A Ph.D. Tradition: “Mrs. Jennings’ Wooden Leg”
Al MacRae ’54, G’57, ’60 Ph.D. shares his memories of the origins of “Mrs. Jennings’ Wooden Leg.”
Syracuse University’s physics department has a long tradition of newly anointed Ph.D. students “climbing Mrs. Jennings’ wooden leg”. They climbed a pole and affixed a plaque to the “leg” [the pole supporting Mrs. Jennings’ floor] containing their name, date and physics specialty.
This tradition dates back to the early 1950s when a heavy safe was placed in the first-floor anteroom to Professor William Fredrickson’s Steele Hall office. This was Mrs. Jennings’ office, secretary for the physics department. She was the dedicated guardian of the entrance to Professor Fredrickson’s office. Graduate students quickly learned that it was important to treat her with deference and respect, since she basically ran the day-to-day operation of the department. She was the source of all kinds of departmental information and was the person who you went to for favors such as a new chair for your office or permission to use a vacant classroom.
Now back to the heavy safe. Someone, whose name has long been forgotten, decided that the weight of the safe exceeded the load capability of the office floor. This problem was solved by placing a supporting wooden pole under the floor, with its base in the basement machine shop. Now comes the important part of this saga – namely Charlie Johnston. He was the head of the machine shop and was extremely proud of the workmanship of the items that this shop produced.
He helped many of the experimental physics students design equipment that was an important part of their thesis studies. He had a great sense of humor and enjoyed working with the department students and faculty. He also insisted on respect for his workmanship and not being treated as just another person with greasy hands. So, with the pole intruding on his workspace, Charlie decided the pole should serve a purpose. He had it shellacked to look like a piece of furniture and not just a rough timber. Charlie then obtained a telephone lineman’s belt with loops to hold tools and climbing spikes that he screwed into the pole. He then named this structure as “Mrs. Jennings’ Wooden Leg.”
His next step was to initiate the tradition. He made shiny brass plates with the date, area of study and the name of the experimentalist stamped into it. The proud student who had just completed his/her Ph.D. requirements was fitted with the belt by Charlie Johnston. The belt was then wrapped around the pole for safety’s sake, the student would climb the pole and screw the plaque into it. Tradition also had it that the students had to supply a cake or a snack for the assemblage of observing students, faculty, friends and family, following the climbing event—a truly celebratory atmosphere.
I understand that the pole was moved from the basement of Steele Hall to the new Physics Building and the “Mrs. Jennings' Wooden Leg” tradition continues. I hope that by now some thoughtful person has placed Charlie Johnston’s name on the pole – it is his legacy.
Send your memories or photos of this unique tradition to ASNews@syr.edu.