Orange Alert

Mrs. Jennings Wooden Leg - Charlie Johnston’s Legacy

a plaque on mrs. jennings wooden leg with Alfred U. MacRae's PhD plaque

Posted on: May 1, 2022

Physics alumn Al MacRae (’54, G’57, ’60 PhD) takes us down memory lane by sharing a few of his memories.

The Syracuse University Physics Department has a long tradition of the newly anointed PhD students climbing Mrs. Jennings wooden leg. They climbed a pole and affixed a plaque to the “leg” containing their name, date, and physics specialty. This tradition dates back to the early 1950’s when a heavy safe was placed in the first-floor anteroom to Professor William Fredrickson’s Steele Hall office. I would be remiss in not praising Professor Fredrickson, the Chairman of the Physics Department. He was the warm person who welcomed students and faculty alike to chat in his office. He managed to attract several excellent faculty members who were part of his team-like faculty environment – to the benefit of the physics students. The Physics department thus had a family-like environment, making the serious study of physics a pleasant, but albeit sometimes a harrowing experience.

Mrs. Jennings office, the Physics department secretary sat in an anteroom to Professor Fredrickson’s office. She was the dedicated guardian of the entrance to Professor Fredrickson’s office, making sure that he was not disturbed while receiving visitors or doing work that required his full attention. 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.

Mrs. Jenning’s room contained a 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. In addition to high quality items, 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 and insisted on respect for his workmanship and not treated as just another person with greasy hands. So, with the pole intruding on his workspace, Charlie decided on having the pole serve a useful purpose. He had the 5” on a side pole shellacked and insisted that it look like a piece of furniture and not just a rough timber that was left over from the construction of the building. Charlie 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” presumably without Mrs. Jennings approval.

The 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 PhD requirements was fitted with the belt by Charlie Johnston. The belt was wrapped around the pole for safety’s sake, the student would climb the pole and with appropriate ceremony by observing students, faculty, partners, and family, led by Charlie Johnston, would screw the plaque onto the pole. Tradition also had it that the students had to supply a cake or a snack for the assemblage following the climbing event, a truly celebratory atmosphere.

The story does not end there. Someone mentioned to Charlie that the theoreticians, who naturally did not use the machine shop, should not be excluded from this meaningful ceremony. Charlie, with his great sense of humor, made a plaque with the names of several theoreticians on it, assigned an unusual number to the plaque and Professor Peter Bergman, a relativity theorist, with his characteristic grin, climbed the pole and attached the plaque all with raucous cheering. Bergman was in his glory.

I understand that the pole was moved from the basement of Steele Hall to the new Physics building and this “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.