In 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer was going to speak at the University of Washington in Seattle, when the university President Henry Schmitz disapproved, because he suspected that Oppenheimer might be a Communist. Oppenheimer was the most famous living scientist at that time, second only to his friend Albert Einstein who died the next year. I was attending Washington State College (WSC) at that time, on the Eastern border of the state, and felt annoyed that our sister institution had done something so outrageous. How could I, a student living two hundred miles from the action, do anything about that injustice?
As the wheels of life and fate rolled on, next year I found myself in New York City attending Fieldstone school in upper Manhattan where Oppenheimer had attended high school. This was a several week summer school called The Encampment for Citizenship, sponsored by the Ethical Culture Society. This was a wonderful event in my life because we students were able to go and meet famous people. It was there I got to go to Hyde Park and meet Eleanor Roosevelt. The director of the Encampment asked me if I would like to meet Oppenheimer, because he knew that I was associated with the Unitarians back in Washington, and was in fact the President of their college-age student group, the Channing Club. I had mentioned to them that I would like Oppenheimer to come to our campus and speak to our club and church.
A few days later I was hitchhiking back to WSC, back in Washington, and diverted my travel to visit with Oppenheimer. My last ride to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton was on an ice-cream cart. The cart drove off and there I was standing alone on Sunday morning at the door of the most famous intellectual institute in the world. I knocked on the door several times before anyone answered, but a slightly annoyed person whom I recognized because he was recently in Life magazine, said Oppenheimer wasn’t there and pointed to the phone.
As I walked out the door a young woman driving a Cadillac picked me up. I stuttered out Oppenheimer’s address, and she said don’t bother, I know where he lives. So, instead of walking the mile over to his house I rode in luxury. His greeting to me was the most gracious event of my life. He recognized instantly that I was star stunned, and after taking me to his office, went off to fetch me a drink. So there I stood, suitcase beside me, with the most famous scientist in the world, the Father of the Atomic Bomb, fetching a glass of water for me. Having nothing to do, I looked for a minute at a painting on the left side of the door I had just come through, and then at the one to the right. I was looking at that one when Oppenheimer came back with the glass of water in hand. He asked which picture I liked best, and I slightly apologetically said the portrait over to the left. He said he liked the one I was looking at the best.
Years later I came across this photograph of Oppenheimer standing in front of what is obvious to me now, a painting by Vincent Van Gogh.
He inherited this painting from his family, so he may have been familiar with it for a long time. Van Gogh did several paintings with a sun just above the hills, but when I look at this one through Oppenheimer’s eyes I can’t help but think he would see it as an atomic explosion beyond the distant hills.
We had a wonderful conversation because I had gone to high school in Richland, Washington, which was the home of the people who made the plutonium for the atomic bombs, and I knew the children of some of his friends. We had many things to talk about, and I mentioned having him come and talk to my club.
When I got back to WSC I immediately contacted Cynthia Schuster, the faculty advisor for my Channing Club, to make a formal request to the College to have Oppenheimer speak to my group. I never saw her again; she was instantly fired for corrupting the youth, and I was kicked out of the Air Force ROTC. We must remember that this was the height of the Joe McCarthy era.
A strange overlap between Vincent Van Gogh, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Charles Scamahorn.