Warren W. Buck III
Warren W. Buck III arrived at William & Mary in 1968 after receiving his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics at Morgan State University. During his time at William & Mary he became a member of Omnicron Delta Kappa and was the founding president of the Black Students Organization.
He graduated first in 1970 with a Master of Science in Physics and later in 1976 with a doctoral degree in Physics. He then pursued a career in physics, notably serving on the faculty of many academic institutions throughout the United States. He also served as Chancellor at the University of Washington, Bothell, where he remains employed as a Professor of Physics. He also currently serves of the Board of Visitors at William & Mary.
In his interview, Buck notes, “I came with physics on my brain…the sun set and rose with physics…” The Physics Department welcomed him to William & Mary by painting his house, making it feel more like home to he and his wife. However, once he realized how few African American students were at the school, he became active, working to found the BSO and experiencing an altercation with then-president Davis Paschal through the process. Buck ends his interview with a discussion of his current hobbies and his thoughts on living a great life “without seeking money.”
Buck would like to note that Victor Ligouri, Professor of Sociology, was a big mentor during his time at William & Mary.
William & Mary
Interviewee: Warren W. Buck, III
Interviewer: Carmen Bolt
Interview Date: April 17, 2017 Duration: 01:50:13
Carmen: My name is Carmen Bolt. I’m the oral historian at William & Mary. It is currently around 10:00 on April 17, 2017 and I’m sitting in the Alumni House with Dr. Warren Wesley Buck III. And this is going to be repetitive, but could you go ahead and please state your name, the date, and the place of your birth? So to clarify, your name, the date of your birth, and the place of your birth.
Warren: My name is Warren Wesley Buck III. I’m named after my father and my grandfather. I was born February 16, 1946 at Freedmen’s Hospital, Washington, D.C.
Carmen: And what years did you go to or work at, alternatively, William & Mary?
Warren: So the years I attended William & Mary, it was between ’68 and ’70, and then ’71 to ’76.
Carmen: And we will circle back to that, but we’re going to go back a little bit. So could you tell me where and how you were raised, and please tell me a little bit about your family?
Warren: Well, I was raised in D.C. by two Midwestern parents. My father was from St. Louis. He was Phi Beta Kappa. Both of them went to university, actually Lincoln University in Jefferson, Missouri. It was an all black college, historically black college. And my mother was from Chicago, the Chicago area. She was actually born in Evanston, went to Evanston Township High School.
And actually one of my uncles on my father’s side was a Tuskegee Airman, and one of…and my mother’s brother was a Tuskegee Airman as well. My father’s brother, my Uncle Robert, flew over Italy, but my other uncle came in at the end of the war.
Carmen: Wow. Did you grow up close to them, getting to see them?
Warren: Well, they grew up…the family, my father’s family, was in St. Louis, which they still are. And I grew up in Washington, D.C. And we would take trips out there in the summer when my dad had time off, so we would drive out there in the old ’49 Dodge sometimes, and then take the train a couple of times. So I would see my family out in the Midwest at least once a year.
Carmen: How did your family end up in D.C.?
Warren: Well, my dad was the only of his brothers who didn’t fight in World War II. He had…he was the first African American to work for the weather bureau at that time, and the weather bureau is now of course NOAA, it turned into NOAA.
00:03:02 But he was an excellent draftsman, and he worked there to make the best weather maps he could make to keep his brothers alive in the war. [Tears up.] Excuse me.
Carmen: Oh, no.
Warren: So I was raised, you know, raised by just a great family relationship. And I had one brother, no sisters. And I was a Cub Scout. My father created a Cub Scout pack with the church, 15th Street Presbyterian Church, and so my mother was the den mother. And then I went on to be a Boy Scout and got an Eagle Scout and with feathers with, actually, more merit badges.
00:04:01 And I ran track while I was in junior high and high school, so I was a pretty active kid. And the family was very supportive of the things we did.
Carmen: Great. That’s wonderful. I don’t have this written down, but I read something. At one point your father was at an event or he had come in for something you were doing and he said he had to leave early, and then you walked outside. Could you tell that a little bit?
Warren: Oh, yeah. So just, I guess it was just before my Ph.D. was awarded here in 1976 I gave my first physics talk at a national meeting in D.C., and my father wanted to come. He says, you know, can I come? I said yeah. He used to come, when he could, to the track meets and, and, you know, he was, you know, both my parents were pretty active that way. So he came. So when I gave my talk he was there. I saw him in the audience. He walked in just as I was talking.
00:05:04 And it was a little ten minute talk, so it wasn’t a big old, you know, big talk, an hour talk, it was my first talk. And gave my talk, and there were a few answers, and then my father got up and walked out. And so I ran on after him, after the questions started, and I went out in the hallway.
He had set up a camera. One of his hobbies was photography. Set up a moving camera, you know, and I think…I’ve forgotten what, 16 millimeter or something like that and was taking pictures of me coming out in the hallway. And people thought Warren—afterwards they said are you going to be in “Ebony” magazine or something like that? And I said, no, it was just my dad, who’s… [Laughs.]
Carmen: He was so proud of you.
Warren: Yeah, it was good.
Carmen: It sounds like they were very supportive parents.
Warren: Yeah, it was a good setup. It was a pretty good setup.
Carmen: So when did you first think about college, and how did you choose William & Mary specifically?
Warren: Well, you know, I grew up in a family, my mother went to school for two years and dropped out when she married my dad, but my father had a bachelor’s degree. And since I was knee high to a crab they would tell me about their math professor. They met in a calculus course.
And this math professor was a special fellow. He was African American. He had a Ph.D. in mathematics from Penn, and I think at about 21 or 22 years old, something like that. And he could write with both hands simultaneously. And I never quite believed that, so I always thought about college. But when I got to high school, I just wasn’t a great student.
00:06:58 I love mathematics, and did very well there, did very well in foreign language. The other subjects I didn’t really have anything, you know, I just didn’t feel good about. And I think I was misunderstood as a young person. I wasn’t really expected to go to college. I wasn’t at the top in my class. I was probably, I was near the bottom of my class. But I got a track scholarship to go to college, and that’s how I ended up at the place where my parents went, Lincoln University in Jeff City, Missouri.
Carmen: That’s great. So how long were you at Lincoln University?
Warren: Two years. It turned out that Dr. Talbot, who was this fellow who could write with two hands simultaneously, had just left, and I was unhappy there, so I dropped out and found him at Morgan State University, where he had moved. And so I arranged…we applied there. I applied there and got in.
00:08:00 And actually talked to Dr. Talbot before I applied. He helped me get in there. And then I finished off at Morgan State in a differential equations course with him, ordinary differential equations, and I asked him, can you write with two hands simultaneously? And he…he…you know, he had this style, you know, and he says, who told you that? And of course he knew very well, and he wasn’t going to show. All the other students had no idea he could do this. [Laughs.] So he turned around—phs-phs—equal sign and, you know, he did it. The proof was there and I saw it with my own eyes. I couldn’t believe it, but it was there, he did it.
Carmen: And it was…like they were equally good?
Warren: Yeah. He was writing backwards with one hand, and forward with the other hand, and equal sign with two and, you know, he…it was just, it was one of his, you know, things to keep students interested, and it was very impressive.
00:08:59 And I had dreamed of that for, you know, ever since I could remember listening to my parents talk about it, so that was kind of a big thing for me to see that.
Carmen: Sure. And then you learned to write with both hands simultaneously?
Warren: I do, but not well like him. I’m a little ambidextrous, so sometimes I write with the left hand. If I’m in the way, if I’m on the board and students can’t see me, I’ll use the other hand. But not nearly as well as—[laughs]—as Dr. Talbot.
Carmen: Practice makes perfect, I guess. So you were at Morgan State, then, and that’s where you graduated with your B.S.?
Warren: Had a B.S. degree in mathematics there. And that’s where I fell in love with physics. I mean, I really fell in love with physics. It was my junior year, and I just… I had to take physics over again because when I took it at Lincoln I didn’t do well. I got a D there.
00:09:59 And I think I wasn’t engaged. You know, I was running track, I was doing a lot of things. It was not the place for me. And so I had to take it over as a math major at Morgan, and got an A, and I thought well, that’s because I took it before. So I was making these excuses about that. And then took a couple more and I kept getting As, and I thought that’s interesting.
And then I ran into a professor who I still am friends with now. He’s a good friend of mine. He was my mentor. And he was able to give me and several of the students a great interpretation of what physics was about. And since I loved the mathematics, it opened my world when I realized I could overlay the mathematics on what we see, what we call nature and get something out that’s meaningful.
00:10:56 And that just drove me to, you know, I’m still in love with the thing. I mean, I’m so…I’m over the top with that. And so I then took all the physics courses I could take. And I missed being a double major by one course, and that one course I had to drop because I was commuting between Washington, D.C., and I was working at night at the recreation department to pay my schooling, and I was so tired, so I dropped that course. But anyway, then I applied for graduate school and William & Mary accepted me.
Carmen: Were they your top choice, only choice, one of many?
Warren: I had three different choices. And I didn’t want to go to a big place. And I felt…I also had a job offer with Sylvania Electronics, and they wanted me to work on—this was 1968—wanted me to work on anti-radar devices, which later became the Stealth technology.
00:12:09 But I wanted something smaller and I wanted something more international, so I actually applied to Howard University, and they rejected me. I’ve been rejected by Howard three times, so I’m never going to apply to them again. So they just didn’t know what they were doing. And applied to Brandeis, and I got into Brandeis and I got into William & Mary. Those are the three schools I applied to.
And when I got the letter here that said I was accepted, I’ve forgotten if I wrote back. And Dr. Talbot told me this. He said, well, you should—I couldn’t go because I didn’t have any money. So I wrote back and I said I’d like to come but I can’t pay for it. And I got a telegram—those were the days of the telegram—and I got a telegram that said you’ll get a full scholarship, and so off I came to William & Mary.
Carmen: That’s a great telegram to receive.
Carmen: I wish I could say I received a telegram like that in my day.
Warren: [Laughs.] Right.
Carmen: Well, wonderful, so that made the decision a little easier.
Warren: That made the decision a lot easier. And I liked William & Mary, I liked the thought of it because it was a smaller university and the physics department was managing a small proton accelerator that NASA owned, and so were managing it for NASA. And NASA was doing some testing on radiation damage because of course of space exploration, and William & Mary was running that.
And so I thought great, this will be a place to get in on some world class physics and I can spread my wings a little bit on that. So that was a wonderful thing. And I think the summer before I came here, between my graduation and June—or May it was, I’ve forgotten when it was—and coming here in September I worked at Johns Hopkins.
00:14:05 My mentor, Bob Dixon, had set up a position for me, a summer position at Johns Hopkins, mechanical engineering. And I just loved it. You know, every day we’d come in, and they gave me my own oscilloscope, which I had never had before, and so I could play with it myself and learn how to move things. And I was mostly a theorist. But I really enjoyed it.
And every day at 10:00 they’d have meetings and coffee and bring out little toys to play with, and we’d see how it worked, you know, how does the toy work. We’d talk about how it worked before we took it apart and figured it out. And there was this guy who showed up. Some famous folks were there, and there was one fellow who came up, and they always called him Professor Bell. Everybody else there was on a first name basis. And so I said why do you call him Professor Bell?
00:14:58 Well, they said, he was the guy who invented the Bell lung, which is the artificial breathing machine, which of course now, you know, has taken on all sorts of incantations. And he never had a Ph.D. So they didn’t call him Doctor, they called him Professor. And he was the nicest man. He’d come and we’d talk about this and that. So I had some time there which kind of prepped me for William & Mary. And I was married at that time, too, and had a young son who was born like a month before I showed up here.
Carmen: Busy time.
Warren: It was very busy, yeah.
Carmen: Goodness. Moving with a newborn and coming to a new place and starting graduate school, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Warren: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was all…it was exciting, yeah
Carmen: Oh, my goodness. Well, given that that was kind of the environment you were living in when you moved here, do you have a first memory of arriving at William & Mary?
Warren: Oh, I’ve got lots of memories. And so I came purely because of physics. I didn’t care about anything else. I just wanted to do physics. And I remember coming in and there was Mrs. Fehr, who was Pappy Fehr’s wife. Pappy Fehr was, I think, the band leader, or the marching bad leader, I think. And she was assigned to graduate students to find us places to live and other duties. And so she found a house on Armistead for us, and so we moved in.
And my wife was from the city, she was from D.C., so it was like… She came with me and I think she was intimidated by being in an all white world. I really didn’t care because as long as I could get the physics done, it didn’t matter to me. So I think it impacted her a great deal. So one day I was in the office in the department and they asked me how was the house, did I like the house.
00:17:00 I could walk to campus. It was really beautiful, the location. I said well, you know, my wife is not happy with it. It’s dingy, you know. And they said oh, that’s too bad. And then about a week or so later, one of the professors, who’s still living here, he’s also one of my mentors, organized. He came up to me and said we’re going to come over and paint your house.
And so on a Saturday a couple professors and graduate students showed up with paint in hand and, you know, we worked up colors before they came, and so we all jumped in and painted the house. And I thought what a wonderful thing. You know, I was just like… So that was within the first, probably the first two months of being here, and so I felt completely welcomed. It was incredible. And I think also during those days, the first few months, there was a little coffee room, which is now gone, in Swem—in the physics building.
00:18:06 And it was a little coffee room, a narrow little place. It was a mail room and also, so like a mail room, a secretary’s office on one side, and the other side was just a coffee area and you had mailboxes. But also there was a little library on the wall, and they’re all journals, and they’re all the same color. And I was kind of intimidated by them because I was like I don’t know what I can touch.
And so one day I just looked on the shelf and pulled one off the shelf. Well, it was a report from NASA and in it—this was in 1968—had calculated all the times that a spacecraft could leave earth and arrive at every planet in the solar system. It was beautiful. It had all the orbital calculations there. And I thought my goodness. And I looked at more shelves, and more things on the shelf, and it was just very fascinating, so coffee was a very nice time.
Carmen: Sure. I imagine it was. And that was the first one you pulled off?
Warren: The first one I pulled off the shelf, you know, was orbits. [Laughs.]
Carmen: It was love at first sight. I can see how that would become a favorite place on campus.
Warren: Yeah, that was a favorite place for me. [Laughs.]
Carmen: Well, great. That’s excellent. So I guess maybe your first experiences on campus smelled a little bit like paint and coffee.
Warren: Yes. Yeah, it was paint, coffee, and reading and books, and, you know, classes. And also I felt, when I came, I only thought I was smart enough to get a master’s degree. You know, I was not arriving thinking I could get a Ph.D. I didn’t think I was that good. Even though I loved the subject. And then I came and I was doing just as well as the people who wanted Ph.D.s and said, well, why not? You know, let’s go for it.
Carmen: That’s wonderful. You mentioned a mentor who was one of the individuals who came and painted the house. Would you speak a little bit more about some notable professors?
Warren: Oh, yeah. So that was Bob Welsh. Bob Welsh was the fellow who organized that painting. And Bob was, I think, one of the professors who really was kind of the spirit of the department. He always organized fun gatherings and he believed in getting together and having not only an intense study, intense work on the physics, but also intense fun, and so we just had a good time. So Bob was a good guy.
And my first mentor here was Fred Crownfield, who was…I think he’d come down from Harvard, and he was one of the people who worked on radar, early radar developers, so he was my first mentor.
00:20:58 And oh, that was interesting because… He was an experimentalist, and I started working in an experimental lab my first year. And I was working in the lab and building a new lab, a new experiment, actually, and I was doing my own welding, I was trying to blow glass. I was a lousy glass blower. I mean, it was just…keep me away from the glass blowing. But I tried. You know, I tried, but it didn’t work. But I did great welding and great soldering, because my dad taught me how to solder early on.
But I needed a glass cylinder. We looked in the catalogues and couldn’t find anything of the dimensions of the cylinder that I needed for the experiment. So I went off to Safeway, off to the shop—maybe it was Food Lion at that point—and took my calipers and went to the Safeway and started measuring things on the shelf.
00:22:00 And I kept doing this, and I could see this guy kind of looking at me around the corner, you know, and he’d disappear, and I’d go. Then finally he came and he says can I ask what you’re doing? And I said yeah, I’m trying to find the right jar that I can use for my experiment. And just as I was talking to him there was this mayonnaise jar that was perfect, so I bought the jar of mayonnaise, went home, dumped the mayonnaise, didn’t eat it, it was kind of a waste.
But anyway, I dumped it and cut off the ends and, you know, faired the ends so they were nice and even, and it was a perfect little cylinder for that experiment. And when I fired it up the first time, all the pieces were together and I had this beautiful signal on my scope. And so I called Fred in and I said, Fred, behold. [Laughs.] I was so, you know, I was like pumped. He looked at the signal and he says, great signal, Warren. That’s the local radio station. [Laughs.]
00:23:04 So we realized that my hookup wasn’t great and the current in the wire was an antenna. So anyway, I learned a lot from that. So Fred was an early mentor. And I gave a talk with Fred, my first physics…it was actually my first physics talk here. It was actually my first physics talk at all. The previous one was later in the my Ph.D. time. And Fred would interrupt me on it. He used to like to interrupt people all the time, and he interrupted me a lot.
And so I was giving my talk. It was the first physics talk. And I had my little notebook—it was a big notebook of all my notes. And there were some professors in the room, and some students. And so he would interrupt me, and so the third or fourth time he interrupted me I said Fred—I closed the book, walked over to him, gave him the book and said you know more than I do, you give the talk. And then I walked out.
Carmen: You walked out?
Warren: So after that the students came up and said Warren, you’re done. You’re done for. He’s a big professor. There’s no way you’re going to live here. So I said well, you know, if that’s the case then I’m not living here, but I have to fail on my own. I can’t learn the way he wants me to learn.
So I was cleaning out my desk and he walks in. And I was nervous. And he says, Warren, I didn’t know I affected you like that. And we sat down and we talked for, I don’t know, an hour or so or—you know, we became friends during that talk. It was really wonderful. And so I didn’t work for him after that, though. But it was a great healing time. So Fred was one.
00:24:53 Then I had Franz Gross who…actually, Hans von Baeyer and Franz Gross kind of go hand-in-hand, but Franz was my major advisor for my Ph.D. And let me get before my master’s. There was Fred, there was Morty Eckhause, and Hans von Baeyer, they were teaching me things.
And there was also this fellow by the name of Gideon [Weiss]. And Gideon had just gotten his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and he was here, and he was teaching us a quantum mechanics course, and he just knew a lot. And there were 12 of us in the class. My incoming class was 12 students. And he was not a great teacher. And I remember a couple of us, I was one, went down to the chair, Rolf Winter, who was just a wonderful guy, and Pat Winter is still living here, and I see her when I’m here, and she’s sort of the mother of us all.
00:25:59 And we complained. So Rolf went to the board and wrote down an equation and said, do you understand this equation? And none of us knew. And he said, well, you need to study. So we went back. We kind of hung our heads and went back.
And then Gideon wasn’t feeling so good in the next few lectures, so I…I liked him. I went to him and I was falling behind, so I wanted to get some ideas from him on how I can best study these materials, and I asked him, you know, are you okay? He says no, some students have complained about my teaching and, you know, he was not. It was his first year of teaching. And I said, oh god. And I said I was one of them. I admitted it to him. And he looked at me like you were one? I said yes. So we became friends. And then he left. He didn’t stay. He became a psychologist after that. [Laughs.]
Carmen: Oh, wow.
Warren: So who else was there early on? Oh, [Sost], John Sost. He was the hardest, probably my hardest teacher, and I later ran into him in Washington State, he and Sally, and spent a lot of time with them in latter years.
But there was Franz Gross. Franz came. I remember he gave a talk. He was coming to interview for a professorship here. And I liked him because he did relativistic quantum mechanics, and he was just brand new and crisp, and I thought great. So I dropped out, and that’s another story, in 1970. After I got my master’s degree I dropped out and came back and he was here.
And so I asked him if I could be his student and he took me as a student. And he’s a good friend of mine now, you know, he and his wife Chris, wonderful friends. But he helped me through all kinds of things. And he would do stuff like, you know, he would invite the four of us students of his to his house and he’d roast steak on his fireplace at his house. [Laughs.] It was really pretty…it was interesting.
Carmen: Yeah, hospitality. So I had lots of mentors. And Franz was the one who introduced me to my first Nobel laureate, and that was at the Winters’ house. And I was invited there for dinner when this fellow was coming in, Hans Bethe. And I had these ideas about weak interactions, and so Franz said you should talk to Hans. And I said Hans Bethe, the Nobel laureate? And he says yes. And I was like, I can’t talk to Nobel laureates. I had this thing that they were supposed to be somewhere up in the clouds someplace—[laughs]—where nobody could touch them. You know, Mount Olympus. So I had all these visions.
00:28:59 Anyway, so I went to dinner, and I sat next to his wife, and she told me all about their travels. And I didn’t want to hear about the travels, I wanted to hear about physics. So after the dinner I went up to him. I had gotten the nerve up, and I went up to him and I said I’d like to talk to you about some ideas. He says you have to come to the office tomorrow. So I did, I went there.
And I went to the office and I described my stuff, and I filled up three boards of work. And he said nothing. He just looked at me as I was going around the boards, and I finished. He says, very good, Warren, in a very German accent. He says, but you made a mistake back there. Oh. So anyway, it was interesting. I later ran into Hans Bethe one other time when I was at Stony Brook. But anyway, those were… So while I was here, it was full of great physics and great people.
Carmen: It sounds like there were a number of individuals, even if the initial interaction was… [Laughs.]
Warren: Yes, was a little rough.
Carmen: Left a little to be desired, yeah. It ended up working out pretty well for you.
Warren: Yeah, it did. Very, very well.
Carmen: Great, wonderful. So maybe expanding on that, could we talk about some of your favorite memories or experiences in your time at William & Mary?
Warren: Yeah. So again, I came with physics on my brain. I mean, that was, you know, the sun set and rose with physics, and my son Eric. But it was physics that… So I was in the lab, Fred Crownfield’s lab one night, and one of the requirements for getting a degree was to do some teaching. You had to do a teaching assistant job in a lab. So I went into the lab and taught some general physics students.
00:30:57 And one early evening I was in the lab and these two students came in, two women came into the lab. I noticed them. They were in my lab section that I was teaching. And one was white, one was black. And the white student said my roommate here would like to talk with you. Well, right away that seemed odd to me. I said to myself, I said, why isn’t the other student talking? So anyway, it was set up kind of strange. So the black student was shy, and she actually asked me to go out to a party with her. And lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely woman. And I said, you know, I’m married, and I can’t do that. I’m not doing that.
00:31:55 And my recollection—and maybe one day we’ll meet those two women and they can give their part of that story—but my recollection was sadly they left and the woman was not very happy. You know, it’s a hard thing to, first, do that, and then be rejected in that way I would imagine would be, you know, not a good thing.
And then I realized, I said why is she asking me? And that’s when I started going outside the physics building and seeing there were no black faces out there. And this was probably, I was here maybe, you know, this was my second semester or something like that. [Laughs.] This is how much I was in love with physics.
Carmen: Focusing on physics.
Warren: Physics. And so suddenly I went, oh my goodness, you know, she has few options. She doesn’t…she has few options. And I thought that’s im… You know, you shouldn’t have those kinds of…you shouldn’t be living in that kind of situation, is my thinking.
00:33:06 And that opened me up to…and then I realized I was the first African American to get any kind of science degree here on the campus. I didn’t know all that. I mean, I wasn’t trying to break any barriers. I just wanted to do physics. [Laughs.] I still want to do physics. But I just want to do physics.
But then I started, you know, getting taken in. My mother was…my mother and her youngest sister—she had two sisters—were two of the first Head Start teachers in the country, so they were the first round of students hired—first round of teachers hired in Head Start, and they worked with Dr. [Valas] in D.C., and my mother was an activist.
00:33:57 When she went to high school, it was an all white high school in Evanston. It’s Evanston Township High School, which is still there. And my mother was there with, I think, maybe three or four African Americans. I don’t remember now how many. It was a few, but not many. And she survived that.
And I went through all black schools up through coming here, coming to William & Mary. And so my exposure was…I didn’t have a lot of exposure to cultures outside of the black community much. My mother’s mother is Choctaw, so I have Native in me. And Native people I can get along with very well. And I think the Scouts helped me connect there more than I had before. So my mother had been in demonstrations, civil rights demonstrations.
00:34:56 So suddenly I realized what she had been doing. This is why she was doing what she was doing. And now I find myself in a similar situation. So the three women that we’re going to honor for our 50th anniversary of women on campus, all beautiful women who I knew during that time when they were here. And I found them. You know, I found them on campus and we began to talk.
And that’s when I really learned it was very few people, and folks were not welcome. The president at that time, Davis Paschal, was really assigned to William & Mary because of his work with the Department of Education and segregation. You know, William & Mary was a reward for him for being so successful in segregating the schools in the state.
00:35:54 And I didn’t know all that until afterwards, but it was not a very friendly place. The physics department was very friendly. It was a completely different culture there. I mean, it was just unbelievably different.
And so I started meeting people, and that’s when we decided to form the Black Student Organization to do something so that we’d have someplace we could gather together and folks could talk with each other and have some community within a bigger community, and so studies could go easier and life could go a little easier if you have someplace you can call home and someplace you could relax and not have to fight or… And even though some of it’s imagined, all of it is real. And so there was a lot of micro aggressions done there in those days, and still today.
00:37:01 But that was in ’69, I guess, ’69. So then we formed it and I was the first president of the Black Student Organization. And I think for me, I was the only graduate student in that at the time, and I think for me it was so different. I had a fellowship in physics from the National Science Foundation, and my parents didn’t pay. And I had a little more freedom to speak a little louder. Plus I am pretty bold. I do things that most people just don’t do or want to do, but it’s just my personality. So I was able to… I could talk with the administration. So we were trying to get our BSO constitution submitted and accepted as a student club.
00:37:57 And the administration and Paschal were very anti doing that. It was just…it was a rough time. So I made an appointment to go see him, and went to his office, and told him, I said, you know, you’re a bigot. Right to his face. With a very deep Richmond accent, why Mr. Buck, I have plenty of Negroes for friends. And I said, well that’s the whole point. You don’t even know how to communicate. And so we had a toe-to-toe, and so we did get our constitution and we did get accepted as a student club. And that was, I guess, ’69, late ’69, I guess, the fall of ’69.
00:39:07 And then I was, I think, president in ’70. I think January of 1970 was my term. And then I dropped out. I had done so much civil rights stuff, antiwar things, that was taking me away from physics. It really was taking me away, further and further and further away.
And there was even a time where one of my friends, David Herzog—David Herzog…it was Paul Herzog and I were sitting around in the physics building talking, and I was just so fed up, and decided that I would set up a campaign to make a stand that a fine university like this, with a global reputation, is just damaging its image by doing this.
00:40:18 And so I promised I was going to burn Confederate flags in open public every time the band played Dixie. It was a symbol. You know, it was only a symbol. Oh, that set off a firestorm. [Laughs.]
Carmen: I can imagine.
Warren: Ooh. People were not happy about that. And so they kept calling the physics department and saying—and Bob Welsh, in particular—you’ve got to stop Warren Buck. And Bob says, we’re not stopping Warren Buck. [Laughs.] So the day of the game, which was a game between William & Mary and the Citadel… [Laughs.]
00:41:03 Every state trooper in the state was at the stadium. And they were going to arrest us. If we burned the flags they were going to arrest us for violating open fire laws in a public setting. Well, the band never played. They never played Dixie, and I don’t think they’ve played it since. So that part was successful. That was a successful nonviolent act that we could stand up to.
Carmen: Were you prepared to be arrested if it came to that?
Warren: Yes. We were prepared to burn the flag. We had little, you know, little flags on stick. Yep, we were prepared. All over the stadium.
Carmen: But you didn’t end up having to do that.
Warren: No, didn’t have to do it.
Carmen: You got your point across.
Warren: We got the point across. And I think it awakened a lot of folks, too, at that point, so… So that’s the other part of my William & Mary history.
Carmen: Sure, yeah. I actually want to, if you don’t mind, unpack a little bit of that some more.
Carmen: I just have a couple of questions. So how did you end up being elected or chosen as the first president of the BSO?
Warren: I think we looked around the room and they said Warren, you’re it. [Laughs.] I think it was… We were in my apartment. We had the meeting in my apartment. And my wife didn’t like that because she was nervous about everything, so that marriage did not last. It only lasted two years. It was just not the right marriage. But I think it was in the apartment we decided, you know, you’re it, Warren.
00:42:57 I was a major drafter of the constitution. And I had a voice that, you know, I already had my bachelor’s degree, and I could speak where others could not speak. And I learned that early on. And the reality is I’m shy as the dickens, and when I used to give talks, I’d shake, and I’d sweat. And so I took, when I was a Boy Scout, I took a speech merit badge to help me with that. And it continued on through college. And when I got here to William & Mary I actually became an actor in the Williamsburg Players. [Laughs.]
Carmen: I think I saw that somewhere, yes.
Warren: So I learned a lot here. It was a great place for me to grow. And so I played Schroeder in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I had a little piano that I wrapped around on my knees on the stage. So that was fun. And then also I did some work over here in the theater department and did some Shakespeare there. “Mislike me not for my complexion, the shadowed livery of the burnished son to whom I am neighbor and nearest bred.”
Carmen: I am impressed. It stuck with you. Do you still do some acting on the side now? No?
Warren: No, no. But all that acting helped me, I think, find my voice better. I could feel confident about speaking, that… It just gave me a presence of…that I too have things to say and I want to say them.
Carmen: Yeah, that makes complete sense. Is that why you joined to begin with, to work on that kind of public speaking? Or were you interested in theater as just the art?
Warren: I was just interested in arts. So I’m also an artist. I paint. I’m a painter. But I like the arts. And I like voice. I like that whole arena. And I painted while I was here, too, so I did some acrylics in my early days at William & Mary. And later, when I actually went to my postdoc at Stony Brook, I learned watercolor painting and the fellow who taught me was Nándor Balázs, who was Einstein’s assistant at Princeton and he was Schrodinger’s assistant in Ireland. And I had Nandor for a whole year to help me with watercolors. So I have an eclectic life.
00:45:58 And not only that. We haven’t touched on my sailing. I’m a sailor. I started sailing when I left, dropped out in my master’s here in 1970, went up to D.C., and ended up teaching at Bowie State University there, Bowie State College at the time. I learned to sail. In my bold way I walked over to Alexandria, to watch the sailing marina there, and watched the boats sail around. And some guy came up to me and says do you want to go sailing? I said I don’t know how. And so he said let’s go. So he took me out.
And I bought a boat. So I bought like a little 15 foot day sailor, learned how to sail that boat there, and so I’ve never stopped sailing since 1970. I’ve done a lot of heavy sailing, ocean water as well as coastal, so it’s been…that part of me, too, has developed, I think, very nicely. But it really started here.
Carmen: Yeah, physics might have been your first love, but you had loves all over the place.
Warren: Oh, yeah.
Carmen: You were theater, and sailing, and painting. I think I saw one of your paintings was used in an alumni magazine or alumni gazette. I was surprised to read that, actually. I went and looked and it had you as the artist.
Warren: Yeah, that was one of my paintings. And actually, it’s one of the paintings—in the room next to us there’s a painting of mine hanging there. Actually, it’s a print. That’s a lino cut that I didn’t make, but a friend did a lino cut of one of my oils, so it’s kind of a collaboration.
Carmen: Remind me to look at that before I leave. Oh, that’s amazing, so wow. There’s so many directions to go from there and I want to hit all of them. I’ll ask just a couple more questions about the time before you left William & Mary and then I would like to discuss some if that’s fine with you.
00:48:03 So you said that you ended up leaving because the activism side had pulled you maybe away from physics. I had been looking through some Flat Hats, actually, and they published a couple different things about speeches you gave. I think I did read an article about the band playing Dixie and all that. That’s quite a controversy. I can imagine that took a lot of time and focus.
I read, I think it was, yeah, November 1975 there was an article and it stated that you made your last fiery speech on May 6th of 1970 two days after four students had been shot to death by National Guardsmen during a demonstration at Kent State University, and that you also would later make a final attempt to arouse the campus over the killings at Jackson State University. It doesn’t go into any more content about the fiery speech.
00:49:05 So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about both of those speeches, if you recall what the content was and what the reaction or…
Warren: You know, the content was—I don’t remember… I have friends here who I think remember more of what I said than I do. It was a highly emotional time. And even with my training in physics and being careful, and doing due diligence, I believe those speeches were very heartfelt, they weren’t intellectual. They were heartfelt. My heart was actually broken. [Sighs.]
00:50:00 You know, later in life I had some…a lot of job offers, and I had an offer to go to Germany, and I didn’t want to go there. I went, actually, to France instead because I had a thing against the Nazis, even though Germans weren’t Nazis.
What people do to each other is just…it doesn’t make sense. It’s just kind of a…some kind of power thing that people have. They want to dominate some other people. They want to make themselves feel better by stepping on other folks. But I submit you can feel much better by embracing other people. My life is like that. So when I gave those speeches my thinking was my heart was just totally broken, that why would you do this?
00:51:03 I mean, what…why spend all this energy trying to keep people down? So it was… And also when Jackson State happened, the campus here was pretty tired. We had gone through a lot with Kent State and all the marches and whatnot. And so Jackson State got overlooked. And I was really pretty broken about that. And later I went down to Jackson State, decades later, and saw that dorm, and that dorm still had bullet holes in it. So I can’t give you the details of those speeches, but I think you can get a sense from my reaction to your question of my sense of heart.
Carmen: Absolutely. I imagine just the time itself was so tense and so heavy with that sort of event and that it does take a lot of energy to give speeches and hope to achieve some sort of coming together.
Warren: I was so worn out. I was so exhausted. And I went to D.C. I left. I left and I said I’ve got to get out of here. I wasn’t doing my physics. And I’ve got to tell you some more about that. So I went up to D.C. and a friend of mine in high school was a Panther, Black Panther, and he used to drive Huey Newton around when he came to D.C. He said Warren, you should join the Panthers. And I was almost there. You know, I said, well, I think I’ll do that, Bernard. And the day of the meeting I just said, you know, I don’t like the guns. I was in ROTC. I could break down guns and I worked at a gun factory for a while.
00:53:04 But I wasn’t ready to carry weapons. I didn’t think it was worth it. So I didn’t go. And that night the D.C. police raided the headquarters. And I don’t know what would have happened if I had been there.
So I remember calling Rolf Winter, who was here still as the chair of the department of physics. I said Rolf, I want to come back. [Choking up.] And Rolf said your fellowship is still here waiting for you. So I came back. And this time I finished my physics, I did my physics. So I came back and did that and was very happy with that, and made good friends. But I didn’t do much civil rights at that point.
Carmen: That’s quite understandable, given the impact it had on you when you were here the first time. It’s kind of incredible how welcoming the physics department just continued to be, it seems, through all phases of your time here.
Carmen: So this is the last question I’ll ask about this. But you kind of stepped away from the activism side of things when you came back. Do you have any recollection of how that continued or how it might have existed outside of your involvement when you were here?
Warren: Yeah, I picked up on some things, but I was being lured to help, and I just didn’t want to. I felt I’d done my piece of the activism to get some things going, but I had to look after what Warren Buck really wants to do. And so there are times when, you know, you can do a lot of things, but you don’t have to do them all, okay?
00:55:07 There’s no rule that says you have to do them. So even if you can do them, even if you can do it easily, you don’t have to do it. And I wanted to get my degree in physics. One of my professors, Hans von Baeyer, told me during the 1970s, before I dropped out, he says, you know, Warren—and I was thinking about dropping out of physics—and he says, you know, a radical is one thing, but a Ph.D. in physics radical is another one. And so I remembered that and I think that helped me come back and finish off the thing I really wanted to do.
Carmen: Become a different kind of radical.
Warren: I met Dean Hardy afterwards. She came, I think, after I finished, when I was at Hampton University and were building, helped building the Jefferson Lab there, and I met her. But I kind of, you know, I didn’t interact deeply with folks on that level.
Carmen: I guess the time when you came back there was a noticeable difference than between the time you were here at first, and I typically ask a question about the difference between that first year and then the last year you were here, but I guess that frames it pretty well.
Warren: Yeah, I was really…I was involved in a beautiful physics project that was… And Stanley Corrsin at Johns Hopkins, when I was there, gave me a book. [Sighs.] It was Einstein’s first edition of his book on relativity.
00:57:00 It was Stanley’s book. He gave it to me. I still have that book. And I’m waiting to give it to another student, to pass it on. And my Ph.D. work was on relativity. It was relativistic quantum mechanics and it was a very nice piece. So I wanted to finish that. I wanted to show that I could finish it to myself.
And my family came to the graduation, you know, commencement, and they made me go to the commencement. [Laughs.] I said, oh, I don’t need to go to commencement. Oh, yes, you do. So my life was changed after, you know, ’71, I came back and I did the sailing and physics. And art.
Carmen: That’s great. Yeah, I want to talk about all of those things. Maybe we can talk first a little bit about how your time here, especially coming back and finishing up your Ph.D. here, has played out in your life.
Warren: Oh, it’s played out so much, Carmen. It’s been, you know, I went sailing for three years, uninterrupted, my second wife and I, and we sailed the whole East Coast of the U.S. and lived in the Bahamas for a couple years on a boat with no motor. You know, it was really a very Spartan boat. But I learned a lot about things there.
But I reflected. I think there were few weeks that would go by that I didn’t reflect on my time at William & Mary. And I remember when we, you know, in my master’s program, you know, they did some calculations and said you’ll need this on a desert island. And I remember being on a desert island and I said, I don’t need this at all. So I remember saying that.
00:59:00 But it did come in handy in some other ways. When I went to Hampton… Well, you know, I was at Stony Brook for three years, and I went to Paris for a year, and I would take the lessons I had learned from William & Mary with me everywhere, the intense academic rigor as well as an intense sense of community and having fun, just having fun. And when I went to Hampton I helped build a Ph.D. program there in that light. Had this summer school that I created called HUGS, which was Hampton University Graduate Studies. But it was a perfect name for me.
01:00:03 And it was very intense. I had instructors from all over the world come give, you know, some of the best physicists in the world come to give their discipline to a couple dozen graduate students. And at the same time we had a lot of fun. I taught them how to pick crabs, and many of them didn’t know how to eat blue claw crabs, so I had to show them how to do that.
Carmen: You have to know.
Warren: Yeah, you’ve got to know that. I mean, you can’t leave here without knowing that. [Laughs.] So I think, you know, William & Mary has been with me the whole time. And I’m just, you know, at this point just… You know, when I got an honorary degree I couldn’t say anything. I had prepared a little speech and when I got up on that stage and saw all those people in the audience, and I’m being honored, I just cried. [Choking up.]
01:01:03 Just cried. And I thanked them. In so many ways it seems unbelievable that my life has been so wonderful, but it’s just… If somebody asked me, you know, did I plan this, was I thinking about this when I was six or seven, I would say no. When I was six or seven I was asking what the shape of the universe was because everything else had a shape. And I said, well, what’s the shape of the universe? And nobody had the answer. We still don’t know the answer, actually. But it’s just…
So anyway, the whole impact I think William & Mary has had on me has been huge. And I’m proud to have a degree from here. I have three degrees from here. I wear them very proudly.
01:01:58 And I wear them with distinction. They are symbols of my experience and time here. And I’m so happy now to be back on the board—well, the visitors. I retired. So I retired from University of Washington and my wife and I had planned this all out, you know, we were going to do this and this and this. And so I guess it was…yeah, in September of 2015, you know, okay, I’m going to retire.
Well, then the daughter got pregnant. All right. And so then we had a grandson. That changed the game. And then the second oldest son—we have four kids—the second oldest, he and his wife got pregnant. They have a daughter. And then—so we said okay, we’ve got the grandkids.
01:02:56 And we bought a house here five years ago because we like it here. And Cate’s from eastern Tennessee. And then I get a call from the governor, right, in May of last year—Warren, can you be on the board? You know, sure. That changed the game. So, you know, William & Mary just keeps coming at me in so many different ways. And I’m happy to give back in any way that I can. It’s a very special place. And there’s none other like it in the world. So I’m…a long-winded answer to your question, but that’s how I feel.
Carmen: That was perfect, actually. Your retirement maybe looks a little different than some people’s retirement, but…
Warren: [Laughs.] Yes, indeed.
Carmen: Do your children live around this area?
Warren: No, they all live—three of the four live in the Seattle area, and then the oldest, who was here when I first came here, lives in Chicago.
Carmen: Oh, I see. A little bit spread out.
Warren: We’re spread out, yeah.
Carmen: But you still have a home in Seattle, so you obviously get to see them a lot when you’re out there.
Carmen: Well, that’s all very great. You are on the Board of Visitors, as we discussed. Are there any other things you’re involved with specifically with William & Mary still to this day?
Warren: Not with William & Mary. The Board of Visitors, I’m really enjoying being on the board. And I’m hooking into William & Mary in different ways. And I’m learning what it means to be on the Board of Visitors here. I’m on the board of another university in eastern Washington. It’s a medical school, actually, osteopathic medicine. So I had some board experience, being on a board experience, and have a lot of experience working with boards.
01:04:55 But, you know, it’s fun to be here because we have interviews like this, times like this which are very special, and you get to meet lots of interesting folks here, you know, students and faculty and staff. It’s a good thing.
I still have a position back in Washington at the University of Washington in Bothell and I teach now. In fact this spring I’m teaching, so today I was loading up the homework on the web pages so that they could get the answers on the web page. So I maintain a pretty busy life.
And we have an interesting life, my wife Cate and I. She actually designed and built a little house of mud. We live in a mud house. It’s called a cob house. Six hundred square feet. So people might say that I might live in a 4,000 square foot house, you know, kind of imagine that. But no, we live in a 600 square foot house in Washington state made of mud.
Carmen: There is a tiny house movement going on.
Warren: Big tiny house. We’ve been in there for 11 years now, so it’s a nice little place. And we have a second little place, too, which is behind the studio and kind of a multipurpose addition. And that’s also an earthen house as well, earthen building as well.
Carmen: That’s fascinating.
Warren: So yeah, I’m…I think life is full. I’m also a meditator. I meditate quite a bit. I’ve been meditating for a while, sitting meditations. I’ve been doing that for oh, a lot of years. Actually I’ve been meditating in different ways. Going sailing, you know, just…when I get out on the sailboat it’s just a very different Warren that shows up, and I just love being out on the water.
01:06:53 You know, Cate and I decided that no matter where we are, we love it. There is no place we’ve been or stayed that we don’t like it. We find something there that calls to us, and that sustains us for while we’re there. It’s a very rich life, and I’m very blessed to be living it.
Carmen: That’s a great mindset. It seems like a very present way to live. Instead of always looking to the future hoping for the next thing, very grounded in the now.
Warren: Yeah. And everything we do today leads to tomorrow. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with making plans, and sometimes those things have to be done, and also you can make plans and still be present as you change those plans as need be, as you go along.
01:08:00 And by being here presently as much as you can, seeing the leaves on the trees and the beauty that we live in, it’s just incredible. I mean, we happen to be on this planet, for whatever reason, but while we’re here we might as well enjoy it. I mean, it’s a great place so it offers a lot. For me it enriches my sense of worth, sense of wellbeing. Because, you know, I am not without stress. There are stresses that enter in obtuse ways and direct ways and all sorts of different things that we all face.
01:08:59 But I think I find that having some time to enjoy just listening to my own breath is very satisfying and gives me a perspective to meet some really tough challenges during the day.
Carmen: Sure. It seems like there would be a sense of just groundedness you can get from it. And I guess that is a good way to combat the stress that I am sure comes with your still packed schedule.
Warren: Yeah, the schedule is packed.
Carmen: Oh, my goodness. I was going to ask you what kind of agenda you use because wow.
Warren: Well, when I was chancellor, and also when I was at Hampton I had an assistant to help me with my schedule because I was never very good with calendars. I’m never very good with that. And I just haven’t put my mind to it. It’s not something that… Anyway, I’m never good at calendars, so I need help.
01:10:00 And I try to admit where I need help and I do need help with a calendar. So it’s alive. You know, it changes all the time. You know, you put the date down, you put this down, and suddenly it’s moving around. And so…but I kind of enjoy it.
I enjoy that because when I retired, actually, this last summer, I had nothing on my calendar. And I looked at my calendar and there was nothing on my calendar, and I went, my goodness, there’s nothing on the calendar. [Laughs.] You know, what happened here? Some catastrophe. And so then I got used to that. I thought, well, that’s not bad. That’s pretty good. Then of course the calendar starts filling up again because nature does not like a void.
01:10:57 But you just learn how to jump from one place to the next and make it work. You know, it’s really not so much for me. I mean, if I had my druthers, I’d be probably on a beach somewhere in the Bahamas or South Pacific. But there’s a lot of work to be done. We have a lot of things to do even though—I’m still an activist and my life is short compared to, you know, the lifetime of our time here on this earth. And I want to make a contribution here that will help not only my family, but other people’s families have a better life. And if I can do just a little bit to do that, it’s worth it to me.
Carmen: That’s great. You were saying something a minute ago just about how things change and you can’t necessarily plot that out. And actually, I think in your History Makers interview, your interviewer asked you if you had a motto or something like that and I believe you said everything will change, there’s nothing permanent, and that was kind of…that just stood out to me. And I was wondering if you could speak just a little bit to the changes you’ve seen at William & Mary over the time you’ve been here and what you think about them.
Warren: Let me modify that. I think everything does change except for the lifetime of the electron. [Laughs.] That’s so far been infinite. The lifetime of the proton is ten to the 32 years, which is well beyond the estimated age of our universe, so those two things are pretty permanent. Everything else changes.
Carmen: They’re outside of the motto.
Carmen: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think the things I’ve seen change here, you know, we had a…this Alumni House was the KA House, which was a fraternity here, which was really based around a Confederate philosophy of life. And so that’s changed and now it’s the Alumni House, and we had additions. The Ukrops put a lot of their finances into helping us build the addition to this house and the renovation of it, and others as well, but I know Jim and Bobbie did a lot to help that. The facility changes.
There’s the, you know, when I was studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exam, I failed it once. The first time I failed it. The second time I took it. And then later I found a guy who told me he failed it four times at Columbia University. And of course it turns out that he’s a Nobel laureate. [Laughs.]
01:14:01 So it doesn’t matter. What matters really is learning stuff and getting… So anyway, I was studying for my second qualifying exam, which I passed. I lived in a lodge for the summer. I wanted a place where I was alone. I think it’s over now by the Reves Center, right behind the old student center, student union there, student center there. There were lodges back there. And I lived in there unofficially. Shh, don’t tell anybody.
Carmen: Oh, darn.
Warren: [Laughs.] And the housekeeping crew knew I was there, and they were very friendly. I lived on a little…I had a long table, you know, those kind of industrial tables, and I put a mattress on top of that, and I slept there and studied all the time. I’d go out and get food and come back. And I was hiding from everybody. Nobody knew I was there.
01:14:59 Those are now, you know, that’s gone, and I think that’s been taken into the Reves Center. Then were those little cottages around by the stadium as well. Those are all gone now. And the religion department was in those and some other folks. We used to be able to drive through the campus by Crim Dell. You can’t do that anymore.
And then there was Barksdale Field, which was, you know, the field hockey there. It was a big open field. Now, of course, there’s Lemon and Hardy Halls there, which I think is a very good thing that William & Mary has done to name those buildings after African Americans, one a slave that William & Mary owned and the other was Dean Hardy who was here later as a dean of students. And so those things have changed.
01:16:01 I think the hospital, my daughter was born in Williamsburg Hospital, which is now the School of Education. They took over that building. So in terms of the physical plant, things have really…some changes have happened, and I like them. They’re good changes. And they’re effective for our students. As long as they’re effective for our students, I’m happy.
When they’re not effective for the student body…we’re here for the students. Other people might think they’re here for themselves, but that’s not true. The truth is the students bring us here. That’s why we’re here. So we should make it a good place for them so they can study, they can have intense rigor, but also have some fun. Because a balanced life, you have to have a good balanced life.
01:16:51 I think in terms of the type of students here, I think they’re a similar type of students. They’re very good students, very devoted to learning. And I’m seeing more creativity, more innovation. I’d like to see much more innovation here. I love the values of William & Mary, and I want to keep those values, but I’d also like to see more innovation.
And so somehow on top of all the value to bring innovation, to bring it to a place where I’d like to see William & Mary to be rolling off the tongue of everybody in the world. Not so that they can all come here, but they can all respect the place and have a knowledge that this is a very…this is the top university in the world. I’d like to see that. And I think we can do that. We have a long row to hoe, not because we’re—we’re in great shape and it’s a good starting point, but I think it’s a big, ambitious goal. But I think we can get there in time.
01:18:04 Also Williamsburg has changed, you know, broadened up. You know, Newtown is there, and of course we bought a house in Newtown. It used to be the woods and I used to walk through there. And there’s just a lot of…my neighborhood over there is full of retirees, and great people.
The house where we live, the little cob house we live in in Washington state, it’s in an intentional community of about 100 people, and it’s out in a mini rainforest, actually. And this place in Newtown reminds us of that. There are people who are there who know each other. They talk to each other a lot. The neighbors are very friendly. It’s a very good place to be and to feel in touch with everyone. So there’s been changes here.
01:19:00 And, you know, I… The Wren Chapel remains the same, and that’s good. I went in there. I was inducted into Omicron Delta, ODK, and I came in. Sam Sadler was also—Sam Sadler was a big mentor for me when I was here. He’s always been, since ’68. I think I’ve known him then, ’69, ’68, something like that. But Sam Sadler nominated me to be inducted into ODK.
So I went to Wren Chapel and there in the Wren Chapel I took—my mother was there, and a neighbor from the neighborhood I grew up in had come, and her daughter, who was always the beautiful daughter. I loved Paulette. I don’t think she knows it until now.
01:19:58 But anyway, they were there. And my daughter was there. My wife and daughter were there. And there in the front of the Wren Chapel was a crowd of people. And I looked up and I went up to see what was happening. And there was President Paschal. And he was in a wheelchair.
So I went in through the crowd and I looked at him and I said, President Paschal. He looked up. He was very feeble. He looked up and he said, Warren Buck. And then he started to tell me all the places I had been. He had been following my career. Can you believe that?
Carmen: You made quite an impact on him.
Warren: I guess. And after the ceremony I walked with him to his car and I think we made peace with each other, so that was a really good thing. And this is a part of William & Mary I think that is so valuable to mankind, to find ways to not only work together, but to have respect for each other, you know, just plain respect.
Carmen: That’s great. Wow, I still can’t believe it, just that last little bit after all those years.
Warren: Oh, yeah. I have a lot of little stories like that, but these are little tidbits that kind of showed up just now. But yeah, I mean, it’s…
Carmen: It’s significant, though.
Warren: It’s significant. It was very significant. He died about a month after that, so… About a month or two after that.
Carmen: But you had the opportunity, after all of that time, after all that had happened to…
Warren: And that was, let me see, that was…so the last time I saw him was ’70 and then that was in the ‘80s. It was maybe in the ‘90s, early ‘90s I think it was that happened.
Carmen: Oh, goodness. We could continue doing this for probably the next six hours, but I will try and keep it to just a couple more questions if that works for you.
Warren: Okay. That’s fine.
Carmen: Okay, this is an interesting one, so you’re going to have to just, right off the top of your head when I ask this, I’m going to say some words and you’re going to tell me the very first thought in your head.
Carmen: William & Mary
Warren: Wonderful place. Wonderful.
Carmen: I always like doing that because you just never know what it will be, that the responses from anyone could be.
Warren: I had friends, physics friends, a lot of them, and I had a couple I’m thinking about now who, when you asked that question, who had terrible experiences in graduate school. They hated their graduate school. I don’t know if that’s been rectified now, but they just hated it.
01:22:57 And the ones I’m thinking about now are African American and it could be mainly likely that it was, of course, a racial thing. Whatever it was. And physics is not for the faint of heart, either. But anyway, whatever reasons they had to hate it, they hated it.
And I would tell them I loved my—[laughs]—I mean, with all the stuff we were going through, I loved where I was. I mean, it was the best place for me, and I had so much support here, and continue to have that support. You know, I feel…sometimes I feel so happy about it, I don’t tell everybody because I don’t want people to feel bad that they had their experiences which were terrible and here is this guy who has this great experience and makes it… But I do want to let people know that you can succeed at these things and you have to find the environment for you.
Carmen: And this was the environment for you.
Warren: This was the environment for me, yeah.
Carmen: Great. You mentioned that maybe the reason that those individuals didn’t have the same experience you did could have been racial. I was going to try and tie this back to the celebration for the 50th anniversary of African Americans in residence on William & Mary, and we’re about to kick off that celebration. And I just wanted to get your take on what you believe the value of diversity on campus is.
Warren: Well, I think diversity is good everywhere. I mean, I have a diverse life, so I like diversity. I think it helps. It helps each of us, as human beings, understand that we really have the same goals in mind. We may go at them a little differently, but we all have the same goals, and we want to have a happy life, a productive life. We want to have good families.
01:24:57 We want to be in an environment where we feel comfortable. We want to be in an environment where we can do the things that we like to do, we aspire to do, and the options that get presented to us, we like to take those options. I think diversity helps us understand that there are…we can learn from everyone, that there’s no one person who knows everything. In fact if you run into people who think they know everything, just thank them and walk away because they have a lot of trouble. So you just don’t want to…you just walk away, you know, thank you, move away.
I think it’s really important that the world is now getting smaller. The geography is not getting smaller, of course. We have a 4,000 mile radius of the earth. A 4,000 mile radius of the earth, 4,000 miles. And on the surface we can do that in four hours by flying, four or five hours. So it’s a small little place.
01:26:00 And so as we continue to inhabit this earth and multiply, it’s going to get smaller. We’re going to get closer to each other. And I think the more we know about other cultures the easier the transition is going to be. And I think we can learn from people with different, really different perspectives, not so much a different set of goals. The goals are pretty much the same.
Carmen: Great. Well, those pretty much wrap up my questions specifically about William & Mary. I did want to open it up to you, if there is anything you would like anyone who views this to know about your or about William & Mary that they might not know about. That could be negative or difficult things, or positive things that you think would be helpful to talk about, if there are any.
Warren: Well, you know, I’m just reflecting. I have three good friends who are vets. And they’re really good people. There’s [Sonny McQueen], who I grew up with in high school. And we’re still good friends. There’s [Bruce Flanders], who actually is in Charles City County now, and that I met when I was here in ’68, ’69, something like that. And there’s [Matt LePeez] who’s out in Washington, and he’s a Desert Storm. The other two are Vietnam vets, and a Desert Storm Vet. And I have uncles, you know. I have one uncle left who went to World War II.
01:28:04 But some of these vets are just treated…we don’t treat our people well. It’s a big flaw in our character. We send these kids, young kids, out to war. They’re just growing up. We teach them how to kill and then they go out there and do the killing and see people get killed, maimed, dismembered, babies, everybody, and then they come home and we expect them to be normal. That just doesn’t work. And it’s been like that for eons. I mean, this is not a new issue. It’s old. I mean, it’s as old as war itself. And we thank them by kind of putting them to the side, making it very difficult for them to get help.
01:29:02 The Veterans Administration is not doing as much as they should be doing. We as a culture should be doing more. The VA is just part of us. Each of us has to do some work. I’m thinking of this because my friends are going through some tough times right now and I’m very worried about one of them, so… But it’s a bigger issue. It’s a real big issue. And it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. But I think we need to really bring attention to ourselves and really focus on if we’re going to go to war—and that’s a whole ‘nother question—but if you’re going to go to war, let’s take care of the people who come back and do that dirty job for us.
01:30:00 It’s not about making money, which, you know, war makes money, lots of money. But what price do we have to pay. And the country is, you know, we’ve done that. Slavery was the same way, making money. It’s about making money.
And money is not… You know, the thing I’ve enjoyed part of my life is…I’m lucky about this in the sense that I really don’t care much about money. [Laughs.] I mean, I need it to pay bills and I need it to do things, but I haven’t sought a lot of money. But it seems to me that almost every time I need money it’s there. Now you can define that as however you want. But I’ve never been in a situation where I feel like, even when I was growing up, you always had…something would happen where money showed up to take care of it.
01:31:00 We left here, and when I came back off my sailing trip and I came here, folks said—I was going to go teach high school because I thought I had forgotten all my physics. You know, I’d been around the world giving physics talks before I went sailing. And they said no, no, no, we’ll hire you here. So William & Mary made me a part-time…a visiting part-time assistant professor or something like that. It was a long title. And they said you’re going to do this physics. So I did that. Came back and came right back, you know, it was great.
And so I decided to go to Hampton University because we were going to build this national lab, and I thought what a wonderful time to get minorities in on the ground floor of a world class operation so that if they go to get employed there and knock on the door and somebody says there’s no jobs for you that they don’t think it’s because of their race, it’s because there’s just no jobs. So I wanted to do that.
01:32:07 So I asked Rolf Winter, who was still living at the time, I said, how do I build a Ph.D. program? He says, get a lot of money. I thought, god, a lot of money. So anyway, I went over there and I started working, and suddenly I had lots of money, ten million bucks, and so we started spending it, using it for building up a nice research group with students, etc.
So I think, you know, we have this infatuation with… Dick Gregory came here. I picked him up at the airport when he was invited here by the Student Assembly at William & Mary. I’ve forgotten what year it was, ’70 or something like that, ’69, ’70.
01:32:58 And he used to talk about the green Jesus. [Laughs.] And now I understand what he really meant. It was like this thing that is a fix. So I think if there’s any message here, I think it’s that, you know, we can have sufficient—we can have a great life without seeking money.
I was on a boat. I was on my sailboat, my Shadowfax, my little trimaran in Marsh Harbor. I anchored in Marsh Harbor, wrapped it up with two other boats. My boat was 31 feet. Had a boat that was 60 feet and there was a brand new Irwin. It was a nice boat. The other boat was 72 feet, a schooner, a wooden schooner owned by David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash. And we wrapped it up together out there. [Laughs.] Drinking beer. We’re in the cockpit of the schooner drinking beer.
01:33:57 And the guy with the 60 foot boat, his father wrote a check for $10 million to a university. Wrote a check, 10 million, back then, and he was, you know, at that time Dick was chair of the board of the Bank of Boca Raton. So he had a plane. He had this Beach Baron, you know, that was beautiful. He was a pilot. He flew us in the plane back and forth from Boca Raton.
But this one time we were sitting there he says, Warren, how can you do it? I said, what, Dick? He says how can you stay out here so long? This was my second year out. And I said what do you mean? He says, I can’t go a weekend because everybody’s after my money. I have to keep track of people. I said well that’s the point, Dick. I have no money. Nobody wants anything I have. [Laughs.] So let’s have another beer. So I think money is a big thing. And this war business is, you know, it’s gotten out of hand.
01:34:59 And I think we really have to rein some of that in and I think we’d have a great life without having this fixation on that type of wealth. I think we can still be wealthy without having to, you know, just do things to get money. I had even an offer when I was sailing to run drugs, you know, and I said no. It was a good amount, $20,000. And I said no. Didn’t want to do it.
So I ended up painting, and I was selling my paintings there for $20, $30 a piece. [Laughs.] But I was happy. I was happy that I had enough money I could have champagne brunch on Sunday. But I think money is a thing we really have to look at as a culture, and the world culture as well, and power.
01:36:01 People who just want power for the sake of having power, not for any other reason.
Carmen: Yeah, it’s probably for the best that you chose the painting route versus the other route given that we’re videotaping.
Warren: Yeah, no, no. I did that honestly. I mean, I really said no to that. That was not a thing I wanted to do.
Carmen: Yeah. That reminded me I think hopefully we have time for just two more really quick questions, because the boat reminded me of one and then the time at Hampton reminded me of another, neither of which are related to William & Mary.
Carmen: The first has to do with the boat. And it was actually on your CV that you spent several months sailing around the world. And it mentioned you pursued and developed techniques for painting underwater.
Warren: Oh, yes.
Carmen: At a depth of one atmosphere. Can you tell me how you got involved in that?
Warren: Oh, yeah. So in the Bahamas, I was painting to pay for the trip, so both my wife at the time and I were painting, selling our artwork. And so I had a…I was working at University of Paris, and asking for a five month leave of absence so I could go sailing. And they said okay, fine, we’ll give you five months. So then I was expected to come back.
And so we left Martha’s Vineyard and we outfitted in Martha’s Vineyard, where we would do the summers when we lived on Long Island, and sailed the boat down to the Bahamas. And we got to the Bahamas. We had $35 in our pockets. And so…and there were no banks around. We could have had a billion dollars, but there was no way to get the money because we had no banks. Anyway, so we had this money. We ran out of money.
01:37:56 And then we lost a lot of equipment on a reef. We went out fishing on a reef, spearfishing, and the tide changed, and the waves took us, and we lost all of our diving equipment. And there we were stuck in a place called Little Harbor in Abaco, and the friends said you should stay. I said no, it’s time to go home. I have no money. I’ve got to go back to France.
And so we decided to stay. And he says you can sell your paint work, your artwork. Because I had done a painting for them the year before and given it to them and they loved it. So we were painting. And we ended up painting and staying for, as I say, three years, back and forth to the States and there. Well, my father died, which is a whole ‘nother issue of consequences.
01:39:00 But he left us a little bit of money, and so I took the money and learned to scuba dive. So we got taught by really a master diver and one of the fellows who used to be…he was one of the first to feed moray eels. He would hand feed the morays on the reef, Skeet LaChance. And he dove with Jacques Cousteau. And we were talking about diving. He dove for the Chicago police. He was a lifeguard for the Playboy mansion. He had lots of water…he was a professional water guy. He just loved water. And I said, you know, I remember somebody painting underwater with Jacques Cousteau. And Skeet says yeah, he was drawing underwater.
01:39:57 And I said, well, I wonder if you could actually paint underwater. So he says, well, I don’t know, but we can try it. So this place where I was diving in the Bahamas was off this ocean reef. So one day…so I gathered up a—I started thinking about it and I gathered up…we had a French couple that came through and I had no oil paint. I had a lot of watercolor paints, but I had no oil paint. So they gave me their oil paints because they weren’t using them, so they gave them to me. So I had oil paints.
So I said okay, now what—because I figured oil was…you couldn’t use watercolor because that would just drift away and pollute the reef, and I didn’t want to do that. So I said, okay, what do I paint on? So I decided that I was…I had been rebuilding my boat. It’s a boat, so you rebuild all the time. That’s just the way it is. And so I had some scrap wood around.
01:40:54 And so one day Skeet took us out to the reef, and I jumped overboard with a piece of wood in my hand and a bag of paint. I had a little plastic bag with paints in it and some brushes and—phshew—into the water. And so I got down on the bottom of the floor of the sea, and it was about 25 feet or so down, and sat there and, you know, the reef, and I just started painting.
I tried it with the brushes, and the brushes it doesn’t work. So I realized that the brushes didn’t work because they were so soft. The brushes were designed to paint in air, and in air what you do is you take the paint and you put the paint on your brush and you put it on the surface and you push out the air. And this is partly how this paint sticks because the pressure in between the paint and the canvas is lower than the atmospheric pressure, so it pushes together, right? That’s how it works.
01:41:55 So I wasn’t able to move the water out of the brushes. The paint just kept riding up the brushes. So I said okay. So I put the brushes away and took my fingers and I just started painting with my fingers. And that worked because I could push hard enough. And then I had to learn how—you know, paint was falling. It would drip. And at that depth it would fall at a rate where you could put your hand under it and catch it so it didn’t pollute the reef, so I could catch it.
And I had a rag which I could wipe my hands on which was also very difficult because it was wet, too. So it was really…it was kind of primitive, that first painting. But I learned a lot on that first dive. And then I’ve been doing it since. I haven’t done many of them, but even this past year, actually in February, this past February, just a couple months ago I was invited to Curacao to teach people how to paint underwater there at a Plein Air, and now called Plano Festival. I went there four years ago.
01:43:00 And they found me online and so the woman asked me to come. So I met another underwater painter who’s from the Ukraine, and he’s really prolific. And so we met and we had a great time exchanging. And his techniques were very similar to mine. So, you know, it was very interesting. By experience you learn how to do it. But the results of the work are very nice. I mean, they’re very…they have a…the work has a little shine to it.
And also at William & Mary, after I came back from sailing, I took one over here and had a chemist look at it and see if there’s any salt or bacteria caught in the paint, and they didn’t find anything. So I reasoned that it was the pressure difference. And the pressure difference was that you push away the water, you push everything out. And then once you finish the painting underwater, you take it to the surface and you lightly rinse it with fresh water and get all the surface stuff off.
01:44:04 And then all you have is paint left. It’s beautiful. And so that’s how I was doing it. And I have a few. I have six or seven of them here in my house in Newtown.
Carmen: That’s fascinating. I had no idea people went underwater and painted. That’s incredible.
Warren: Yeah, no, it was fun. So I was a pioneer. We figure I was the second one besides this fellow who dove for Jacques Cousteau to paint underwater. And so there’s a whole technique. There’s quite a few people now who paint underwater so it’s beginning to be a little bit of a genre, it’s starting to show up.
Carmen: That’s wonderful. I would love to see some of those sometime because I have a hard time even imagining the process.
Warren: Yeah. I have videos of—there’s a YouTube video online because I was in Curacao four years ago. We had a photographer come down and take some videos of me painting. I think there’s a YouTube of me, showing me painting underwater.
Carmen: I’ll have to look it up. So I have one other question for you, and it’s unrelated. But I grew up in the ‘90s, and I would be remiss if I did not bring up your television appearance on “Bill Nye the Science Guy” because that was…that’s major. And I went back and watched it before this, and it brought it all back. So how did that come about, and what are your memories of that experience?
Warren: Well, I had more hair then. [Laughs.] And how it happened was it was at Jefferson Lab, so the information officer there called me one day into the office and asked me if I wanted to…that Bill Nye had called and wanted a scientist to talk about atoms.
01:46:05 So she thought of me and asked me if I wanted to do it, so I said sure. So what happened was the crew came here to Jefferson Lab. I never met Bill Nye. He’s in Seattle, by the way. [Laughs.] And he’s also a member of the Seattle Bow Tie Club, which I am, too, and we never…our paths never cross. Sometimes he’s there and I’m not there. So anyway, we haven’t met, so at some point I’d like to meet him in person. So I’m sorry to give you the bad news that I haven’t met him, haven’t shaken his hand.
But anyway, the crew came here to film and so they filmed me here. Then they cut and pasted elsewhere. A lot of people have seen that episode and they like it, so it was a good episode. It was a fun thing to do. It was actually a fun thing to shoot.
Carmen: Yeah, I bet a lot of people, my entire generation has seen that episode, so it was a good one. But I admit I am sad that you’re both members of the Bow Tie Club, you were on “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” You two are destined to meet. It has to happen.
Warren: I think when I go back out, I think this spring I’m going to see if I get a hold of him and we can go meet, have some coffee. [Laughs.]
Carmen: Let me know how that goes.
Warren: I will tell you how it goes.
Carmen: Oh, goodness. Well, thank you for answering that just to satisfy me.
Warren: Oh, one more thing.
Carmen: Yes. Yeah, absolutely.
Warren: I’ve got to say one more thing about Bill Nye. Glennie Close, you know, Glenn, Glennie, Glenn Close. So I knew her when she was here. She probably doesn’t remember me, though. But I knew her when she was here. She was Glennie Wade when she was here, and her husband at that time had a band, the Wade Smith Band.
01:47:56 And so when I was doing my little Shakespeare stuff here, she was around, so we had some talks and would see each other at the band shows now and then. But she was always a powerhouse. She was a powerhouse then, she’s a powerhouse now. She was just incredible. Just an incredible person. So I’m looking forward to seeing her again at some point to see if she remembers me.
Carmen: It sounds like you have a lot of people coming up on your schedule that you need to meet back up with. Yeah, I was going ask if there was anything I hadn’t asked you that you wanted to add or that you would like to talk about before we wrap this up.
Warren: Well, I think the last thing is just that I’m really so thankful for my present marriage. It’s just a wonderful…I have a wonderful life partner. And all the things that I did to get here has really been worth it.
01:49:01 I wouldn’t change a thing. Some things I think about changing, but really, I wouldn’t change a thing. You know, it kind of depends on origination. It’s, you know, it’s…anything we do now propagates into the future because it’s a force. But Cate has been such a wonderful gift to me. And we’ve known each other 19 years now, so it’s…I don’t know what I’d do without her, actually. So that’s it.
Carmen: I’m happy to hear that. That’s wonderful. And your whole story really has just been inspiring, and so interesting, and multifaceted. I am so grateful you let us sit down with you and talk about this, and you gave us such a chunk of your time.
Warren: Well, thanks for asking, and I really appreciate this a great deal. And I just hope it’s useful for other people.
Carmen: Oh, absolutely. I can see this being useful in all sorts of ways. So thank you again. I really appreciate it.
Warren: You’re welcome. Thank you.
01:50:13 [End of recording.]
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