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No. 972:
An Award

Today, an awards ceremony reminds me that things are okay after all. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My 24-hour trip back to Berkeley gave me a lot to think about. I went to receive an alumni award -- all the time thinking there's too much work to do here in Houston. Make the trip as short as possible. Surely they could find better candidates for their awards.

Then odd things began unfolding. My son, also a Berkeley alum, met me at the airport and introduced me to his fiancee. I liked her -- she gave me a fine sense of well-being. Next, a party at the chancellor's home honoring another alum -- a young astronaut who'd just come back from 15 days in space. His retired parents showed up in jogging clothes -- the picture of health in their late years. We talked. They told me how glad they were that he was safely back on earth. A bond formed.

I met the chairman of my old department and realized I'd once taught him in his lab course. The chancellor, once a colleague of mine, dropped the business that occupies his every waking second and talked about his children, born the same time as mine -- until a regent walked by. Then he was back at work.

Off to the awards banquet. Four of us were being recognized. The other three were older than I, with rich histories of accomplishment in electronics, construction, and corporate management.

We shook hands, gave our talks, posed for pictures, and swapped stories. My retired thesis advisor gave me my award. Whatever I thought of my merits, I was his accomplishment last night.

So worries over who deserved what evaporated. This was a celebration of a shared experience. My son was there. Today's undergraduates were scattered through the crowd. And we told them in our different voices that joy is to be had in a long life of hard work at the task of transforming the world. For that's what we'd all done and it's what they will do, too.

They too must one day step off the planet as we know it and go into space. They must ride the technologies that change the way we all live. As my former advisor and I walked through the campus, he furrowed his brow and complained that education is suffering devastating changes. It is, I suppose. Change always brings breakdowns of old virtues.

But I look at that young astronaut, at my son and his wife-to-be, at the undergraduates. Powerful virtues and values are there -- values that will transcend devastating change. I gave the award plaque to my son and asked him to bring it along next time he visits us. Sure, it was too big for my briefcase. But what I'd learned in these few short hours was that it really does belong to him as much as it belongs to anyone.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Photo of his mother, taken on his graduation day by Andrew Lienhard

Photo of his mother, taken on his graduation day by Andrew Lienhard