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Cornell University Nematology Pages

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Birth and Early Days on a Farm Near Greenwood, DE

by William F. Mai

I was born in the living room of a farmhouse three miles from Greenwood a town of four to five hundred people located in Sussex County in the state of Delaware. The room was prepared for my birth according to instructions from the Doctor. He was informed just before I appeared that my birth was about to occur.

In those days doctors would come to private homes but dental patients would have to be taken to dental offices. Obviously it was more difficult to transport dental equipment. We had to be transported approximately 30 miles in a Model T. Ford automobile to go to a dentist.

When I was small my only playmates were my two younger sisters which were approximately two (Marie) and four (Gladys) years younger. There were no other children of the same general age in the vicinity of the farm.

In general we only went to the town of Greenwood on Saturday evening to purchase our groceries. My sisters and I looked forward to this trip because we were treated to an ice cream cone and we were given money to buy some candy to take home.

When it came time for us to go to school mother was positive that the school in Greenwood was much better than the rural Fisher's school nearby. Therefore, my mother took us to the school in Greenwood in a horse and buggy. Mother could have driven the Model T. Ford but she preferred the horse and buggy largely because she thought it was safer. On the trip Mother often took fresh cream and butter to the leading store to sell. Her products were quite famous. I often helped Mother make the butter. We children did our lessons on the way home in the buggy. When we passed our grandmother's house she gave us freshly baked goodies.

During this time I often got up early to help Dad feed the animals on the farm. I also helped Dad by thinning the corn. I laid down flat on a sled falling backward to thin the corn. The sled was pulled through the corn by an old gentle horse who traveled very slowly. On hot days mother would often bring me some lemonade or other cold drinks which was greatly appreciated.

Early Days Living in the Town of Lewes, Delaware

My father obtained a rather severe rupture while working on a ditch-cleaning project with neighborhood farmers. He chose not to have an operation and the rupture made it difficult for him to work on the farm. Having operations for ruptures were not as common then as now.

Mother and Father chose to move into the town of Lewes, Delaware. They chose Lewes because the schools there had a good reputation. My father obtained a job working in the Graves clothing store. Unfortunately this job involved hard tiring work and low pay.

My father's lungs were weak and he contacted a severe case of pneumonia, which resulted in his death. Unfortunately while he was in bed with pneumonia most of his insurance "lapsed." I still am sad to recall his efforts to obtain his breath just before he passed away.

Working My Way Through the 7th and 8th Grades, High School, College and Graduate School to Obtain a Ph.D.

My father died when I was in the 6th grade in Lewes, Delaware School. Most of my parent's insurance lapsed while my father was in bed with pneumonia, his terminal illness. As a result we did not have funds to purchase food and other necessities for my mother, my two younger sisters, Marie and Gladys, and myself. To obtain funds my mother obtained a part-time position in a garment factory and I obtained a job on a milk truck carrying bottles of milk to houses. I arose at 3:30 a.m. to meet the milk truck and as a result, I am still an early riser.

My older sister, Marie, took very good care of her younger sister, Gladys, who was very cooperative. Mother, somehow found sufficient funds for us to take piano lessons.

High School Days

During the beginning of my high school career I continued to work on the milk truck. However, I soon accepted a job carrying groceries for customers of the American store to their cars and nearby homes ad doing other odd jobs. Later I transferred to the A & P store when they offered me more work. Mother continued to earn funds by working in the garment factory. Our financial situation became much less acute when mother married Mr. David Brittingham who managed the locally-owned electric plant. Mother, my two sisters, and I moved into Mr. Brittingham's home with Mr. Brittingham and his grown son, Howard. The six of us got along very well.

Academically I was second in my class in high school although I was very busy. In addition to playing three sports, soccer, basketball, and baseball, I was President of the Student Body and several other organizations. I needed to work to help buy groceries and other necessities for the family. The summer after graduating from high school I was given a job "running" a clothing store in Lewes, The Mahlon Graves Store. I declined to continue working in the store in the fall because I had decided to attend the University of Delaware at Newark, Delaware.

The urging of my former High School English Teacher, Miss Beebe, helped me make this decision. I took Miss Beebe's course and I helped her write the school yearbook and several other publications. She came to the clothing store when business was slack and discussed with me the value of a college education and convinced me that I would be able to find financial aid because of my good grades in High School. Mr. Graves urged me to stay with the store. I was helped to afford education because my parents had taken out a small insurance policy to pay for the costs of some of my college education.

Attending the University of Delaware

I held four jobs while working my way through the undergraduate program of the University of Delaware. The most important was waiting on tables for all of my meals. After arriving on campus at 10:00 in the morning I waited on tables at the football training table at noon. I did not purchase a meal the entire time I was at Delaware. Professor R. O. Bausman employed Jack Lafferty, a classmate of mine, and me to help conduct a land use study of Sussex County Delaware during the summer months with other employment during the other months. A car was needed for this project and I was able to purchase a small ten-year-old Plymouth, my first car, which I enjoyed very much. I was paid 5 per mile while working on the project. Dr. Bausman was chiefly responsible for me obtaining a job taking care of a home furnace for which I obtained a very comfortable room near the campus. Her Scottie dog attended classes with me and enjoyed riding in my Plymouth with me I was given a second room in which to study. Dr. Bausman also helped me obtain a position helping a plant pathologist in his research. I became so interested in plant pathology that I obtained a Ph.D. degree in this area at Cornell University. After serving in the Navy I was given a position in this area at Cornell where I taught my first course in plant pathology (nematology) at Cornell. I published approximately 300 papers and later became Chair of the Department. Because of the four jobs I was able to save some money to pay for one semester in the Cornell Graduate School when no assistantships were available. For the remainder of the time I was there I held an Assistantship. I concluded that a major in plant pathology was better suited for me than one in human medicine.

Fifty Plus Years at Cornell University

I traveled from the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware to Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania Railroad Train and to Ithaca on the Black Diamond Train of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. I arrived in Ithaca in September, 1939.

At that time there was no air service to and from Ithaca. On the other hand, there was very good train service. Most of the business travel by Cornellians was by train.

The extension professors traveled primarily by train. Extension Professor Dr. Charlie Chupp informed me that he wrote his Plant Pathology book on these rather lengthy train trips.

Cornell was considerably smaller in 1939 than it is now. It was approximately one-half the size then that it is now.

There were approximately 40 graduate students in the Department of Plant Pathology in 1939. Only two of the students were women. Now approximately 50% of the graduate students are women.

Most of the graduate students were married, a number with children. It was in the later stages of the big depression and jobs were hard to find. As an example four graduate students had finished all requirements for the Ph.D. but had not taken their final examinations — because they would lose their assistantships and would lose the small salaries they received. They needed the funds to support their families. All four students graduated and became departmental chairs at universities in the United States.

Most of the assistantships were field-oriented: Professor H. H. Whetzel of the Department of Plant Pathology established, what he called, Industrial Fellowships to solve special problems. These fellowships at first were paid for by crop growers and commercial firms. The first one was established in 1909 and by 1922 there were 26. The cost to the sponsor was $1,500 for each fellowship. The student receiving a fellowship was paid $750 the first two years and $1,000 the third and fourth years. The fellowships were increased to $1,000, $1,200, and $1,500 and they were paid for by the State of New York.

When I arrived at Cornell they were called State Assistantships. These assistantships are still important in the graduate program in the Department of Plant Pathology at Cornell.

In field assistantships the students often were away from Ithaca for extended periods. There was no University fleet vehicles, and graduate students and professors were forced to use their own cars. They received 5/mile from the university. Most of the graduate students had old cars and we had some strange happenings on trips. The battery of my 1931 Chevrolet was under the front seat and its carrier became weakened by rust and it fell and was being dragged along the road — what a strange sound! Fortunately this was near a small garage near Auburn, New York. Unfortunately I did not have enough money to purchase a workable second-hand battery. The kind garage owner installed a battery in my car and permitted me to pay him on my next trip to the Auburn area — which I was pleased to do. This kind garage man and I were friends for a long time.

We bought this Chevrolet because it had four good tires and because of the Second World War tires were scarce. Unfortunately the rubberized top leaked.

As a result Barbara and I bought some new material and replaced the top. To test our repair work we sat in the car during the next rainstorm. We were both pleased when it did not leak. When I took my major professor, Dr. F. W. Blodgett to see my field plots in my car he commented "Bill, you will never be accused of pleasure riding in this car." On the other hand, the car gave Barbara and me much pleasure. We enjoyed taking our first-borne child, Virginia, on many short trips in the car. Also I enjoyed taking our Irish Setter, Deedie, on many field trips with me.

The Plant Science Building was approximately nine years old when I arrived in Ithaca. It was considered one of the best for studying and doing research in the plant sciences. Each professor had a small laboratory near his or her office in which to conduct research and carryout other activities. Compared to today there was no sophisticated equipment in the laboratories. Only microscopes, and those types of items were used. Each secretary had a manual typewriter and a shorthand pad. There were no computers. Electrically-operated Monroe calculators were much prized and appreciated.

Statistics were just beginning to be used in plant pathology. Dr. Blodgett and Dr. Mills were our statisticians and used their large Monroe calculators. Surprisingly there were no plastic bags or "twist items."

The following are some of the professors in the Department in 1939 and the areas in which they worked.

  • Massey — He was Chairman of the Department. He was an energetic and stimulating teacher and conducted research on a number of fungus diseases. He spent some time in Germany and introduced many of the methods used there into our department program. One was the use of oral examinations.
  • Fitzpatrick — He taught mycology. Each graduate was required to take four terms of mycology.
  • Burkholder — He taught and conducted research on bacteriology. When he retired he took all of his belongings to the hall and gave them several kicks. Several other graduate students and I were asked to pick them up.
  • Dimock — He conducted research and taught diseases of ornamentals. He made several improvements in disease control that are used at the present time.
  • Reddick and Blodgett — They conducted research on diseases of potatoes.
  • Mills and Burrell — They conducted research and did extension work on diseases of fruit.
  • Welch — He conducted research and taught forest pathology. He frequently served as Acting Chairman of the department.
  • Extension Staff — Chupp (vegetables), Barrus (field crops), Mills (fruit) and Fernow (potato certification) carried out most of the extension activities.

There was no full-time Nematologist. In fact, there was very little research conducted on soil-borne disease problems. There was no one working on disease cytology, disease physiology or biotechnology. There was no program in International Agriculture.

Interesting notes — There was only one "campus cop" and now there are more than 60. In 1939 the football team was undefeated and were recognized as the national champions. This has never happened again.

My Retired Years

I retired in 1985. Dean David Call urged me to return to help straighten out several problems which had developed in the Plant Pathology Department. I was not anxious to return, but at Dean Call's urging I did. I served as Chair of the Department off and on for 1-2 years.

After serving as Department Chair I spent two weeks in the hospital. I think that my main problem was exhaustion.

I was fortunate to accomplish quite a great deal during my retirement years. The last few years I was a regular member of the Department involved in administration. Although I continued most of my research I did not find time to publish the data. Mary Brodie, my secretary realized the situation and in order to get more published suggested I should not take time to learn to operate a computer but that I should take time with my data and she would take care of the computer work. Using this procedure a great deal was accomplished. Actually approximately 30 papers were published bringing my total to about 300.