PROFiles: Professor Jerry Van Hecke

As part of our alumni professor feature series, Alma Mudders, we interviewed HMC chemistry professor Jerry Van Hecke ’61.

Q: Which dorm(s) did you live in?
A: I lived in North for two years and East for two years. In 1957, televisions hadn’t been in homes all that long, and someone gave East dorm a television and it became a Friday night tradition to watch horror movies in East dorm lounge. It really was kind of amazing considering you had the entire college watching a horror movie. I didn’t really like horror movies, but I did it anyway just to hang out with everyone. The other thing in terms of history to give you some flavor on how much has changed is that we were the first dorm west of the Mississippi that allowed women to visit with the doors closed.

Q: How did you choose your major?
A: So, I’m walking with my roommate, Don Gross, to Collins Hall for lunch and I pull out my 50 cent piece and tell [him] I’m going to flip the coin. If it’s heads, engineering; if it’s tails, it’s physics; and if it lands on edge, it’s chemistry. I’m not the most coordinated guy, so I reached for the coin and it bounced off my hand. There was a crack between the sidewalk and the slab of East dorm. That coin went right in that crack, landing on edge. Still there too! I tried, after lunch, to go back and dig it out, but I couldn’t find it. So that’s how I became a chem major.

Q: What was your most embarrassing moment as a professor?
A: I was in my second year here and engaged to a flight attendant who lived in San Francisco. I had just finished [teaching] class and one kid raised his hand and said, ‘Is there any truth to the rumor that you’re engaged?’ I don’t think this still happens, but if students were engaged and people knew about it, they were carried down there and dumped unceremoniously into the Scripps seal pond, which is one of the most scuzzy places you’d ever wanna be. So I had that wonderful opportunity.

Q: Do you ever attend Mudd parties as a professor?
A: Not sure we [as faculty] get too many invites [to parties]. We would [sometimes] get invited to TQ night or Long Tall Glasses. [Dorms] used to have a really nice event; it was a wine and cheese with faculty or trustees. But then some powers that be said, ‘goodness there might be people under 21 drinking at these things.’ You gotta be realistic about people under 21 drinking in those dorms. But that was a good thing that went on for a good period of time.

Q: How has Mudd changed since you were a student?
A: My generation was different in that almost all of my classmates were first generation to college. So I didn’t come with a lot of parental expectations. Of course our parents wanted us to do well but they didn’t expect us to be the top of the curve all the time. It was our goals that we made for ourselves that we wanted to meet. It wasn’t externally imposed by friends or family, which I think is unfortunately a little different today. Many students, I think, are being pressured into things, by their parents who mean well. The pressures– it’s tolling on them. In the early days of the college, if there were pressures, it was pressure brought on by ourselves- you didn’t have to live up to somebody’s expectations for you. I think it is [better that way], because what you want to do- you were deciding.

Q: Do you have any advice to current students?
A: Take time. You’re trying to do too much. Too many of you trying to overload. Too many of you are worried about doing an absolutely perfect job, but there’s no such thing. Take time to watch a sunset, read a poem, really listen to a piece of music, talk to a friend. You’re in the driver’s seat. You can control it.

If you enjoyed this article, check out the video we filmed of Professor Van Hecke’s office tour on our Facebook:

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