of a Mentor
I met him in
1977 as I stood nervously in line, holding out my hand to shake his. It had
been rumored for days that the esteemed Dr. Roy Walford was visiting our laboratory.
I was working as a graduate student in Dr. Ron Hart’s lab at Ohio State
University. Ron Hart’s interest and intellect was broad, and as graduate
students we benefited from the concurrent grant support for these ideas which
included asbestos, pesticides, and radiation. But more importantly, he was one
of the few scientists at that time who had an interest in the “how and
why” a man ages. One of the other few people in the world to share this
interest was Dr. Roy Walford. Roy had written a book on immunology and aging,
a theory that body’s own immune system was responsible for a relentless
attack on the human body.
Ron had picked a few of his students to be introduced to Walford and I was lucky to be one of the chosen few. My first view of Roy was not at all what I had expected. He was smaller in stature, muscular, deep blue eyes, with a closely shaven head and a long horseshoe moustache that pulled down the corners of his mouth into a serious solemn look. In contrast to the solemn expression, he wore a colorful Indian madras shirt and vest with a brightly dyed scarf tied at his neck. He was definitely not a conformist when it came to dressing, but a striking picture of a man who dared to be different.
We were not to meet again until a year later in Tokyo, Japan. Although my central research area was pesticide research and genetic damage, I was working on the side on a project for the San Diego Zoo. The director of the zoo was providing me blind samples of primate tissue that I cultured and analyzed for ability to repair DNA damage. After a year’s work, the study revealed a correlation of repair of genetic damage and maximum lifespan in primates, a publication that earned me an investigator’s award and a trip to Tokyo for presentation.
As I stood nervously at the podium on that stage at the International Meeting of Gerontology in Japan, I noticed sitting in the front row, the same serious blue eyes, the same horseshoe moustache and a different set of colorful clothes, all belonging to the great Roy Walford. My heart skipped in fear that me, a lowly graduate student, fighting for a Ph.D., was expected to lecture to someone like Roy Walford. My presentation betrayed none of my nervousness, just the pride of my data. As I turned from the last slide and asked for questions, it was Dr. Walford’s hand that raised first. His questions then, as I was to describe years later, were not to challenge but to support my data in ways I was yet to see.
By the time I saw him again at another meeting somewhere in the heartland, my fear of him had receded to a deep respect. I had learned that the solemn expression turned to the quickest smile, which lifted the long moustache on its very end. He laughed at everything. He loved to hear my description of life in the Midwest; he loved hearing of me juggling a family and a farm with research and science. When I would tell a story of chasing two cows down a highway in time for a meeting with a great Russian scientist, he would roar with laughter.
One day, after a session in Dallas, he asked me of my plans after graduation and if I would be interested in a position in his laboratory at the University of California in Los Angeles. He promised to arrange a visit for me and true to his word, a short time later; two tickets to Los Angeles arrived in the mail. He apologized that he could not meet me at the airport, but asked that I take a taxi to his place in Venice Beach because he had arranged a small luncheon to welcome me to Los Angeles. His directions to his home included a description that involved finding a small alley behind a boarded, graffiti covered storefront on Pacific Avenue, a description while frightening at first, I was later to learn involved one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in California.
I remember distinctly entering his home, somewhat in terror, under an arch of what once had been red plastic roses, now faded a dusty pink (I later learned the roses had belonged to his mother, a women he loved dearly.) The few steps through the arch led into a huge studio that really has to be seen to be appreciated, but has been shown and described in detail in over a hundred magazines and TV specials. The walls were covered with contemporary art, large pieces hung freely from the two-story ceiling. A hand carved table by the mural artist, Victor Henderson, sat under a brightly colored Indian tent. Huge bookcases held topics on every conceivable subject from music to history, philosophy to science. I remember entering this environment in my own little wool traveling suit with matching bag and shoes feeling as if I was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
Roy tried to make me feel at ease and shortly thereafter in walked a small group of his friends that Roy introduced. I asked what they did thinking they must be scientists from his lab and they said they had a small band. (I was later to learn that Roy never limited himself in his friendships. He was equally at ease sitting on a mountain top in India, exploring a new artist or musician or talking to a Nobel Prize winner.) I asked one band member, Janice, the name of the band and she stated “The Manhattan Transfer”. My reply was one of eternal embarrassment. “I am sorry, I don’t know the band”. My days in Kansas were definitely over, and that day my true education began.
Actually it wasn’t Kansas, but Peoria. Roy used to like to say that he never knew how he found me in Peoria. My education was small country schools and my high school was in the middle of a cornfield where tractor pulls were the norm. My years in college were spent trying to finish a four-year degree in two years with two small children. Anything other than science was meant only to memorize a text, pass the exam and put the class behind me. I had little knowledge of many of the things that Roy held dear like art, philosophy, music and literature.
Roy immediately began to correct this. He gave me space in his lab, which included a small office and an adjoining large laboratory and encouraged me to paint them brightly and fill them with interesting art. I think that later the color choice of office paint in the Department of Pathology at UCLA was limited to beige and white because of our decisions to paint all the labs bright fuchsia pink, metallic greens and vivid purples. He helped me scout import stores and international bazaars and the walls were lined with our purchases of Indian prints, Mexican weaves and contemporary art. He encouraged freethinking in his lab, the atmosphere was casual, and all members working hard producing incredible science in an atmosphere that included visitors from all over the world. Every morning he would appear at the chair next to my desk to discuss the science for the day. But always when he left, I would be holding something that opened the door to a new cultural experience. There would be a small book of poetry, a copy of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, a suggestion for a piece of modern theater, tickets to a wrestling match, a flyer on a contemporary art show, a tape of modern philosophy. He lived life so fully and became impatient with anyone who lacked his vision and his depth. When he discovered that I had never been to Europe, he delighted in preparing me for my first trip. He gave me lists of things to see and do and provided introductions for me to the “right circle” to make sure I met the interesting people. His “letters of introduction” led me to barge trips in Amsterdam, feasts of smoked eel and gin, dinners in quiet bistros on the left bank of Paris discussing the effects of science on contemporary art. His letters always read something like this: “I am introducing my Kathleen to you; she is a bright and wonderful person, take care of her.”
His influence on my life continued as we published several pieces of research together, and even later as we both threw in a few thousand dollars and started a small business together. He loved my family and was a frequent guest at our home. He admired this part of the stability of my life although he never wanted it for himself. We always swore our respect for each other was so deep that one of us would always be sitting by the bedside of the other as we died and joked who would be in the chair and who would be in the bed.
Sadly, our friendship drifted the few years he was in the Biosphere. When I saw him again, I remember entering the same door down the alley behind the boarded store front, now with different graffiti. The roses were gone. He was working in his familiar spot behind his desk, dressed in the same colorful clothes with a new bright scarf tied at his neck. I remember the color of his shirt matched his eyes and the eyes were filled with tears as he took me in his arms. We both cried for the years we had let slip.
I moved to New York and Roy again worried that I would not meet the interesting people that would lead me to a world of art, science and culture so again he gave me that letter that said, “This is Kathleen. She is bright and wonderful, take care of her.”
When later during a visit to Los Angeles, I noticed the strangeness in Roy’s gait, I encouraged him to visit me in New York to see a specialist on Parkinson Disease. I will never forget that afternoon as Roy and his daughter, Lisa, returned from that visit. They sat quietly on my sofa as Roy, again with tears in his eyes, told me of the diagnosis.
With his illness, Roy gave me his last lesson in life. He fought the illness with his intelligence and the enthusiasm to live and produce. Roy and I together with his daughter, Lisa, and his friends exhausted all the literature, looking for a cure, a solution. I found myself scouting the alleys of Chinatown in New York searching out a particular mushroom, looking for the best grass to help him through the pain. He continued writing, taking courses on film production. He had me all over New York and in Dallas for just the right production shots. His letters were filled with performances I should see, a musician I should hear. He ordered me tapes on classical music and tapes of lectures of bright new philosopher.
Now my Roy has left me and I am no longer Dorothy wandering through Oz. I march for political causes; I read everything and try to see everything. I collect wonderful friends and lead my life as if each day was the last. I am not afraid to be seen as eccentric; I like wearing crazy clothes. I am still a scientist, but I see science in a new way. I am no longer a reductionist. I look for bigger ideas. I have learned from my mentor in my life.
It is my turn to give a Letter of Introduction. “God, this is my Roy. He is a wonderful and unique person who loved life. Please take care of him until I get there.”
Kathleen Y. Hall, Ph.D.