The "Most Sought-After Class"
The Class of 1956 made the New York Times and Life magazine. Fifty years later, it’s clear the attention was warranted.
When the May 7, 1956, issue of Life magazine hit the newsstand at the Coop, it also hit very close to home for ’56s. On the cover, next to the magazine’s iconic red logo, blared the headline “The Need for Better Scientists and M.I.T.’s Answer.” Inside, Life devoted 11 pages to the topic. An article called “A Quest for Quality in Scientists” described how MIT was addressing an alarming phenomenon that the magazine had covered in March: the fast-growing number of scientists and engineers training in the Soviet Union. (This was followed by President James R. Killian Jr.’s four-point plan to address the shortage of scientists in the United States.) According to the May 7 article, “The most thoughtful American educators and scientific leaders warn that the only hope for the U.S. is to concentrate on turning out better scientists and engineers than Russia.”
In order to meet that need, the article continued, “M.I.T. is now engaged in the greatest changes of its 95-year history,” including curriculum revisions, a renewed focus on teaching and creative thinking, and more emphasis on the humanities. In fact, says Deborah Douglas, the MIT Museum’s science and technology curator, the curriculum revisions had begun soon after World War II. As part of an effort to bridge the divide between science and engineering, MIT had begun to emphasize broad principles–rather than hands-on expertise–that students could apply to any situation. The Class of 1956 “probably had the most theoretical education of any previous generation of MIT students,” Douglas says.
Life depicted the “new world of MIT” with a portrait of the senior class in Lobby 7 and with individual photos of a handful of students. At commencement, President Killian dubbed MIT ’56s the “most sought-after class” because they were in such high demand in industry. The New York Times saw fit to cover the event, and used that telling phrase for a headline. “It was not unusual for graduates to be besieged by offers–three, ten, twelve, fourteen,” the article claimed. According to Life, the average starting salary for a 1956 MIT graduate was $425 per month, up 10 percent from the previous year.
The class readily accepted the notion that it was the “most wanted,” says Joseph Kaming ‘56, an environmental attorney in New York. “In a way,” he says, “it’s a rallying cry, a nexus for the class”–which, he adds, has proved itself worthy of the moniker. Kaming has a unique window on his classmates’ successes: he’s compiling short biographies for a 50th-reunion retrospective. “We’ve had representatives in the major technological events which have changed our lives in the span of 50 years, in space exploration, communications, and the computer revolution,” he says. Rusty Schweickart ‘56 piloted the first manned flight of the lunar module on the Apollo 9 mission (see “Defending the Planet”) and C. Gordon Bell ‘56 led the cross-agency group that helped create the Internet. Others contributed to industry, law, architecture, medicine, and the humanities. But more important, Kaming says, is “the human decency of our classmates–one to another, to their families, communities, and the nation.”
Pioneering Wireless Communications
Andrew Viterbi didn’t make it to the Life photo shoot in Lobby 7, but he vividly recalls the climate for aspiring young engineers at the time. “It was marvelous,” he says. “Everything was wide open, and there were all sorts of opportunities.” After finishing an electrical-engineering master’s degree at MIT in June 1957, Viterbi joined Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). On October 4, Sputnik was launched, and the space race was on. Viterbi was part of a team working feverishly to develop “phase-locked loop” signal-tracking technology. A key component of most digital communications receivers today, the technology was critical then because it helped enable the successful launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, in January 1958. From the very beginning, it seemed, Viterbi was destined to be a pioneer.
He spent six years at JPL, completing a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of Southern California along the way. In 1963 he joined the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught communications theory. But he found it difficult to teach his students the principles governing “convolutional codes,” error correction codes that enable the recovery of data transmitted through a noisy communications channel. So in 1966, he spent three months devising a mathematical model that better explained the material. “One of my favorite expressions is ‘Research is to teaching as sin is to religion; without the one, you have nothing to talk about in the other!’?” Viterbi says. One feature of his model is what is now known as the Viterbi algorithm, a method for decoding convolutional codes.
At the time, Viterbi regarded the algorithm as just a pedagogic tool. It wasn’t until the 1970s that its practical uses became clearer, he says, as integrated circuits grew more sophisticated. Because the algorithm shares structural features with the Markov chain–a broadly applicable mathematical model of discrete-state systems–it has proved to be remarkably versatile. “There’s a whole bunch of applications that have come out, many of which I had nothing to do with,” Viterbi says with a laugh. Four international standards for digital cellular telephony now employ the algorithm, which is also used in such disparate applications as voice recognition and DNA sequence analysis.
In 1973, Viterbi decided to focus on cultivating the algorithm’s practical applications, so he cofounded Linkabit in a converted dentist’s office. The company initially worked on satellite communications subsystems for the military and later developed commercial products, such as a scrambler to prevent nonsubscribers from viewing Home Box Office programs. Viterbi went on to cofound Qualcomm, a provider of digital wireless-communications products and services, in 1985. The company pioneered the commercial application of CDMA (code division multiple access), a digital wireless-communications technology that allows more users to share a given bandwidth. Although it took about three years for Qualcomm to persuade the industry to adopt CDMA, now some 335 million of the more than two billion cell-phone subscribers worldwide own phones that are CDMA-based.
Viterbi retired from Qualcomm in 2000, but he hardly stopped working. He and his daughter cofounded a venture capital firm; she focuses on biotech, and he covers the electronics and wireless-technology markets. He’s also involved in a literacy initiative and in philanthropic pursuits at his alma maters–Boston Latin School, MIT, and USC. He is particularly proud of the literacy program, which enables parents serving in the armed forces overseas to make videotapes of themselves reading stories aloud and send them to their kids. “It both serves to connect the family and to inspire children to read,” Viterbi says.
[click here for images of 1956 Class members]
Helping Patients Heal
One of the seniors who caught the attention of the Life editors was Judith Gorenstein (now Ronat), president of the math club. “There was nothing very special about me, except I stood out like a sore thumb [as a woman],” says Ronat, a psychiatrist in Israel. Ronat was one of 12 women to receive one of the 759 bachelor’s degrees awarded on the morning of June 8, 1956. She vividly remembers graduation day because it was also her wedding day: having promised her mother that she’d get her diploma before tying the knot, she married Elhanan “Ed” Ronat ‘56 at the MIT chapel that afternoon.
Ronat had wanted to be a mathematician since she was four but had changed her mind by 19. “I discovered I really didn’t have the qualities to become a great one, and I wasn’t going to settle for anything less,” she says. During her freshman year, one of the brightest women in her class had flunked out. So Ronat decided to become a psychiatrist for college students, to help them achieve their potential. She applied to Tufts Medical School and is convinced her photo in Life helped her get in. “I was very naïve, and when I was interviewing for medical school, I said I was engaged to be married. And that was a big no-no,” she says. A married woman, after all, would never finish med school. The admissions officers must have reasoned, “Well, she must be something if Life magazine wants her,” Ronat says with a chuckle. “Maybe we’ll take her too.”
While Ronat attended Tufts Medical School, her husband got his physics doctorate at Harvard. They started a family during her residency at McLean Hospital. “My internship was 128 hours a week, and residency was down to 60, so I thought there’d be plenty of time to have a baby,” she says. They had another child to “celebrate finishing my residency,” and a third after they moved to Israel. Ed was a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovoth until his death in 1989, and Judith practiced psychiatry at Kupat Holim Clalit, the largest HMO in Israel, for 34 years. She also served as medical director of the mental-health clinic in Rishon L’Zion and taught at the Tel Aviv University School of Medicine.
Ronat officially retired at 65, but she enjoys her work so much that she maintains a small private practice and consults for Israel’s Ministry of Defense, counseling orphans, widows, and parents of soldiers and police, as well as veterans with disabilities. The most difficult cases are those of Holocaust survivors who have lost children in the army. “It’s a double whammy,” Ronat says. Over the years, her approach has evolved significantly from the Freudian analytical approach she was taught. “Remember the old saying ‘God helps those who help themselves?’ Well, I consider myself one of his lowly assistants,” says Ronat. “Very often, just by reframing a problem which a patient grapples with, I can enable him to discover his own solution to the problem.”
[click here for images of 1956 Class members]
Inspiring Young Scientists
Lloyd Beckett remembers the senior-class portrait in Lobby 7 well. It was very noisy, and when President Killian appeared on the second-floor balcony overlooking the lobby, the crowd roared. Other than that, he says, the media coverage wasn’t a big deal. Still, Beckett enjoyed the perks associated with being a sought-after MIT grad. He started out as a chemical engineer at Acushnet Process in New Bedford, MA, earning $100 a week. “Thought I was fat, dumb, and happy,” he says with characteristic humor. After stints doing R&D in the U.S. Air Force and as an industrial-liaison officer at MIT, he joined Polaroid in 1965. There, he eventually became the manager of the engineering division’s labs, which designed cameras and other hardware.
All the while, he cultivated his interests in photography and affordable housing. He taught photography classes for adults at the local high school in Lexington, MA, where he lived at the time. And he teamed up with members of his church to build 14 units of low- and moderate-income housing “before it became fashionable for towns to do it,” he recalls, and despite strong municipal resistance. When his youngest child finished high school, Beckett built a solar home in Bedford. Ever the engineer, he carefully monitored the annual percentage of heat and hot water provided by sunlight. “My original calculations were that it would be 85 percent, but it turned out to be a little more efficient than that. It was 87 or 88 percent,” he says.
When Polaroid came under the threat of a hostile takeover, Beckett served on a committee developing a severance package for employees. “We came up with a plan, presented it to the board of directors, they said, ‘Yes, go ahead with it, and does anybody want it?’ and I put up my hand,” Beckett says with a laugh. The early-retirement package came at a perfect time, because Beckett, then 54, had another career in mind: teaching. It was something he had been thinking about for a while, especially since he loved teaching photography. But the real impetus for change was the death of his 25-year-old son-in-law in a plane crash that same year. “It was a wake-up call to everybody in the family about how much time do you have, and why put off doing the things that you want to do?” he says.
He got his MEd from Lesley University in 1989 and decided to teach middle-school math and science. (“My wife said that proved that I was crazy; before it was just a suspicion,” Beckett says.) He chose middle school in part to help keep girls interested in math and science at an age when they risk becoming disengaged. Being a teacher was “invigorating,” he says. “It was like being born again.” He spent 12 years at Boston-area independent schools and a charter school before retiring–this time for real.
Beckett’s accomplishments, like Ronat’s and Viterbi’s, are no surprise to Kaming, who knows of his classmates’ richly varied experiences from the bios they’ve sent him. There’s Robert Ackerberg, a retired chemical-engineering professor who in 1983 formed the Massapequa Philharmonic Orchestra in New York, and Ebrahim Victory, a former NASA researcher who has written, produced, and hosted an astronomy program in the Farsi language. “In the same way in a football season there are preseason favorites,” says Kaming, “we were designated by Life as those graduates who would make a difference. And lo and behold, that proved to be correct
[click here for images of 1956 Class members]
That Was Then …
Life at MIT in 1955 and 1956
•Officially dedicated in the spring of 1955, Kresge Auditorium provided a modern venue for MIT events. In 1956, the first televised Boston Symphony Orchestra concert took place at Kresge.
•Construction began on the Compton Labs.
•Theodore Roszak’s spire and bell tower were added to the new MIT chapel. The bell was cast at the MIT foundry, then located on the top floor of Building 35.
•MIT tuition increased from $900 to $1,100.
•Minimum wage was $1 an hour.
•An all-inclusive ticket to Senior Week–including entrance to the Senior Stag Banquet, Pops concert, and moonlight boat cruise–cost $15.
•The “Sunfrost” white formal jacket was sold at the Coop for $38.95. An advertisement in the Tech proclaimed that the jacket was “made for the man who demands the finest in smart tailoring, correct styling and cool, airy comfort.”
•MIT students flocked to the Brattle Theatre to see such movies as Around the World in 80 Days, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and The Ten Commandments.
•In December 1955, MIT’s basketball team upset Amherst, 66-53.
•MIT wrestlers won first place in the Eastern Collegiate Wrestling Championship.
•Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine became available nationwide.