United States, a departure that came to govern Federal science policy after World War II." [Greenberg 2001, p. 52].
As Chuck's predecessor, the 13th MIT president, and the great former presidential science adviser for President Eisenhower and (more formally) President Kennedy and President Johnson, Jerome Weisner further advanced Vannevar Bush's vision to President Truman that put forth the tenets of the National Science Foundation, and that laid down the constructs of national policy for science advice to the president inside the White House. In this same traditional framework. Chuck made it possible for me to provide science advice to the cabinet secretary in Rodney E. Slater (1999-2001). Secretary Slater and I have maintained our close relationship, since his cabinet post, and I continue to provide science advice to him even to this day.
Charles M. Vest showed me who I am in his quiet truth about who he was.
In Spanish, there is an old saying:
He who speaks the truth often talks to himself."
Even so, a mentor, like Charles M. Vest, always spoke the truth about fullest access to and participation in science and technology, especially among women and underrepresented minorities like me. I so admired my mentor and dear late friend, because he "walked what he talked" about the truth of being bold in your creativity in creating knowledge, as we provide education and career opportunity for others from all walks of life.
Access to education and equal opportunity for all is so poignant a value we cherish, as we celebrate the birthday of the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life was dedicated to the advancement of a great idea of equal opportunity for all, that Charles M. Vest dedicated his distinguished career, as a teacher, a researcher, an administrator, and an adviser to government, industry, and philanthropy. Chuck was a true public servant.
There is a little tendency, hidden in each of us to be only among those we are used to be among in similar groups that we feel more comfortable with, whether we like to admit it or not. It is not enough to just be against this little tendency hidden in each of us. It takes an effort by a courageous one to reach deep down inside oneself, dig it out of oneself, admit it to oneself, and face it down to overcome it within oneself for the benefit of another.
As the beneficiary of that effort by Charles M. Vest, as my dear friend and mentor, I say this truth right now. That this man always believed in me and said to himself about me, that "I am, Who I am," and that I deserve another chance to become "Who He Was" - a public servant to others. This is who this man, Charles M. Vest, became, a man with a giving heart for me, and so many others like me, throughout his distinguished career in public service.
Uncle Chuck, who I affectionately oftentimes called him, as he gave me his welcoming folksy laughter we shared, brought me to the MIT Gas Turbine Laboratory inside the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and also to MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (with the warm helping hand up assistance of MIT civil engineering professor, Jerome Connor), as one of his four newly inaugurated Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Visiting Professors (1995-1997).
We had privately discussed earlier in 1995 his thoughts about innovating a visiting professorship program for black faculty to spend time at MIT, working with faculty and students inside the world-class research facilities of the Institute along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of which Chuck led as its 15th president from 1990 to 2004, the third-longest in MIT’s 152-year history.
Please excuse my personal bias here, but I see the Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Visiting Professors Program, as the truly distinguished and lasting legacy of Chuck's presidency at MIT.
My friendship with Chuck continued for two decades, upon my completion as a MLK visiting faculty at MIT (1995-1997).
Approaching the end of my tenure at MIT, I turned to Washington for a new career move to the next level. With Chuck's backing and support of my new job application, but unfortunately, upon falling just shy of being named a White House Fellow in May 1997, six months later Chuck did the most extraordinarily selfless generosity that changed my whole life and career. He reached down and gave me his warm helping hand up and a second chance, placing me inside the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in November 1997.
To aid my second chance after a setback, Chuck called upon the assistance of his close friends and colleagues: John M. Deutch, then Clinton U.S. deputy secretary of defense (1994-95) and MIT Institute Professor of Chemistry (who then called his good friend, Bob Nash, Clinton's Presidential Personnel Director); Ernie Moniz, then-associate director of the Clinton White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (1995-1997), and then-Clinton undersecretary of energy (1997-2001), then-MIT physics department chair, and current U.S. secretary of energy since 2013; and John H. "Jack" Gibbons, former assistant to the president for science and technology, and former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (1993-1998).
Chuck's life-altering gift to me, which I later shared with him, began immediately on my first day inside the White House back in November 1997. In the hallway of the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building, I ran into former special counsel and speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, the late Ted Sorensen,
Sorensen and I shared a bus ride seat from The Blair House across from the White House to the Naval Academy in Annapolis six months earlier during my time as a Top 30 national finalist of the White House Fellows program, which Chuck made possible for me during my time in his MLK Visiting Professor program at MIT back in 1997.
During our brief ride together, Sorensen eloquently and quietly recounted his compelling story to me about the heart-wrenching moments, Sorensen and the close inner-circle of the Kennedy White House Staffers shared, consoling, grieving and supporting each other upon their return to a lonely Oval Office without the President on that late Friday afternoon of November 22, 1963, the fateful day of President Kennedy's assassination.
As the first appointment that Kennedy made, as a new president, Sorensen became known as "Kennedy's intellectual blood bank, top policy aide, and alter ego," as "he knew Kennedy the man, the senator, the candidate, and the president as no other associate did throughout his time in public life."
Sorensen and I liked each other immediately, as he, like Chuck, made me feel extremely comfortable in their presence.
Inside these great men of service to others, was a "homespun" humbleness and "sense of self" with confidence, especially so in Chuck with his West Virginia Mountaineer wholesomeness, and in Ted with his Nebraska Cornhusker charm, similar to his predecessor in Clark Clifford, Truman's special counsel and Johnson's defense secretary.
"Well I see you finally did make it into the White House after all," Sorensen whispered to me with his delightfully warm smile he always gave, as we briefly stood on the steps of the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building on that fall November day in 1997.
"Yes sir, thanks to you and Chuck Vest," I said to Sorensen, spiritually somehow knowing instinctively Ted had a quiet hand in me being there in the White House with him, but also due to Chuck.
"Oh I see, this is good," Sorensen said approvingly with his Cornhusker charming smile, much like Chuck's Mountaineer welcoming smile I always will remember about him.
Sometimes mentors, as invisible angels, work together to help one take that next step in life and career on your behalf, remarkably incognito and in secret.
With deepest appreciation, I am thinking about these two angels during this Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and at the beginning of a New Year of remembering what was those exceptional opportunities created by my mentor that got me here today.
For I celebrate the life of my longtime mentor and dear friend, Charles M. Vest, an esteemed and honorable man, who has left an indelible mark on my life, as he put me into every single job of my career, since that MIT Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professorship and the Clinton White House.
Chuck not only encouraged, but also personally trained me on how to engage the public understanding of science and technology to make an indelible impact on society and the world.
I just want you to know, I am, who I am, due to you, Uncle Chuck.
When they ask me, what I like the best, I say, it was you. When they ask us, what we like the best, they say, we all want wings.
Chuck Vest is remembered for his wings he gave to so many, through his contributions to education, his tireless advocacy for research and science, and his heartfelt support of diversity and openness, including most notably serving with your passion for mentoring others, as MIT's long-serving leader, and as former President of the National Academy of Engineering, among other noteworthy distinguished accomplishments of service "to others in otherness." In 2004, a selection of Vest's speeches from his time as President of MIT was published under the title, Pursuing the Endless Frontier: Essays on MIT and the Role of Research Universities.
I appreciate the "quiet accomplishment" of Chuck's life and spirit, and for being a wonderful personal friend and nurturing mentor to me for nearly two decades of my life.
How I first met the 15th President of MIT?
When he was approached to succeed Paul Edward Gray as president of MIT, Dr. Vest had no plans to leave the University of Michigan. He told the Boston Globe in 2000 that the decision was simple, however.
“I remember receiving a note from an economist at Michigan that said, ‘Dear Chuck, Boy from West Virginia becomes president of MIT. The American dream.’ A lot of people would find that corny, but my entire life was devoted to engineering education, and MIT is the absolute pinnacle,” Dr. Vest said. “So when the opportunity came, there really was no choice. I felt this position would offer a bully pulpit for science and technology; it was a call to national service.”
I am privileged that our paths crossed, immediately as Chuck considered the offer to lead MIT as “a call to national service,” back in 1990.
You see Chuck, as University of Michigan provost, was our small closing banquet keynote speaker at the 10th International Invitational Symposium on the Unification of Finite Element Methods in Theory and Tests, July 19, 1990, at Wooster Polytechnic Institute in Wooster, Massachusetts.
Immediately, I was inspired by the fact that Chuck took time from his travel from Boston back to Ann Arbor to close his most extraordinary life-changing day by sharing with 25 young engineers at a small banquet dinner about his joyful delight in answering his sudden call to national service. You see that call was to serve as president of MIT, just given to him by his predecessor, the 14th MIT president, Paul Edward Gray.
With emotion in his eye, I vividly and unforgettably recall, Chuck sharing with our small group of young engineers immediately before beginning his speech that he had just left a meeting in Boston Logan Airport with Dr. Gray, who had just offered him the 15th presidency of MIT.
Fate suddenly called upon the right man at the right time with the right fit. That was Charles M. Vest.
All 25 of us young engineers rose to our feet in standing ovation. I was so struck by Chuck's sincerity in sharing his life altering moment with us in such a humble setting, well before any reports of the international news broke about his momentous moment in life and career.
I liked Chuck immediately, I recall saying to myself upon meeting him two decades ago. I wanted to be just like him for the rest of my life and career upon meeting and getting to know him that evening.
That is what a role model and mentor is truly about. Being there as Chuck was that day, and every day, ever since, for the last 20 years of my life.
What I loved most about Chuck was his humanity. I recalled all I could think about was how blessed Chuck was as a humble gentleman, the moment I met him after his most inspirational keynote speech about being bold in our questioning in engineering research and science.
Since then as friends, I followed his career and he shaped mine. I collected and read every single one of his speeches and letters as MIT's 15th president. They have formed my opinions and judgement. Moreover, they have shaped my dedication to university administration, corporate governance, and government service, as well as, fed my passion to raising the public understanding of science and technology.
Chuck was collaboratively responsible for my duty to national service.
As a member of the President's Committee of Advisers for Science and Technology (PCAST), Chuck spearheaded along with his PCAST colleagues, Judith Rodin, Ph.D., then-President of the University of Pennsylvania, now President of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Shirley Malcolm of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Clinton Race Initiative Panel that I help pull together, alongside an extraordinary team of dedicated White House science office staff with Chuck's extraordinary assistance back in 1998.
Chuck took under his wing this Cincinnati-native searching for how to make a difference for others and taught me how to lead OSTP’s contribution to President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, which resulted in the policy document, Meeting America’s Needs for the Scientific and Technological Challenges of the Twenty-First Century – A White House Roundtable Dialogue for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race.
Chuck also gave me an extraordinary opportunity to served on an inter-agency working group issue, he cared deeply about, involving the future of the partnership between government, universities, and industry of the United States. This resulted in a seminal policy document of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), Renewing the Federal Government-University Research Partnership for the 21st Century.
These calls to national service bestowed upon me by Chuck's mentoring grace still stand as fundamental stalwarts of my thinking, as I continue answering that call even today in his spirit, as my absentee teacher and mentor.
Chuck, inspired me, pushed me, and empowered me. He had the foresight to see in me skills and ability I could not sometimes see in myself.
The word “mentor” has become somewhat overused or diluted these days. My relationship with Chuck transcended the common perception of a mentor.
Chuck was more than that to me, he was like a father. He was my guardian angel. He made career and life balance for me that was life-changing. He put the wheels in motion to make this important balance happen for me, even before I knew what I had in mind for myself or he had in mind for me.
Gently asking his connections to connect with me, he used his "persuasive" power as a president, and his "gentle" influence as a gentleman in a way that created opportunities for me that otherwise would not have been possible for me. His blessings took a chance on me and convinced others to believe in me as well.
In return, I will always live up to his expectations of making a difference for others in partnerships of responsibility and accountability with integrity and trust through self-expression and generosity, because I do not want to disappoint his spiritual legacy personally to me, as my mentor and dear friend.
A good friend, who is an executive recruiter, recently shared with me a conversation she had with Chuck about me. The purpose of the conversation was to conduct a reference call by the recruiter, as Chuck was called to quietly persuade with his invisible dedication to me, yet another next step in my career. I have done these similar types of quiet calls numerous of times for my own student mentees over decades.
The recruiter recounted the reference call, as she opened their conversation discussing me and noted "how he paused during the conversation and in such a loving and affectionate way" asked, “What is Ollie up to now?” Chuck said with a chuckle. What struck her most was the thoughtful way he answered her questions and the sense of pride he expressed, as he learned that I was tackling yet another career opportunity challenge.
Through our friendship I often recalled Chuck's caring nature and warmth, a gentle disposition that proved to be a source of calm, strength and reason, as I would turn to him time and time again for direction and guidance throughout these past couple of decades.
Chuck never gave up on me and I am forever grateful for his patience and persistence. He came to my rescue on many occasions, picking me up and renewing in me a sense of "self and self-worth," often at times, when I felt all hope was lost. He was my biggest cheerleader and shared in my accomplishments, when I achieved new milestones in my life, achievements that were made possible by his unwavering encouragement, job recommendations, and professional guidance.
Chuck Vest was my anchor, my rock, and I am following in his footsteps in life. He made a profound impression and impact on me that I will never forget for as long as I live.
This is a mentor in life and in spirit. This is what I am, who I aim to be better, just as you, Charles M. Vest.
I remember Chuck as a gentle and compassionate soul; someone who nourished my spirit, and who had a profound impact on my life, as well as the lives of others.
If there is anything I have learned from Chuck Vest, it is to always realize how our words and actions can shape and impact the lives of others. I have learned the importance of giving of oneself.
For it is not how much you amass that determines the full measure of a man or a woman, but it is how many lives you have touched along the way.
Chuck has profoundly touched my life, and I deeply miss him. But, I will not forget the lessons he taught me, and I will not give up the balance of a purposeful life and a fulfilling career.
Here's my pledge to my mentor and dear friend's spirit, as I remember Chuck on this anniversary of his passing.
I will uphold his honorable life as a gentleman, his spirit as a teacher and a president, and his guiding light as a mentor.
I promise to carry the beacons of discovery, inquiry, diversity and knowledge that he became as a man and so eloquently shared during his life and calling to national and international service.
I will rededicate myself to being the role model to others that Chuck instilled in me, as my enduring contribution to his legacy of selfless-generosity and service to others.
Born in Morgantown, West Virginia, Charles Marstiller Vest grew up in a coal mining community that also was home to West Virginia University, where his father was a math professor. Chuck described his mother as a gifted amateur genealogist.
“I built radios, read about space as long as I can remember,” Chuck told the Boston Globe in 2000. “I gave serious thought to studying history, but my strongest passion was science and technology.”
He graduated from West Virginia University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
In June that year he married Rebecca McCue and they soon moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. He started graduate school at the University of Michigan, while she finished her undergraduate studies and went on to receive a master’s in remedial reading.
From the University of Michigan, Chuck received a master’s and a doctorate, both in mechanical engineering, in 1964 and 1967. Remaining at the university, he became an assistant professor in 1968, an associate professor in 1972, and a full professor in 1977, teaching in areas such as heat transfer, thermodynamics, and fluid mechanics. His research was in heat transfer and the engineering applications of laser optics and holography.
“I loved teaching,” Chuck told the Boston Globe. “I always enjoyed explaining things and had some ability to do so.”
As a favor to a colleague, he took a part-time job as associate dean in 1981 and found a new path. “One day I realized I was accomplishing more as an administrator than as a researcher and teacher,” Chuck told the Boston Globe in 2000. “I enjoyed fostering the careers of younger faculty.”
Named dean of engineering in 1986, Chuck became the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.
"During his years in Cambridge, MIT’s endowment grew from $1.4 billion to $5.1 billion. At the time of Dr. Vest’s departure, more than two-thirds of women on the faculty had been hired during his tenure, and MIT had hired its first female department head in the sciences. The percentage of underrepresented minority undergraduates increased from 14 to 20. Among graduate students, that number grew from 3 to 5 percent. The number of female undergraduates increased from 34 to 42 percent," chronicles the Boston Globe.
Chuck's leadership on diversity “changed my life and that of many women in science,” Nancy Hopkins, a professor who served on one of the committees that prepared the gender inequity report, told the Globe in 2003 when he announced he would retire the following year. “It made you appreciate that a truly good person can use a position of power to fix a problem, and that is what great institutions are all about.”
Still, what became one of Chuck’s most significant legacies remained for him a cause for reflection. “I’m disappointed that we’ve been unable to move more rapidly in building the diversity of our faculty and graduate student body,” Chuck told the Globe in 2003, when asked to name his greatest regret.
As former president of MIT and the National Academy of Engineering, Chuck was a national treasure of science, engineering and technology, higher education and public policy. His vision and legacy establishes that knowledge is own by no one. Rather, knowledge is open to all through MIT OpenCourseWare (shown below), initiated under his tenure of university presidential leadership in Cambridge.
Most of all, Chuck was a champion of diversity and he was willing to stand in the gap to right past inequalities in gender and among underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Hundreds of women and minorities in the STEM fields owe our careers to the numerous initiatives Chuck established during his call to national service.
Chuck served on the President's Committee of Advisers for Science and Technology throughout President Bill Clinton's Administration and President George W. Bush's Administration, receiving respect from both sides of the aisle, and many members of Congress.
I grew up in Morgantown, West Virginia and attended public schools there where I learned many valuable things. I learned that every human being is important, has something to offer, and can be a friend and colleague." - Charles Marstiller Vest (2006)
We greatly appreciate the many stories Chuck's friends and colleagues have shared about the impact he had on their lives. It is heart-warming to know that so many others saw in Chuck the same wonderful qualities that his family did: his kindness, humor, humility, compassion, and wisdom. Chuck cared deeply about his work, but cared about people most of all." - Becky Vest and Family (February 20, 2014, The National Academy of Engineering Council and the Vest Family, Celebration of Charles M. Vest's Life, National Academy of Sciences Building, Washington, DC)
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