Irving Adler Biography (1913-)
Autobiography Featureirving Adler
Irving Adler contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
When I was five years old I used to play alongside my mother while she did the baking for the Sabbath. Each week she baked a bread and a variety of cakes. The bread, known as a hallah (pronounced khah-leh, with the guttural kh), was made of six rope-like strands woven into a braid. Before she made her hallah, she cut off a small piece of dough from which I made a small hallah of my own. I cut the dough into six pieces, rolled each piece between my palms into a rope, and then wove the ropes into a braid. My life, like the hallah, is a braid in which six strands are interwoven: 1) family man, 2) student and teacher, 3) mathematician and scientist, 4) writer, 5) trade-unionist, and 6) political activist.
My parents came to the United States from Europe, where they lived in the corner of Poland that was then part of the Austrian empire. After my sister, Martha, was born in 1905, my father decided that his work as a middleman, buying and selling cows, did not earn him enough to support his family of three, so he came alone to the United States to seek his fortune. He lived in New York's island of Manhattan where he worked as a housepainter. In a few years of work, he saved enough money to be able to bring my mother and Martha over in 1910. My brother Nathan was born in 1911. I followed in 1913. I was given the Hebrew name Yitzchak, translated into English for my birth certificate as Isaac. At home I was usually called Izzie. In 1918 my brother Robert was born. Raphael, the youngest of my siblings, was born in 1922. All of us were born at home with a family doctor in attendance.
I was born in Manhattan on 108th Street near Lexington Avenue. I have no recollection of that apartment. My earliest memories are of the next apartment we lived in on 108th Street and Madison Avenue. With his family here and growing, my father gave up housepainting and opened a business of his own. He worked out of a cellar under the barbershop on Madison Avenue, south of 108th Street, selling ice, coal, wood, and seltzer and renting tables and benches for parties.
When he started his business, he didn't know that the ice trade was dominated by the Mafia, with each block assigned to one of its clients who then got "pro-tection" for a price. From the Mafia point of view, he was an intruder who had invaded their territory, so they tried twice to get rid of him. Once, while he was walking down the street with a block of ice on his shoulder, his back was slashed with a knife. This attack was probably meant to frighten him into giving up his business. When he stayed on, a second attack was staged, probably intended to kill him. While he was working in his icebox in the cellar, he heard someone come thundering down the steps. My father came out of the icebox, ice tongs in hand, and saw a man coming at him with a monkey wrench. My father swung the tongs and knocked the wrench out of the man's hand. The man then ran back up the steps with my father in pursuit. After a chase in the street and through backyards, the man got away. Following this incident, the Jewish women on the next block who patronized an iceman under Mafia protection told him that if his protectors didn't leave Adler alone they wouldn't buy from him anymore. This put an end to the attacks.
Our apartment at Madison Avenue was on the fourth floor. There was no central heat. Cooking was done on a coal stove in the kitchen. My parents had a small bedroom separated from the rest of the house by a portiere. Nathan and I slept in a folding cot that was opened up for the night in the dining room and closed and kept in a corner by day. In the wintertime, when we woke up, we rushed into the kitchen to get dressed near the warm stove. When I undressed to get ready for bed, my sense of order did not allow me to leave my shoes on the floor. I used to hang them with a bow from the rungs that joined the legs of a kitchen chair, a few inches under the seat.
The apartment was constantly being invaded by cockroaches and mice, against which my father waged perpetual warfare. One evening, when a mousetrap had just been set alongside the stove, I sat down near the stove determined to see a mouse in the act of getting caught. However, the late hour and the warmth of the stove conspired to thwart me. I fell asleep. When the trap snapped shut, the noise woke me, too late to see anything but a mouse in the trap already dead.
There were two undesirable consequences of being on the fourth floor just under the roof. One was that the apartment became very hot in the summertime. When the heat became unbearable, we slept on the roof. The other was the fact that being just under the roof gave thieves easy access to the apartment. We were robbed several times by people who came down the fire escape and entered through the kitchen window. They always left the easy way, through the front door.
The apartment had another bedroom besides the one occupied by my parents. It served several different purposes. At first it was occupied by a boarder, whose rent was an important supplement to my father's earnings. Then it became a temporary stopping place for cousins who had just immigrated to the United States. Then it was occupied by Martha when she became old enough to require privacy, and as the only girl was entitled to it.
In the years that we lived on 108th Street, the street was our playground. The younger children played pot-see, throwing a crushed tin can into numbered boxes drawn with chalk on the sidewalk, and then hopping into the boxes in a prescribed sequence to pick up the can and bring it back. They also played hopscotch, London Bridge is falling down, take a giant step, and hide-and-seek, which we called "hidingoseek." The older ones played handball against the house wall; stoopball against the steps; stickball, in which a broomstick and a rubber ball substituted for a bat and baseball; and ringalevio, a kind of war between two teams in which the aim was to find and capture the hiding enemy troops. A special wartime game during World War I was marching in formation down the street shouting "Hip, hip, the Kaiser's got the grippe."
An itinerant photographer used to go from street to street with a pony, and a camera on a tripod. Every young child wanted to have his picture taken sitting on the pony. In the picture taken of me at age four, I was wearing a sailor suit that was a gift from a cousin who was a temporary boarder. When this cousin, whose name was Irving Adler, got married, the wedding took place in our apartment. The young children stood around the wedding canopy holding lighted candles. I stood too close to the bride, and her veil caught fire. The groom performed the heroic act of putting out the flames. A few years after this dramatic incident, I, too, became an Irving. When I was enrolled in the neighborhood elementary school, the school clerk asked my mother, "What's his name?" "Izzie," she replied. The clerk said, "That's no name for an American boy," and she wrote down "Irving." I have been Irving ever since, but not without some trouble. When I applied for my first passport and submitted my birth certificate as proof of citizenship, I had to provide notarized statements by my mother and by the doctor who attended my birth that Irving Adler and Isaac Adler were one and the same person.
The school was PS 170 on 111th Street between Fifth and Lenox avenues. The principal and assistant principal wore long dresses reaching from their chins, resting on lace collars, to their ankles below. They were dedicated teachers completely devoted to the encouragement of their young charges, who were mostly children of immigrants. All the children in my first grade class had the haircut that was in style at that time, the "Buster Brown" haircut, the hair long and cut straight around the back from one side to the other with bangs in the front. Because I was the best student in the class, I was selected to announce the scene changes in an upper-class performance of a play given at a school assembly. For this purpose I was dressed in a white suit with a red, white, and blue sash across my chest from right shoulder to left hip. After the performance I got a hug and a kiss from the principal.
PS 170 had eight grades, but boys didn't stay for the full eight years. Since in those days it was considered unwise to have boys and girls over nine years old in the same school, boys stayed only through the fourth grade and then were transferred to PS 184 on 116th Street. I stayed in PS 170 even less than four years because I was accelerated, or "skipped" as we used to say. I skipped three half years in PS 170 and two in PS 184.
I got my first recognition as a writer in the sixth grade when there was a city-wide essay contest about "Fire Prevention Week." My brother Nathan and I both won prizes, awarded at a ceremony at City Hall. My prize was the book Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates. I was recognized again for writing in the eighth grade, when I was chosen to be editor-in-chief of the class magazine. The principal showed the magazine at a school assembly and called on me to stand up to take a bow.
While my brother Nathan and I were being prepared to go to high school and then to college, and it was understood that Raphael and Robert would do the same, a different kind of future was charted for my sister, Martha. In those days it was thought that a high school education was an unnecessary frill for a girl, available only to the spoiled daughters of rich families. Since we were not rich, Martha did not go to high school. After graduation from elementary school, she took a ninety-day course at a business school and then went to work as a bookkeeper. Most of her pay went to help support the family. With money that she saved from her allowance, she brought the first books into the house that were not library books. She bought one of the sets of the classics constantly advertised in the newspapers.
While we were at school, Nathan and I were also expected to work. Our job was to help our father make deliveries of seltzer. Our father's seltzer bottles, engraved with his name, were filled at a bottling works one block away, and each was equipped with a siphon. Each of us could carry ten bottles at a time, the snout of the siphon of each bottle resting on a finger. Climbing up one, two, three, or four flights of stairs with these bottles gave us plenty of exercise. Some of our father's customers were several blocks away. For those deliveries we used a pushcart to bring cases of bottles to the houses, and then our fingers did the rest.
We had one more responsibility after school hours. We went to a religious school called the Uptown Talmud Torah. There we learned to read and write Hebrew and translated the five books of Moses word for word from Hebrew into English. In the evening the same building was used by the Harlem Hebrew Institute, which provided club activities, a game room with chess and checker boards, and a gymnasium much used for basketball. We were grouped by age in the clubs, where we learned to conduct meetings by ourselves using Robert's rules of order, a standard set of rules about how to conduct debate and make and adopt motions in an orderly and efficient way. Here I had another opportunity to develop my writing skills when I was made editor of the newspaper for the group of clubs to which mine belonged. I also learned how to cut a stencil and use a mimeograph machine.
I entered high school at the age of eleven. I was sent to Townsend Harris Hall, the preparatory school for City College. Here the best students from all over the city were given an accelerated program so that they would be ready to enter college in three years. Each of us had to learn two languages. We began with Latin. Then, in our second year, we added a modern language. My choice for the second language was French. During that second year I also joined the staff of the school newspaper, for which I wrote a weekly humor column.
My French teacher was a Frenchman who was a poor teacher and a poor disciplinarian. He quickly lost my attention, and I began writing my humor columns in his class. I still remember a few phrases that caught my ear as I was writing. "Bell hoz rung" when he was desperately trying to get the class to keep quiet. And, "Si j'avais eu l'argent, je le lui aurais donné," recited in a singsong voice from the play Le Poudre aux Yeux. Once, he intercepted a note I had written in mirror-writing to pass to a classmate. (Mirror-writing, in which you write backwards from right to left, was used by Leonardo da Vinci in his notebooks. To read it, you hold it up to a mirror.) With all this goofing off, it was inevitable that I flunked French and had to repeat the class. After that I became a good French student.
My work on the school paper gave me one more experience that was useful in my later career as a writer. I learned how to do proofreading. Each week the editor of the paper, and I when my turn came, went to the printer to proofread and dummy the paper. After the printer had set the type, arranged in columns in a wooden frame, he inked it, put a long sheet of paper over each column, and rubbed the columns with a roller. The rubbing transferred the ink to the paper. On one set of these papers we indicated any corrections that had to be made. Another set was cut up and pasted onto sheets the size of the newspaper page to show where the different articles were to be put.
During the half year before my last in high school, I was elected editor of the class magazine. In this job I was involved in every phase of preparing a magazine: soliciting articles, writing some, editing, proofreading, and getting it printed. This accounts for the way I was described in my class yearbook: "Our future author. His pen name? 100773." (The boy who wrote this humorous squib was punning with the word "pen," as in "penitentiary," where each jail inmate, at least in comic strips, is known by a number rather than a name.) Many years later, after twenty years of work as a mathematics teacher when I became an author, I was invited to speak at a parent-teacher meeting in a school in Ossining, the town in which the state penitentiary known as Sing Sing is located. I began my talk by quoting how my class yearbook described me, and then I said, "Well, here I am at last in Ossining." During my last year in high school, my father sold his business. While looking around for some new business venture, he returned to housepainting. During the same year Martha got married. This made it possible for the family to upgrade its living quarters. We moved to the Bronx into a steam-heated apartment that we shared with Martha and her husband. There were three bedrooms in the apartment. Martha and her husband occupied the largest one. My parents occupied the smallest one. In the third bedroom, two double beds were installed. Nathan and I slept in one, Robert and Raphael in the other.
In 1927 I was admitted to City College at the age of fourteen. Before sessions began, I was sent a letter advising me that I had a choice: if I didn't want to enroll in ROTC (the Reserve Officers' Training Corps), I could elect to take Civilian Drill. This choice was the result of years of struggle by the City College student body against compulsory ROTC. On the reply card enclosed with the letter, I chose Civilian Drill and added this note: "I do not wish to take part in any militaristic movement." I also had to choose between working for a B.A. or a B.S. I chose the B.A., which meant that I would continue to study Latin. This turned out to be a mistake.
During my freshman year, I took a job as delivery boy for a drugstore located in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Manhattan. I worked six days a week, four hours a day. In addition, traveling to work and back consumed an hour and a half. I also had another four-hour job delivering groceries on Sundays. In both jobs I was paid twenty-five cents an hour. There were occasional tips, usually a nickel. Traveling to school and back by trolley car took one hour each way. With so much time taken by my jobs and travel, I didn't have enough time to do all my homework. The subject that got squeezed out was Latin. I often came to class unprepared and ended with a D, while I had A's in all my other subjects. Consequently, for my sophomore year I chose not to be a B.A. candidate and became a B.S. candidate instead. Starting with my junior year, I began to major in mathematics.
After one year of working at the drugstore, I was offered a job by an insurance agent to do calculations for him. With these calculations he showed clients how they could get more insurance coverage for the amount of money they were already paying. I worked for him four hours a day, five days a week. The calculations took only a fraction of the four hours, so I had plenty of time to do my homework. After one year at this job, I was given a scholarship which made it unnecessary for me to continue working after school.
During the last two years I was at college, the country was already in a deep economic crisis. My father continued to do housepainting, but also had long periods without work. During one summer my parents and Martha's husband's parents undertook a joint venture, running a summer hotel in a building they rented in the Catskills. They invested all their savings in this venture (in my father's case, the proceeds of the sale of his ice business), worked hard all summer, paid all the hotel's bills, and ended with not a penny earned for themselves. I shared in the work that summer as children's waiter. Since the economic outlook for the family's future was not very bright, I offered to quit school and go to work. My parents wouldn't hear of it, however. They insisted that I stay at school at all costs.
Near the end of my junior year, as I was riding in the trolley car on my way to school and reading the New York Times, I came to a long article about the awards being announced in the City College commencement program. To my surprise and elation, I found my name listed twice in the first paragraph of the article. I was being given the Pell silver medal for being second highest in the school (a school with an enrollment of several thousand), and I also received the Belden medal for excellence in mathematics. That day as I walked the seven blocks from the trolley car stop to the school, I walked rapidly, passing all the other students and thinking to myself, "I'm forging ahead! I'm forging ahead!" Before graduation I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and then received my degree magna cum laude.
During my senior year I became involved for the first time in the student struggle against the autocratic behavior of the college president. When the Social Problems Club published a little paper called Frontier, which expressed views with which he disagreed, he banned the paper, suspended the club, and asked for a list of members. As a gesture of support for what was in essence a "free-speech fight," I joined the club at that time so that my name would be on the list.
I became involved again in this struggle a few days before graduation in a battle about the graduation ceremony. The editor of the school newspaper, Abraham H. Raskin, was also president of the senior class. It was a tradition that the president of the class served as class marshall, leading the class procession into the stadium where the graduation exercises took place. Because Raskin had written editorials in the school paper opposing the presence of ROTC on the campus, the president designated somebody else as class marshall. Outraged by this high-handed behavior, some of my friends and I drafted and circulated a petition asking that tradition be adhered to and that Raskin be reinstated as class marshall. Not content with making a simple request, we added the statement "We will not march behind any other man." We got hundreds of signatures on the petition, but it had no effect. In the hours before graduation it also became clear that with Mama and Papa sitting in the stadium waiting for the procession, very few of our classmates would carry out the threat not to march. My friends and I then rushed to a printer and had arm bands printed saying WE PROTEST. We went up and down the lineup for the procession trying to hand them out, but had no takers. So, sheepishly accepting defeat, we joined the procession, each with a bag of arm bands under his gown. Raskin, after graduation, went to work for the New York Times and had a distinguished career as its labor reporter.
In the fall of 1931, with fees paid for by a Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) scholarship and a City College scholarship, I began my graduate studies, taking mathematics and physics courses in the daytime at Columbia University and pedagogy courses at City College at night. In one of the mathematics courses at Columbia, I wrote a paper establishing what was presumably a new result. My professor urged me to submit it to a journal for publication. Before doing so, it was necessary for me to search the literature to see if anything like it had been published before. I found no evidence of prior publication of my result. To be doubly sure, my professor thought we should also check with someone who was familiar with the work done by Russian mathematicians who had done some work in this field of research. He consulted a colleague at Stanford University who was familiar with the Russian mathematical journals. The reply that came back was disappointing: my result was included in a paper published four years earlier by Mordecai Boltovsky of Kazan State University. My paper therefore remained unpublished.
That same fall I took the examination for teacher-in-training. Since I had the highest score of those who passed the test, I was appointed to what was considered the best school, Stuyvesant High School, whose student body was selected for superior ability in mathematics and science. The appointment was for a year, at a salary of $4.50 a day. During that year, at the mayor's request, the state legislature cut teachers' salaries six percent. The cut was supposed to apply only to teachers on annual salary. Although teachers-in-training were paid at a daily rate and not an annual rate, the city's lawyers decided that the cut applied to us because we were appointed for a year. So my pay turned out to be $4.23 a day.
Stuyvesant High School was on double session. During the first half year of my appointment, I was assigned to the morning session. This made it possible for me to continue taking graduate courses in the afternoon. During the second half year of my service as teacher-in-training, I was assigned to the afternoon session. My hours of work then conflicted with the hours of the courses that I wanted to take. Since my salary was needed to help support my parents and younger brothers, I had to continue working. This forced me to drop out of graduate school at that time.
While I was working at Stuyvesant High School, I asked the board of education for permission to take the examination for a regular license as a mathematics teacher. This was necessary because the bylaws of the board required that candidates for this license be twenty-one years old or older, while I was only eighteen at the time. The board suspended its bylaws and voted to allow me to take the exam. I did so, passed, and was duly licensed. In a letter from the board, I was asked if I was available for immediate appointment as a substitute teacher. Since I had not yet completed my year as teacher-in-training, I answered, "No." When appointments were made at the end of the year, the board passed over my name, incorrectly assuming that I was still not available. Consequently I was unemployed the next year, and my parents had to apply for welfare. While they were on welfare I was assigned work at the House of Refuge, the city's reformatory, where I tutored inmates in arithmetic. I did succeed in getting work as a substitute teacher in the public high schools the year after that.
During the year that I was teacher-in-training at Stuyvesant High School, I joined the National Students League. Its principal activity at that time was sponsoring a student anti-war congress scheduled to take place in Chicago. I joined the committee that was organizing the New York delegation to the congress, soliciting participants, arranging for transportation by chartered bus, and raising money to pay for it. I also organized a meeting at Columbia University at which the delegates, when they returned, gave a report. The meeting voted that there should be a demonstration at City College protesting the presence of ROTC. I was put in charge of organizing the demonstration. I asked for volunteers to help with the painting of posters. One student, a Barnard College freshman named Ruth Relis, responded. A few days before the date of the proposed demonstration, we met at the headquarters of the National Students League to make the posters. We also sent news releases to the press announcing the demonstration.
When the appointed day arrived, Ruth and I carried the posters to the City College campus and waited for demonstrators to arrive and take the posters from us. Nobody showed up. After several hours of waiting, we had learned an important lesson: It is not enough to issue a call for a demonstration. It doesn't materialize unless it is organized. There was also another positive outcome of this fiasco. I continued to see Ruth, and we were married when she was graduated from Barnard in 1935.
For two years I worked as a substitute teacher, substituting for myself. This may sound strange, but it is true. By state law, the board of education was required to fill any full-time vacancy with a full-time licensed teacher at an annual salary of $2,100 or more, with fringe benefits such as sick leave, vacation pay, and pension rights. However, in order to save money, the board ignored the law and used us newly licensed teachers as substitutes, paid only six dollars a day, with no fringe benefits, in the very positions to which we should have been appointed as regular teachers. The teachers' union, then under right-wing leadership, did not admit substitute teachers to membership and did nothing for us. The leaders of a rank-and-file opposition in the union which supported our cause organized an Unemployed Teachers Association to fight for our rights. I joined this association to participate in the struggle. In 1935 we won a complete victory when the New York State commissioner of education, responding to an appeal initiated by the association, ruled that the board must fill full-time vacancies with regular teachers at the prescribed annual salary and with all fringe benefits. Within a few days about fifteen hundred substitute teachers were transformed into regular teachers and became eligible to join the union. The Unemployed Teachers Association disbanded, and its members joined the union. This added to the strength of the rank-and-file opposition. The old leadership withdrew from the union and left it in the hands of the rank and file.
In 1932 Hitler came to power in Germany. While government officials here and abroad seemed blind to the menace to peace that he represented, ordinary people like me were concerned. As a sequel to the peace activity I had engaged in through the National Students League, I organized a Teachers Anti-War Committee, with representatives from several teachers' organizations and affiliated with the American League Against War and Fascism. Two of its activities were particularly successful. When the state legislature passed a law requiring a "loyalty oath" of teachers, we organized a campaign against the law and countered with a voluntary "Teachers Pledge to Pupils," expressing our dedication to the promotion of pupil welfare. At a later date I wrote a flyer with the slogan "Schools, not Battleships." The Fellowship of Reconciliation purchased several thousand copies and sent them out to its members. The slogan was soon seen on placards in peace demonstrations throughout the country.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, besides creating financial problems for the schools, also created a curriculum crisis in the high schools. Because of the high level of unemployment, teenagers who in former years would have gone to work were squeezed out of the labor market. Unable to find work, they poured into the high schools. I turned my attention to this problem and wrote a series of articles for the union's magazine, the New York Teacher, analyzing the implications of this trend for the high school curriculum. Some of the thoughts I expressed in these articles ultimately found their way into one of my books What We Want of Our Schools. The articles established me as one of the union's experts on educational policy. I was made chairman of the union's educational policies committee. As such I became the principal organizer of the union's annual educational conference, with an attendance of about two thousand people, and of the Teachers Union Institute, which gave in-service courses approved by the state department of education.
After our marriage, Ruth and I rented apartments in four different places in succession: first in the Bronx, then in Long Island City, and the last two in Bayside. The changes represented a consistent drift away from the city toward the suburbs. In 1960 we extended this trend when we built a house in the country, in Vermont. Our son, Stephen, was born in 1939, when we lived in Long Island City. Our daughter, Peggy, was born in 1942, when we lived in Bayside. Shortly after that we bought a house in Bayside. We made the downpayment with borrowed money, some coming from my pension fund and some from the Hebrew Free Loan Society. With two children in the family, my increased responsibilities at home forced me to withdraw from the union's educational policies committee and confine my union activity to the schools where I taught. Between 1935 and 1942 1 taught in many different schools scattered around the city. Then I was transferred to Bayside High School, only a few blocks away from where we lived. There when the United States entered the war, I organized the sale of war bonds and stamps. I also conducted a mathematics club and an assembly program titled "Fun with Mathematics." The games and tricks in this program later became the basis of my book Magic House of Numbers.
The state law required that regular teachers, after a three-year probationary period, take a so-called "alertness" course each year to qualify for a salary increment. The first time I had to do it, I returned to Columbia University's graduate program and took a course in atomic structure. With this course I accomplished two things at the same time: 1) I got my salary increment for the next year; 2) I earned three credits at Columbia. These credits, added to those I had earned before, com-pleted the course requirement for a master's degree. Then I was allowed to use my unpublished paper as my master's thesis. I got my M.A. degree in 1938. What I learned in the course on atomic structure later found its way into my book The Secret of Light.
The changing character of the high school population was forcing changes in the curriculum. Enrollments in vocational subjects were growing rapidly, and academic subjects were in decline. Teachers were advised to qualify for a license in a second subject, so that if no classes were available for them in their first subject they might be assigned to teach the second. I took and passed the examination that qualified me to teach science. I was never assigned to teach science, but I was assigned to teach English one year!
The danger that one subject might be displaced by another in the curriculum threatened to pit one group of teachers against another, each defending its turf. In order to avoid this situation, the teachers who were organized in various subject associations decided to work together. They established a Conference of Subject Associations for Curriculum Change. I was sent to this conference as the representative of the New York Association of Teachers of Mathematics and was elected chairman of the conference. We held a series of dinner meetings in which we discussed our common problems with the associate superintendent in charge of the high schools.
During this period the cost of living was rising faster than my salary. To try to catch up, I began to take on work during the school summer vacation period. For one year Ruth and I conducted a day camp at the summer hotel Ruth's mother ran in the Catskill Mountains. Besides the usual activities of baseball, miniature golf, and crafts, we got the children involved in collecting and preserving butterflies. We even taught them how to recognize the eggs of the monarch butterfly (one-eighth of an inch high and shaped like the Capitol dome) on milkweed leaves. The children collected the eggs and kept them in jars, where they could watch the different stages of the monarch's life cycle. A tiny caterpillar emerged from each egg, ate milkweed leaves and grew, and then formed a chrysalis, which has been described as "a jade bead with golden nails." Then, after about two weeks, the children watched as the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis. Now, fifty years after this butterfly-chasing experience, I still have the butterflies I caught, preserved in perfect condition, sealed between plastic sheets. Our butterfly-chasing experience later entered into the book Insects and Plants.
During World War II, when the draft for military service was instituted, I was classified as 1A, but, because I was a mathematics teacher, my induction was deferred. However, I assumed that the deferment was only temporary, so I decided to acquire some specific qualifications that would be of use in military service. I studied navigation and meteorology, and, by taking the examinations given by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, acquired a license as a ground instructor in these subjects. The license says "valid until recalled." It has never been recalled, but it also has never been used. The knowledge I acquired to prepare for this license was not wasted, however. Some of it found its way into the book Weather in Your Life.
I applied for a commission in the navy, but was rejected on the grounds that I was color-blind. Shortly after that, my deferment ended, and I was scheduled to be inducted into the navy. Apparently I was no longer color-blind if the navy didn't have to give me an officer's pay! I took and passed a test that would have qualified me for training as a radio technician in the navy. However, I was over twenty-six years old, and just at that time the military services decided they didn't want people who were that old, so I was never inducted after all. My younger brothers did do service during the war, Robert in the army and Raphael in the merchant marine.
One day, while reading the local newspaper, I came across an article about a black family that was being harassed by white neighbors in order to force them out of what had been an all-white neighborhood. They lived about a mile from my house. At that time I belonged to a local group called the Bayside Citizens Committee for Legislative Action. I called the situation to this group's attention, and we invited the black family to come to our next meeting to tell us what was going on. After hearing them, we decided to hold the next meeting at their home as a demonstration of support. We also drafted a public statement signed by local ministers condemning racism and urging that the harassment stop. It did.
During this period I took the examination for chairman of a mathematics department. I passed and was appointed to Textile High School located in Manhattan. Working in Manhattan opened up some new possibilities for me. One was that I could resume doing work for the union that required that I be in Manhattan. I was appointed chairman of the salary and legislative committee. In this position I helped to analyze the city and state budgets for education, helped to formulate the union's criticism of these documents, and then lobbied for the union program at the board of education and city hall in New York and at the state capital in Albany. I also organized demonstrations at city hall, where we picketed for a salary increase.
Working in Manhattan also made it easy for me to do something I had wanted to do for a long time. I took a course in star identification at the American Museum of Natural History. This course had some consequences that I could not have anticipated. It reminded me of the fact that as an undergraduate in my senior year I had enrolled for a class in astronomy. I had completed the first half of the course devoted to the solar system, but could not take the second half devoted to astrophysics because it was given at the same time as a mathematics course that I wanted to take. I bought the textbook with the intention of studying it on my own. This book was still on my bookshelf, unread. So I located it and began to read it while I took the course on star identification. This book impressed me with the fact that what scientists know about the smallest material things, namely, atoms, and the largest material things, namely, stars and galaxies, they learn from messages sent to them by these things in the light they emit. This idea, percolating in my head, grew into a book demanding to be written. In the summer of 1947 I wrote the book The Secret of Light. I tried without success to place it with a commercial publisher. I then took it to International Publishers, a communist publishing house which had already put out several fine science books for children. They accepted it, but cut it in half, taking only the part that dealt with atomic structure. This left unpublished the second half, that dealt with astronomy.
In 1947 President Harry S Truman issued Executive Order 39835 calling for a loyalty investigation of federal employees. This set off a wave of hysteria that spread to the localities and initiated purges of so-called "subversives" from colleges, public schools, and private industry. In New York City the board of education launched an attack on the teachers' union, first depriving it of the rights accorded to all other teacher organizations and then targeting its leaders for dismissal. One by one, the officers and active members of the union were called in by the superintendent of schools to be asked, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Any who refused to answer the question were dismissed for "insubordination and conduct unbecoming a teacher." I refused to answer the question on the grounds that it was a violation of section 26a of the New York Civil Service Law, which says, "No person shall directly or indirectly ask … the political affiliation of any employee in the civil service of the state or of any civil division or city thereof," and consequently was suspended in 1952 and dismissed in 1954. The teachers who had been called for questioning initiated a court case challenging the constitutionality of the Feinberg Law, a state law that was being used to justify political inquisitions. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled against us in 1951 in the case now known as Adler v. the Board of Education. In 1967, however, the Supreme Court reversed itself and declared the Feinberg Law unconstitutional. After some further court action I was reinstated in 1977, and my pension rights were restored.
My second book came into existence as a result of an accidental circumstance. Rose Wyler, well known as an author of books for children, had written a book on science experiments for Franklin Watts. Following the usual practice, the publisher wanted to have an expert review the text for accuracy. He asked Ms. Wyler to recommend somebody qualified to do it. She recommended me. Mr. Watts was so pleased with the thoroughness of my report that he asked me to write a book he wanted to publish on weather. I wrote the book and submitted it. Mr. Watts asked for some revisions. By this time I was on the conveyor belt to suspension from my job, so I decided to wait until I was suspended and had more free time before I undertook the revisions. When I submitted the revised text, Mr. Watts had already read about my suspension from the school system. Apparently afraid that this might interfere with sales, he rejected the book. The attorney for the teachers' union persuaded him that I could keep the advance and retain full rights to the book. So now I had two unpublished manuscripts on my hands, one on weather, and one on astronomy.
After I was suspended, I was appointed national director of the National Council of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions. This was an organization originally established to support President Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign for a fourth term. After Roosevelt's election and death, the council continued to support his wartime policy of American-Soviet cooperation. Since this was counter to President Truman's cold-war policy, the organization became a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At the time I became national director of the council, its leaders were still people of great prestige. Its chairman was Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, and its secretary was the sociologist Henry Pratt Fairchild of New York University.
However, its membership was declining and its influence was waning. I stayed on the job for one year and then resigned. Before I left, another accidental event occurred that had a significant influence on my future career as a writer. I had thought of the idea of organizing an international symposium in print on various controversial questions in the arts and sciences. I had already lined up people willing to write for it and began inquiring about a possible publisher. A member of the council, the muralist Gilbert Wilson, recommended that I take the idea to the John Day Company, which had published a book that he had written.
I went to see Richard J. Walsh, Jr., president of the company. He thought the symposium idea interesting, but he didn't think it would sell. I then said, "While I am here, maybe I can interest you in two books that I have written," and I described my two unpublished manuscripts, one on astronomy and the other on weather. These didn't interest him because there were already books on the market in both these subjects. I sounded him out on two ideas for books I would have liked to write. The first was for a book on mathematical recreations. He rejected that for the same reason. The second idea, for a book on how time is measured in a variety of contexts, intrigued him. He asked me to submit an outline and a sample chapter. After I did so, my wife and children and I went off for an inexpensive camping vacation in Letchworth State Park and Buttermilk Falls. While we were at Buttermilk Falls, I received a contract for the first John Day book. It came out under the title Time in Your Life.
When I delivered the signed contract to Mr. Walsh, he asked me if I had an illustrator. I told him that my wife had artistic ability and asked if he would consider her for the job. He was willing, so Ruth prepared some sample illustrations and got her first contract as an illustrator. Other books for The John Day Company, written by me and illustrated by Ruth, followed in rapid succession. Mr. Walsh and I prepared a list of books he would like to publish, and, as soon as one was finished, he wrote a contract for the next one on the list.
Meanwhile I still had the manuscripts on astronomy and weather to dispose of. I contacted an agent who sent me to the editor of children's books at Alfred Knopf. She was not interested in either of those books but asked if I could do a book on hurricanes. I answered, "Of course," and got my first Knopf contract. Before signing the contract, I had to clear it with Mr. Walsh since each John Day contract gave him the option to take my next book. He agreed that I could write for Knopf provided that I used a pseudonym, because he was afraid that too many Adler books coming out at the same time would interfere with each other's sales. I therefore combined my first name with the first name of one of my brothers and wrote for Knopf under the name Robert Irving. I did seven books under this pen name.
When our children were both old enough to go to school, Ruth enrolled in the graduate program at Hunter College, where she earned her master's degree and qualified for teaching. After several terms of work as a substitute teacher in New York City schools, she got permanent employment in Rockville Centre, Long Island.
After several of my John Day books had been published and were well received, Mr. Walsh decided that, because my reputation was well established, he would be able to sell my books on astronomy and weather. They were published under the titles The Stars: Steppingstones into Space and Weather in Your Life.
With my career as a writer well under way, Ruth suggested that, since I could organize my use of time any way I liked, I should go back to school to complete my studies for a Ph.D. in mathematics, something I had not been able to do while I was teaching in the New York high schools. I enrolled at Columbia, where I already had credit for the courses I had taken for my master's degree. During my first days in class, I felt as though I had just landed from Mars. In the twenty-five years that I had been away from graduate study in mathematics, the subject had taken on an entirely new character. Even the terminology was different. But I soon began to feel at home with it. Each weekday I did my writing in the morning for whatever book I was working on, went to classes in the afternoon, and then stayed in the library to transcribe my notes. While following this routine, I learned that some of the Ph.D. candidates had jobs teaching in the School of General Studies, Columbia's evening liberal-arts college for adults. I applied for one of these jobs and got it, starting with the rank of tutor and later being promoted to instructor. Thus, three years after I was dismissed from the New York school system, I was teaching again, but now on the college level. For three years I was a very busy man, writing six books a year, taking graduate courses in mathematics, and teaching a full program at night.
Some of what I learned in my graduate studies found its way into books that I wrote for adults, while I continued to write for the junior-high and high-school level as well. One of my books, called The New Mathematics, attracted considerable attention at the time when a curriculum reform movement was sweeping the country. As a result, I was invited frequently to talk at conventions of mathematics teachers. I spoke at meetings in localities ranging from New York to California and from Puerto Rico to Canada. At some of these meetings I was the principal speaker, addressing the banquet attended by all participants. In 1961 I was the keynote speaker at a conference of state supervisors of mathematics organized by the U.S. Office of Education.
In 1959 Mr. Walsh decided that he would like to launch a new series of books for children aged eight to ten. Since I was already as busy as I could be writing for a higher age level, we agreed on the following procedure: I would write the first book for the series, and then Ruth would start writing the books to follow. Thus the series known as "The Reason Why" was born. Ruth and I worked closely on gathering material for each book and preparing an outline. Then either she or I did the actual writing of the book. For this reason, the books were listed as being written by Irving and Ruth Adler. I wrote six of the books, and Ruth wrote all the rest. Because of our close collaboration, Ruth's style became so much like mine that readers could not tell which books were written by me and which by Ruth.
Some time in the late 1950s I decided to try to get into the mass market. I got in touch with Golden Press and was asked to do a mathematics book for their series called "The Golden Library of Knowledge." They liked the book and asked me to expand it for their "Giant Golden Book" series. After writing The Giant Golden Book of Mathematics, I also wrote for them The Wonders of Physics and a series of arithmetic workbooks for grades one to six.
In 1960 it became clear that Ruth and I could earn a good living as an author-illustrator team even if we did not teach, so we both resigned from our teaching positions to devote ourselves full time to producing books. Since, as writers, we could live anywhere we wished, we decided to move to the country. One weekend while we were visiting our daughter, Peggy, who was a student at Bennington College, we bought a thirty-acre tract of land in nearby Shaftsbury and retained an architect and builder to put up a house for us. When the garage and one room of the house were finished, we moved our furniture into them, sold our house in Bayside, and took off for a three-month trip to Europe. When we came home at the end of December, we found the house finished, the furniture in place, and a wreath on the door.
At the same time that we moved to Vermont, Peggy decided that school was not for her. She left Bennington College to go to work. In the thirty years since then she has had a varied career. She has written and illustrated several books. She organized the world premiere showing of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She worked for a while as an artist at the Bronx Zoo. For several years she worked as a talent scout, discovering promising young actors and managing their careers. Then she became a freelance investigator, doing research on the Iran-Contra scandal.
Our son, Stephen, had a different kind of career. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1961, he got his Ph.D. in physics at Princeton University. Workint as New Jersey Albert Einstein Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, he was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences. At the time that we moved to Vermont, there was only one mathematics instructor at Bennington College. He was due to take a sabbatical but could not go off until he found someone to take his classes. He asked me if I would do so. Having just resigned from a teaching position at Columbia in order to devote full time to writing, I didn't want to take on another full teaching schedule. Instead I proposed that Ruth and I split his program while he was away. Both he and the president of the college accepted this proposal, so, for one year, we were both back at teaching again. Meanwhile we continued with our full schedule of writing books. At the same time, I completed work on my doctoral dissertation and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1961.
Ruth, who had grown up on a farm, was very happy to be back in the country again. She started a vegetable garden, and we planted trees around the house, including some apple and pear trees. We also had the Soil Conservation District build a pond for us where we could swim in the summertime and ice-skate in the wintertime. We stocked the pond with fish.
Our move to the country did not separate us from our principal political concerns, peace and civil rights. We soon became involved in local groups with the same concerns. First we helped to organize a Bennington-area peace group. Then we reached out and made contact with peace groups in other parts of the state. A Coordinating Committee of Vermont Peace Organizations was formed, and I was elected its chairman. Its principal activity was supporting the worldwide campaign against the testing of atomic bombs in the atmosphere. This campaign came to a successful conclusion when the United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty banning such tests.
Nineteen sixty-three was the year of the great March on Washington, DC, at which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., made his famous "I have a dream" speech. At the initiative of Ruth and me, a local committee was organized to plan for participation in the march by people from our area. We contacted churches, trade unions, and individual concerned citizens to get people willing to make the trip in a chartered bus. I served as bus captain for the southern Vermont contingent of the march.
In 1964 a young teacher named Ted Seaver participated in the voter registration drive in Mississippi. On his return to Vermont he and his wife, Carol, decided that they wanted to return to Jackson, Mississippi, with their children to live in a black neighborhood and help the people organize a community center. An organization called the Vermont-in-Mississippi Corporation was established to raise the money needed to finance their activity. I was elected president. The vice president was the Right Reverend Monsignor Edward J. Fitzsimons, principal of the Catholic high school in Burlington, Vermont. The treasurer was the Very Reverend Monsignor John A. Lynch, head of the state's Catholic parochial schools. The organization developed very broad support. There was an honorary board of directors that included Governor Philip H. Hoff, the leaders of the state legislature, and several bishops. The project in Jackson was very successful. A community center was built, called the Medgar Evers Neighborhood Guild, named after the Jackson civil rights leader who had been murdered. A Head Start program was organized with state and federal financial support. Then, after training local leadership to take their place, the Seavers withdrew.
During the summer of 1966 I was invited to join the writing team of Educational Services Incorporated. This organization initiated the establishment of summer classes on the campuses of the Negro colleges in the south with a program designed to help prepare high school seniors for college-grade work. My job was to prepare mathematics lessons for this program. I was also sent to Dillard University in New Orleans for one week to give demonstration lessons and to assist in the supervision of the teachers there. This project was later taken over by the federal government and expanded as the Upward Bound program.
In 1966 the John Day Company gave a dinner in honor of Ruth and me at the Detroit convention of the American Library Association. I gave a talk at the dinner titled "On Writing Science Books for Children." The text of the talk was later published in Horn Book magazine.
When we returned from Detroit, we discovered that Ruth had breast cancer. She underwent surgery and began a regimen of chemotherapy. In spite of that, the cancer attacked her liver, and she required radiation treatment. We sought advice and help from specialists in New York, and they recommended a very drastic procedure, removal of the pituitary gland, with the prognosis that after that she might have a year or a year and a half of comfortable living. Knowing that she would not live very long, we suspended all writing activity and concentrated on making it possible for her to enjoy the little time that she had left. After this second operation we took a vacation trip to Caneel Bay on the island of St. John. In 1968, when we were about to take a second trip to Caneel Bay, Ruth entered the hospital for a checkup. The checkup showed that her liver was under attack again. She never left the hospital and died on March 30.
Before she died, Ruth had received a letter from an old friend, Joyce Sparer, who was teaching at the University of Guyana in South America. Ruth felt too weak to answer the letter and asked me to reply for her. She also suggested that after she died I should marry Joyce. I told her that I thought it preposterous to be talking about such a subject at that time. I wrote to Joyce in Guyana and got in touch with her when she came to New York to visit her children during her summer vacation. Our contact developed from friendship into courtship, and we did indeed get married. Ruth's judgment and foresight turned out to be sound after all. After our marriage, Joyce resigned from her position at the University of Guyana. We went to Guyana to permit her to say a proper good bye to her colleagues there. We had her belongings packed and shipped to our home, and then we set out on a three-month wedding trip. We went down the east coast of South America as far as Buenos Aires, Argentina, crossed the continent to Santiago, Chile, and then went north on the west coast as far as Quito, Ecuador. On the way home from Quito we made stops in Mexico and California. In Quito, when we visited a monument that marks the position of the equator, we had our picture taken as we stood side by side in different hemispheres, one of us in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere.
When we returned home, Joyce and I worked together to produce another book for the "Reason Why" series. To take advantage of the fact that her specialty was English language and literature, we chose as the subject "Language and Man." We both worked on the preparation of the outline and worked together on the revisions, page by page as the text was written, but Joyce did the actual writing.
We did no more books together because Joyce had an agenda of her own. While she was in Guyana she had written a booklet on "Attitudes toward Race in Guyanese Literature," published by the University of Puerto Rico. Her work on this booklet had introduced her to the novels of the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. She had written about some of his novels while she was in Guyana and was continuing to do so. Her writings on Harris gave her worldwide recognition as a leading expert on his work. This led to her being invited to speak at international conferences devoted to Harris's writing, first at the University of Missouri and then in Belgium.
Joyce had another major interest, the work of the great American writer Herman Melville. After writing Language and Man, she got to work on a book that had been percolating in her mind for several years. It was published by New York University Press under the title War in Melville's Imagination. She also had published in 1992 a book of three plays based on novels by Melville. One is a libretto for an opera that was commissioned by the Berkshire Opera Company. In recognition of her writings on Melville, she was elected the 1988 president of the Melville Society, an organization of Melville scholars.
During the first years of our marriage, Joyce traveled with me to conferences at which I was scheduled to speak. Now the situation has been reversed. I accompany her to conferences at which she speaks.
My mother died at age ninety in 1972. My father had died of a heart attack thirty years earlier at the age of sixty-two. My mother's funeral was an event of the kind out of which legends are born. It took place on a wet, chilly, sunless day. As her coffin was lowered into the grave right next to my father's, the rabbi conducting the graveside service, addressing my father by his Yiddish name, said, "Mortche, Tzipre is here. Take her by the hand and lead her into paradise." At that moment, the clouds overhead opened up, a beam of sunlight broke through, and then vanished.
Before my father died, Ruth and I used to take our children to the annual seder he conducted for Passover. A ritual dinner, the seder celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt. When he died I realized that it was now my turn to carry on this tradition that had been observed for over three thousand years. I began to conduct my own seder at home every year. This is something that my father would have expected. But there was another consequence he would never have anticipated. After I moved to Vermont, I was asked on three separate occasions to conduct a seder for the members of the Congregational Church in North Bennington.
The fact that my father died at age sixty-two made that age a critical one for my brothers and me. Each of us approached his sixty-second birthday with apprehension, wondering whether we would survive it. Three of us did, but Robert didn't. He, too, died of a heart attack at age sixty-two.
When Ruth died I had to get a new illustrator for the nine books published between then and 1977. Four of the books were illustrated by my daughter, Peggy. Two were illustrated by Joyce's daughter Laura, and three by our neighbor Ellen Viereck.
Tragedy struck without warning in 1975. Joyce's daughter Ellen, a mathematics teacher in Englewood, New Jersey, was murdered by an intruder who broke into her home at night. Ellen had divorced her husband, Albert, six years earlier. Albert was married again to a woman with two children of her own. Ellen left three children, aged seven, twelve, and fourteen. Joyce and I wanted to take them, but so did Albert. Our attorney advised us that we had no chance of successfully challenging Albert's decision to take them, since the courts tend to favor the rights of a natural parent. So the three children went to live with their father, a stepmother, and her two children. They were very unhappy there, and after two-and-a-half years they appealed to us to rescue them. We then filed suit for custody and guardianship, met them as they left school on December 22, 1977, and took them to Vermont pending the outcome of the suit. In spite of nearly everybody's expectations, we won. Ever since then we have celebrated December 22 as the day of "The Great Escape." The three children are now fully grown and on their own. The oldest, Naomi, a Dartmouth graduate, has an M.A. from Harvard and is a teacher. The middle one, David, with a B.A. and M.A. from Wesleyan University, is a talented musician. He has taught music at Bennington College and, at this writing, is teaching mathematics in New York. The youngest, Martin, a graduate of Columbia College, is doing graduate work in anthropology at Yale. During the seventies I became increasingly involved in community organizations and public service. From 1972 to 1975 I was secretary of the Bennington County Committee of the Democratic Party. I was elected to the school board of the town of Shaftsbury in 1976 and served for six years. In 1981 I was elected to the school board of the Mt. Anthony Union High School district, and served for three years. I have been a trustee of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1975 and served as its president for three years. In 1985 I organized a Committee to Aid the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and raised thousands of dollars to send the university desperately needed sup-plies. In 1991 1 was elected trustee of public funds for the town of Shaftsbury.
A subject that had interested me for two decades was the Fibonacci numbers, first written about in the year 1202 by Leonardo of Pisa in his book, Liber Abaci, which brought Arabic numerals to Europe for the first time. The Fibonacci numbers are the sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,… in which each number after the first two is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. I was interested in them at first because of their usefulness in the teaching of mathematics at all grade levels and because their occurrence on plants makes it easy to introduce them to children. In fact, at the convention of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1975 I gave a talk titled, "Plant Spirals and Fibonacci Numbers, a Mathematical Gold Mine." Then my attention gradually turned to the question "Why do they occur on plants?" Botanists had been trying to answer this question since 1830. Looking into the history of the subject, I found that no fully satisfactory answer had really been given. This fact led me to try to find the answer myself. My research, which I believe has uncovered the correct answer, was reported in a series of four papers published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.
In 1984 Joyce and I went on a round-the-world lecture tour, each of us speaking in his/her area of specialization. Joyce lectured in Japan and China. We both spoke in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and India.
I have had the pleasure of receiving many honors for my work. In 1982 I was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1985 I was elected a fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1990 I was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree by St. Michael's College. In 1961 Ruth and I received an award "for outstanding contributions to children's literature" from the New York State Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. I was also cited for writing "outstanding science books for children" in 1972, 1975, 1980, and 1990 by the National Science Teachers Association and the Children's Book Council.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his poem "The Arrow and the Song," says, "I shot an arrow into the air, It fell to earth, I knew not where." I have been more fortunate. With my books, I shot eighty-five arrows into the air, and I know something about where they fell. Sales of my books (excluding workbooks) in the United States total four million. The workbooks have sold twenty-nine million. In addition, my books have been published in thirty countries in eighteen different languages.
Irving Adler contributed the following update to SATA in 2005:
This autobiographical essay was first published in 1993. I am writing this supplement twelve years later at age ninety-two. The contents of the supplement come from three sources. The first source consists of details related to things or events written about in the original text, but not included because of space limitations. The second source consists of events that occurred after 1993. The third source is the insight that comes with hindsight.
I begin by telling more about my brother Nathan and my relationship to him. Nathan was the first of my siblings born in the United States. He was two years older than me. An age difference of two years between adults is negligible. Between children it is a big gap. Nathan was my "big brother," ahead of me in physical, mental, and social development. He became my leader, and I his loyal disciple. When he was ten years old he introduced me to his circle of friends that included girls as well as boys daring enough to play the game "spin the bottle." In those early years my taste in books and music, and even some of my opinions, were derived from Nathan's.
Nathan was a voracious reader. He spent hours exploring the stacks in the public library on 110th Street. When he turned fourteen and thus qualified to have an "adult" library card, the first book he borrowed from the adult section was Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. This foreshadowed his future profession as a psychotherapist. However, his path in that direction was not a straight line, as we shall see.
Nathan was very bright. He was skipped three times, so that he finished his elementary schooling in six and a half years instead of eight. However, since I was skipped five times, I finished in five and a half years. Consequently, we graduated from elementary school at the same time. I was sent to Townsend Harris High School, from which one graduated in three years. Nathan was sent to De Witt Clinton High School, from which one graduated in four years. To avoid the stigma of being one year behind me, Nathan enrolled as a non-matriculated student in the evening session of City College, thus permitting him to say that he was a college student while I was a high school student.
After two years at De Witt Clinton High School, Nathan withdrew with the intention of going to the National Farm School for training as a forester. By the time he succeeded in breaking down my parents' resistance to this idea, he changed his mind and went back to high school, but this time to Textile High School, the school where years later I became the chairman of the mathematics department. At Textile, Nathan's English teacher recognized that he was a young man with talent, and encouraged him to write poetry. Two of his poems were published. However, Nathan did not graduate. He dropped out of school and went to work, first for a laundry, and then as telephone operator for a cinema.
At age eighteen Nathan met Gertrude Silverman, a cousin of a cousin, but not related by blood to us. Gertrude was thirty years old, intelligent, attractive, and athletic. What made her seem especially attractive to Nathan, who had literary ambitions, was that she was the secretary of a publisher. Nathan pursued her, wooed her, and won her. Later she worked as the secretary of Walter Beran Wolfe, the psychotherapist who was the translator of the works of Alfred Adler. When the struggles of the unemployed led to the establishment of New York's Home Relief Bureau, Nathan got a job as a social investigator.
A few years into their marriage, Gertrude was called upon to go to California to help out in the business of a cousin who was dying of cancer. Nathan soon followed and got a job as a psychiatric social worker, working with the Jewish prisoners in San Quentin. Meanwhile some problems began to arise in Nathan's marriage. Nathan went to a psychiatrist for counseling. The counseling produced two outcomes. The first was that Nathan divorced Gertrude and married a younger woman. The second was that Nathan started a practice as a lay analyst, with patients referred to him by his psychiatrist. So here was Nathan working as a psychotherapist without ever having finished high school. Nathan soon realized that this could not go on forever, since at this time the various states were beginning to introduce licensing requirements for psychotherapists. Nathan went back to school and went clear through to a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so he could legitimately refer to himself as Dr. Adler.
When I was suspended from my teaching position in 1952 and was obviously about to be dismissed, Nathan came east for a visit. He asked me what I planned to do to make a living. I replied that I was searching for a field of work where I could make use of my training and experience as a teacher. For this reason I was considering going to school for training as a psychotherapist. Nathan responded by saying, "Don't you dare. I have been running away from you all my life!" That was the first time I realized the effect I had had on his life by overtaking him in school. I didn't become a psychotherapist. Earlier sections of this autobiography explain how I became an author instead.
It was Nathan who first introduced me to socialist ideas. At fifteen he joined the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL) and soon brought me into it. We met at the Socialist Party headquarters on 106th Street. My membership was cut short when the family moved to the Bronx. Nathan didn't stay long either. He soon left the YPSL to join the Young Communist League (YCL). During my freshman year at City College, President Frederick B. Robinson expelled Simon W. Gerson, a YCL member, for agitating against the presence of ROTC. The YCL members, Nathan among them, then staged a protest demonstration on the campus. Dean Skene of the engineering department sent some teachers out to harass the demonstrators. He also called the police. The police broke up the demonstration and arrested Nathan, charging him with trespassing and disorderly conduct. Nathan was defended by an attorney provided by the International Labor Defense. Since I was an eye-witness to what had happened, she called on me to testify in his defense. I refuted the charge of "trespassing" by pointing out that the area where the demonstration had taken place was always open to the public. In fact, every day there were neighborhood women sitting there with their baby carriages. I refuted the "disorderly conduct" charge by testifying that the gathering was orderly until Dean Skene's goons began pushing people around and tried to seize their placards. Nathan was found guilty and given a suspended sentence. The next day I was called out of class by Dean Redmond to be questioned about my testimony. I told him that all I did was describe truthfully what I had seen. He closed the interview with the comment, "Well, I guess blood is thicker than water."
Later that year Nathan persuaded me to come with him to a YCL meeting.
Our parents followed us to the meeting and took me out of it to go home with them. They were concerned that if I were to join the YCL it would jeopardize my chances of having a career in a profession. They didn't have the same concern about Nathan since, against their wishes, he had dropped out of school, so they gave him up as a lost cause. Although I did not join the YCL at that time, I became a political activist, engaging in campaigns for peace, civil liberties, and civil rights, through organizations whose leadership included some Communists. I became what later witch-hunting committees called a "fellow traveler." The person who finally brought me into the Communist movement was Ruth, who persuaded me to join her YCL branch in 1934. She was also the person who finally got me out of it. When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, we were both opposed to the Communist Party's defense of this act of aggression. Ruth persuaded me that we should both leave the party, since it seemed hopeless to try to change its policy from within. When I first met Ruth she was seventeen and I was nineteen. This gave our relationship the quality of a teenage romance. However, while she was then a sophomore at Barnard College and I was already a college graduate and a teacher, our relationship had another character as well. This is made explicit in the re-port Ruth wrote to her classmates on the occasion of the twenty-fifth annual reunion of their class. Here is what she said:
"A quarter of a century sounds like a long time but, in terms of my personal time scale, it is a very brief period. Time has never hung heavy on my hands. This has been so, not because of any special internal dynamics which I possess, but because I was very lucky to have married the right man.
"I was married two days before commencement. My husband, though scarcely older than I, even then had a profound understanding of people and ideas. His unusual perception helped me to discover dimensions of myself that I never dreamed I had. His insatiable curiosity has made living and learning exciting adventures.
"I never felt that I received any special guidance at Barnard in the selection of a vocation. Periods of unemployment or low-salaried jobs, the pattern of the 1930s, only added to my conviction that I was wanting in competence. My husband, however, constantly urged me, at a time when jobs in mathematics were almost nonexistent, to use my mathematical training as the basis for a career. My first success in this direction was a plum by 1939 standards, a twenty-five-dollar-a-week civil service job as a statistical clerk.
"Later, after our two children were attending school on a full-time basis, I returned to school at night to prepare for secondary school mathematics teaching and began teaching during the day at the same time. I have now finished ten years of teaching, and even this experience has been an adventure. I have almost continuously participated in educational experiments aimed at the implementation of new curricula. I have had several articles on my experiences published in professional journals.
"About six years ago, when my husband began to devote most of his time to writing (he is the author of some thirty books on mathematics, science, and education), he decided that my latent artistical talents needed development. Since his publisher was not unwilling, I embarked on an auxiliary career as a book illustrator and have completed about fifteen books to date. Most recently, I have begun to collaborate with my husband in his writing and, I suspect, he will not be content until he has made a full-fledged author of me, too."
In 1966, when the John Day Company gave a dinner in honor of Ruth and me at the convention of the American Library Association, they also had a booth where our books were on display. I prepared for distribution at the booth what I called "Irving Adler's Librarians' Quiz." The quiz consisted of twenty multiple-choice questions. Instead of giving the answers to the questions, a separate sheet gave for each question the title of an Adler book in which the answer could be found. The quiz and the list of Adler books in which the answers may be found are appended to the end of this essay. For readers who do not have ready access to these books, I also provide the answers themselves.
When Joyce and I got married we were mature adults. Joyce was fifty-two years old, and I was fifty-five. We shared a common interest in progressive politics, but we pursued different specialties in our professional lives. My specialty was mathematics and science. Joyce's specialty was literature. As each of us worked in our separate specialties, we also had contact with the work of the other. Thus we learned from each other and broadened our horizons. In particular, I learned from Joyce that the meaning of a written work is expressed not only by the words but also by the imagery employed. In fact, in some works the true meaning is conveyed by the imagery while the words seem to contradict it.
Joyce suggested that I read Herman Melville's short story Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. To many Melville scholars the story is an unsolved riddle. It contains many separate elements that appear to have no connection with each other: the narrator had once been a Master in Chancery; he hired Bartleby to copy legal documents; a man named Adams had been killed in an office building; a municipal election was under way in New York City; Bartleby had once worked in the Dead Letter Office of the post office. Bartleby, when asked to proofread a document, said "I prefer not to." I read the story and told Joyce what I thought its meaning was: the United States, in its Declaration of Independence, had sent a letter to the world proclaiming that the natural rights of mankind were the basis of our claim for freedom and self-rule. But our devotion to natural rights had yielded to the dominance of the property rights of rich men. Thus the message of the Declaration of Independence had become a "dead letter." Joyce urged me to write up my interpretation of the story, and I wrote a paper titled "Equity, Law, and Bartleby," which was published in Science & Society, Volume 51, number 4. Thus I became a Melville scholar by marriage.
In 1995 Joyce was notified by the University of Kansas that its drama department was preparing to do a staged reading of her play Melville, Billy, and Mars, a dramatization of Herman Melville's novel Billy Bud, which had published in Dramatization of Three Melville Novels: With an Introduction on Interpretation by Dramatization, by Joyce Sparer Adler. The university invited us to come for the performance. We accepted the invitation. Joyce was wined and dined by the English department, and we were put up for several days in the university's guest house. Before we left for Kansas, I wrote to the mathematics and botany departments suggesting that, while we were there, they might be interested in having me lecture on the subject "Why the Fibonacci Numbers Occur on Plants." They were interested, and the lecture was jointly sponsored by both departments. I offered to give the lecture without fee, but they paid me an honorarium nevertheless.
After this happy experience, Joyce, because of increasing age combined with poor vision, began to have a series of falls. Each fall broke some bones, making her increasingly frail and prone to fall again.
In 1999 on April 27 (my birthday) I found a white eight-by-twelve envelope on my desk. On the outside was the inscription, "From your loving wife, JA, To my beloved husband on his 86th Birthday." On the inside was a single sheet with the text of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, which begins, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments …"
Five months later Joyce fell again and broke her hip. She was taken to the hospital for surgery, and died there on September 13. In one of those strange coincidences from which legends are born, Joyce's brother Alan (her only sibling), who lived a thousand miles away, died on the same day. After Joyce died, as I went through her papers, I gathered in one place all her essays on the work of Wilson Harris, Guyanese novelist and essayist. All except one had been published in literary journals, and that one, while never published, had been delivered as a lecture at a meeting of the American Literature Association. I realized that together they would make a good book. But first they had to become a readable manuscript, instead of a collection of journal articles plus a typescript. I gave them to my daughter, Peggy, who scanned them into her computer and then gave all the essays a uniform format. I then began to look for an editor and a publisher. I found a publisher but not an editor; thus I was forced to edit the book myself. One job that I had to do to satisfy a request by a referee was to find the exact location in Harris's works of every passage Joyce had quoted without saying what page it came from. To do so, I had to read all the Harris books Joyce was commenting on. The book was published by the Press of the University of the West Indies, under the title Exploring the Palace of the Peacock: Essays on Wilson Harris. It included a preface by Janet Jagan, who had been elected president of Guyana in 1997. Thus, by accident, I became a Wilson Harris scholar by marriage.
For several years Joyce's dramatization of Billy Bud was the only one that had received a staged reading. But the other two were not forgotten. In 2004 her dramatization of Moby Dick was produced in Hawaii when the Melville Society met there. In 2005 her dramatization of Benito Cereno was produced in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
In 1999 my son Stephen's colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study organized a conference in his honor on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. The subject of the conference was "Symmetry Found and Lost."
Steve has endowed a lecture series at the institute titled the Ruth and Irving Adler Expository Lectures, to be administered by the institute's School of Mathematics. The first lecture in the series was given on February 7, 2000, by Professor Daniel Quillen of Oxford University. Quillen, a winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, and Steve had both been members of Harvard's mathematics team when they were undergraduates there. On the day of Quillen's lecture, I, too, was invited to give a lecture on "Why the Fibonacci Numbers Occur on Plants."
It used to be my practice, when I gave a talk at a conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, to send the text to a journal for publication immediately after the talk was given. I soon discovered that this was a mistake. Once a talk was published, I couldn't give it for another audience because it was presumed that the people in the audience would already have read it in the journal. For this reason, I never published my talk on "The Role of Mathematics in the Sciences," and was able to use it many times for different audiences here and abroad. I happened to mention this to Steve in the course of a conversation. The title of the unpublished talk aroused his interest, and he asked if he could see a copy of it. He then explained why he had asked for it: the Institute for Advanced Study has an affiliate called the Park City Mathematics Institute which meets every summer in Park City, Utah, and Steve thought that my talk might be appropriate for delivery at one of the sessions of the institute. He showed it to the chair, who agreed. I was invited to give the talk at a general session on July 9, 2001. Steve was asked to come to introduce me and he operated the projector to show the slides that accompanied my talk.
Steve's work in theoretical physics is at the frontier, opening up new areas of investigation. His latest book, published in 2004 by Cambridge University Press, is called Quantum Theory as an Emergent Phenomenon.
Peggy, while pursuing the Iran-Contra scandal, unearthed information that put an end to the myth of the "October Surprise." It had been alleged that in October 1980, when Ronald Reagan ran for president against Jimmy Carter, Republicans met in Paris, France, with representatives of the government of Iran and made a deal with them to hold on to the fifty-two American hostages being held until after the election, so Jimmy Carter wouldn't benefit from their release. The key "evidence" in support of this allegation was testimony by Richard Brenneke, a CIA wannabe, who claimed that he had been present at these meetings in Paris.
Peggy's work brought her into contact with Brenneke, who asked her to coauthor his autobiography. When Peggy went through his files for this purpose, she came across credit card receipts which showed that Brenneke was in Seattle, Washington, on the days when he claimed that he was in Paris. When this new information was made public, Peggy was invited to join the staff of the task force of the U.S. House of Representatives that was investigating the allegations. The information supplied by Peggy played an important part in the final report issued by this Congressional committee.
Peggy's work for the "October Surprise Task Force" coincided with her becoming a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO). For eight years she served as program coordinator of AFIO's New England chapter, organizing three conferences a year, and served as the chapter's president for three years. In 2001, in recognition of the high quality of her work, AFIO (National) awarded her their General Richard G. Stilwell Award for meritorious service.
The three grandchildren who came to live with Joyce and me after their mother died are doing well. Naomi, the oldest, is a graduate of Dartmouth, has a master's degree from Harvard, and is a teacher in a local middle school. David is a graduate of Wesleyan, where he also earned a master's degree, and is teaching mathematics to working adults in a program sponsored by trade unions. He is a member of the Brooklyn Sax Quartet, which has performed not only in the United States and Canada, but also in China. They are received enthusiastically by their audiences and get good reviews from the critics, but not enough gigs to make a living from their music alone. Martin, the youngest, is a graduate of Columbia and has a Ph.D. degree in anthropology from Yale. He is the creator and general editor of the Living Swahili Dictionary on the Internet. In the year 2001 my City College Class of 1931 was due to have a seventieth class reunion. The reunion was scheduled to take place in New York City on September 11. I drove to New York on the tenth, stayed overnight at a hotel, and reported to the assigned meeting place, only to find that the reunion had been canceled because of traveling restrictions following the attack on the Twin Towers. The reunion was rescheduled for November, and five of us came. Each of us received a bronze plaque as a souvenir of the reunion. But, since the plaque had been prepared before the cancellation of the original date, the date that is engraved on it is September 11, 2001.Thus the plaque is a permanent reminder of a scheduled event that did not take place and an unscheduled event that did.
In 2002 I contributed most of my files to the Tamiment Library at New York University. The library has prepared "A Guide to the Irving Adler Papers, 1929–2002," which is available on the Internet.
That year I returned to New York for the commencement exercises of my alma mater to receive an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters.
In 2003 I celebrated my ninetieth birthday at a party organized by Peggy. It was a great reunion of family and friends coming from as far as England and California. I knew I would be called on to speak and that the talk should be short and amusing. I ended my talk by pointing out that the day before my ninetieth birthday my age was still eighty-nine, which is a Fibonacci number. This was undoubtedly the last time my age could be a Finobacci number, since the next greater one after ninety-nine is 144!
I think it is appropriate to end this supplement with the citations that were read when I was given my two honorary degrees, as together they sum up briefly what my life has been all about.
Read when I was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of humane letters by New York's City College:
"Teacher, scholar, mathematician, author of over fifty books, and fighter against fascism and for fairness and civil rights, you received your B.S. degree from City College magna cum laude in 1931, when you were only eighteen. You were awarded the College's Belden Prize for excellence in mathematics and the Pell Medal for having the second highest average at City College that year. You went on to Columbia for your M.A. and Ph.D. You began your teaching career at Stuyvesant High School in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression and at the beginning of the rise of fascism. Deeply involved in the issues of the day, you served as secretary of the United Committee against Militarism in Education and led the fight against the 'Ives Loyalty Oath.' which you countered with the voluntary 'Teachers' Pledge to Pupils.' You were actively involved in the fight against the loyalty oaths of the early fifties and the imposition of the Feinberg Law, which required the dismissal of teachers who belonged to 'subversive' organizations. In 1961 you joined the long battle to reinstate and compensate those teachers who had been wrongly accused and discharged by the board of education. You were yourself dismissed in 1954, not to be reinstated until 1976. You are a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a recipient of City College's Townsend Harris Medal for distinguished postgraduate achievement. Your alma mater is proud to bestow on you the degree doctor of humane letters."
Read when I was given the honorary degree of doctor of science by St. Michael's College:
"Irving Adler excels as scientist, author, educator and community servant. His astonishing achievement, however, as translator of the complex world of science and mathematics into a language accessible to children and curious adults exceeds all others. In writing with profound understanding about all areas of modern science in a way that engages the imagination of young readers, Irving Adler has made significant progress in worldwide education. His fifty-five books in mathematics, science and education and his thirty coauthored books have sold over four million copies in the United States and have been translated into eighteen languages and sold in thirty foreign countries. For his energetic promotion of science among school children for thirty years in New York City and now for twenty years in Vermont, Saint Michael's College is proud to award Irving Adler the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa."
Irving Adler's Librarian's Quiz
1. When the moon sets shortly after the sun does it is
a) a full moon b) a waxing crescent c) a waning crescent
2. If you walk up a hill at a speed of 1 mile per hour and down the hill at a speed of 2 miles per hour, your average speed for the round trip is
a) 1 and 1/2 mph b) 1 and 1/3 mph c) 1 and 1/4 mph
3. The Great Nebula in Andromeda
a) cannot be seen with the naked eye b) is best seen with the naked eye by looking directly at it c) is best seen with the naked eye by looking at it out of the corner of your eye
4. In the northern hemisphere, if you face the wind in a cyclone system, the low pressure region is
a) on your left b) on your right c) in front of you d) behind you
5. The "spit" of the frog-hopper serves as
a) a trap for food b) camouflage c) protection from the hot sun
6. Particles of rock dust can float in the air because they have
a) a high surface to volume ratio b) a low density c) an affinity for air
7. Water does not burn because
a) it is already burned b) it is wet c) it is cold
8. A cat's eyes glow in the dark because the tapetum behind the retina is
a) fluorescent b) phosphorescent c) a reflector
9. When you see a rainbow in the sky, the sun is
a) on your left b) on your right c) in front of you d) behind you
10. If you mix blue light and yellow light, the mixture is
a) white light b) green light c) purple light
11. The number of carbon atoms in a molecule of propane is
a) 3 b) 4 c) 5 d) 6
12. The molecule whose function in metabolism is to store and transfer energy is known as
a) DNA b) RNA c) ATP d) DDT
13. The first organic molecule that was synthesized was
a) insulin b) hemoglobin c) urea d) riboflavin
14. In the Watson-Crick model, the complement of adenine is
a) guanine b) cytosine c) praline d) thymine
15. An elementary particle that is its own antiparticle is the
a) neutron b) pi zero c) neutrino d) sigma zero
16. The diameter of a hydrogen nucleus is about
a) 2.5 × 10-8 cm b) 2.5 × 10-13 cm c) 2.5 × 10-18 cm d) 2.5 × 10-23 cm
17. The words harmattan, sirocco, and khamsin refer to
a) fibers b) stars c) winds d) weapons
18. Multiplication of matrices is not in general
a) associative b) commutative c) superlative d) distributive with respect to addition
19. The smallest number of people for which there is a better than even chance that at least two of them have the same birthday is
a) 23 b) 57 c)183 d) 243
20. Fermi-Dirac statistics are not obeyed by
a) nuclei with an even mass number b) nuclei with an odd mass number c) electrons d) protons
Adler Books That Contain the Answers
1. Time in Your Life
2. A New Look at Arithmetic
3. Your Eyes; The Stars
4. Weather in Your Life
5. Insects and Plants
8. Why and How?
9. Logic for Beginners
10 and 11. Color in Your Life
11, 12, 13, and 14. How Life Began
15 and 16. Inside the Nucleus
18. The New Mathematics
19 and 20. Probability and Statistics for Everyman
1. b 2. b 3. c 4. b 5. c 6. a 7. a 8. c 9. d 10. a 11. a 12. c 13. c 14. d 15. b 16. b 17. c 18. b 19. a 20. a
Brief BiographiesBiographies: (Hugo) Alvar (Henrik) Aalto (1898–1976) Biography to Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974) BiographyIrving Adler (1913-) - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights, Autobiography FeatureIrving Adler