In Memory of my Father, My First Engineering Teacher
Abner W. Day, 1907-2003.
I grew up on a farm in one of the most rural parts of the US state of Illinois. We raised corn, soy beans, wheat, cattle, hogs, and chickens (to use the terminology of US farmers). In addition to knowing how to do those things, my father was a competent electrician, plumber, mechanic, designer, builder, and accountant. He needed those skills, and to some extent he taught me all of them. He was, I realized much later in life, my first engineering teacher. When I began studying engineering at the University of Illinois, I discovered there were many other students with backgrounds similar to mine, and the faculty had figured out that it was a good background for doing experimental research. As undergraduates we were recruited to work in research labs.
Some people have asked me about doing hard work as a child. It was hard work, but I have only a few memories of working to exhaustion. I felt then that I was just participating in the family business, just like many of my peers did in their families. And, yes, to answer another frequent question, it did instill a sense of responsibility, though I never felt I was being taught responsibility. Well before my teenage years, my father taught me to use expensive and dangerous equipment, and it was simply evident that those were not times or circumstances for child-like behavior.
My parents were determined that I would go to college. They didn’t care what I studied but engineering was the obvious choice, a choice that two of my closest high school friends also made. My father was happy about that, but didn’t understand why I later wanted to go on to graduate school. Then, one day he visited my laboratory and saw the the carbon dioxide laser I had built and was studying. It was based on a long, water cooled, glass tube. Gases were mixed and then pumped through the tube and an electric discharge was maintained in the gas mixture. There were mechanical and optical components all around the tube. It was a mass of tubing, wiring, and other components. My father looked at it carefully, listened as I gave a brief explanation, and said, “Gordon, now I understand why you like what you are doing.” I thank him for helping me get there (and here).