The Polymath Hancocks

PROCESSION OF THE MAGI. Pipers leading the 1967 thesis parade are (from left) Michael Halperin ’67, Prof. T.C. Price Zimmerman, Linda Blackwelder Pall ’67, and Prof. John Hancock.

I was surprised and touched to read about the career of retiring Prof. Virginia Oglesby Hancock ’62 [music 1991–2016] in the last issue. She and I were in the same class at Reed. Indeed, I believe we were in the same chemistry class, taught by the man she would later marry, Prof. John Hancock. She was in her element, while I didn’t belong there and had to withdraw. 

I haven’t kept in touch with my classmates, so I am learning Virginia’s story only now. Brava!! This woman is serious—and always was! But more than that, her mastery of chemistry and classical music, and her work as an organizer, hint at the quality of a polymath. I respond to that with great warmth in part because I’ve got it myself (world history, astrophysics, contemporary South Africa, active in the LaRouche movement), but also because this is something that we, as a society, lack. What are we doing wrong? The polymath should be a garden-variety type of person. Instead, it’s hard to find one.

Now concerning Brahms’s choral music (her book: Brahms’s Choral Compositions and His Library of Early Music), that too is special, and insufficiently known. Listen to his motets! How is it that I had no clue about Brahms’s choral music, other than his Deutsches Requiem, until I was perhaps 65? May I digress on Brahms? This is for you, Virginia, but I suspect you may already know it. Gioachino Rossini, the composer of operas, attended a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Afterwards, he confided to his companion that he thought it was “a bit tedious.” When this shocking comment came to the ears of Brahms, his retort was highly apropos: “Rossini and Beethoven only have one thing in common: They’ve both written just one opera.” (If you don’t get it, listen to at least three of Rossini’s operas.)

 Reed recently published a remembrance of John, who died in 1989 as a mere youngster, aged 59. I would like to add my own. It goes back to my first day on campus. After I had dumped my stuff in my dorm room, I headed for the temple—no, it’s called the library. It was open stacks, so I wandered freely. One of my discoveries that day was the great encyclopedia of classical antiquity, the Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, usually referred to as Pauly-Wissowa, the names of its first editors—scores of volumes, beautifully bound in leather with decorative gold, red, and green embossing. I emerged from these holy precincts hours later, and headed over to the chapel. I entered to hear—and see—someone playing the organ. It was John, and he was playing a Bach fugue. He would have been 28 then. I sat down in the pews and listened. We were alone. When he finished, he spoke to me, and so we talked. This experience had consequences.

I fulfilled a standing ambition to learn organ by taking lessons in the chapel from Valerian Fox, who played at our Christmas concerts. It turned out that Valerian was choir director at St. Mary’s Cathedral and that John was the organist. Valerian invited me to sing in the choir! Every Sunday, John would pick me up and we would head downtown. I wasn’t a Catholic, but then John wasn’t either. We sometimes discussed politics during the drive.

Vatican II was in the future: it was a different world then, and the choir was for men only. The singing was Gregorian chant integrated into the liturgy, as it had been for more than a millennium. John played some glorious Bach compositions as recessionals.

On the chemistry side, John had a grant from one of the oil majors (as I recall) to build a molecule structured as a dodecahedron—one of the platonic solids—which he called dodecahedrane. It would be C20H20 with 12 faces, 20 vertices, and all sides pentagonal. He was also proposing to trap a metal ion inside, possibly lithium. He had a collaborator at Portland State. They coordinated their work—the Internet was inconceivable at the time—by installing teletype machines in their offices and connecting over a telephone line. John was inventive; the teletype idea was probably his.

He built the first computer at Reed from pinball machine parts—a limited creature that could only calculate the number of possible analogues of dodecahedrane if one were to substitute other elements for the hydrogen.

John also gave serious attention to students’ writing skills, and this led to his Short Guide to Chemical Writing.

Do you see? He was also a polymath. What a couple, John and Virginia!


David Cherry ’62

Leesburg, VA