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Secretary Steven Chu's Remarks as Prepared for Delivery at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University

May 23, 2011 - 1:04pm



President Hultin, provosts, trustees, faculty, family and friends, thank you for letting me share this wonderful day with you. I'm happy to return to NYU Polytechnic, or "Brooklyn Poly," as the school was known in the days when my father was on the faculty.

To the new graduates: Congratulations on your achievements. You are graduating from an institution that you can be proud of.  Poly is a recognized leader among undergraduate colleges in ethnic, racial and economic diversity. Many of you are from humble beginnings and have worked hard to be where you are today.

We are still recovering from a terrible recession, and you may be worried about your future job prospects. You should be comforted to know that NYU-Poly is ranked fourth in earning capability among engineering schools by BusinessWeek, behind MIT, Cal Tech and Harvey Mudd College.  You're in good company. Brooklyn Poly has a truly impressive list of alumni: engineers, scientists, captains of industry, presidents of universities, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Nobel Laureate.

As your commencement speaker, I am supposed to inspire you to "seize the moment" and "go boldly into the future."  Usually I talk about the energy and climate challenge and opportunities that lie before the new graduates. However, as I give more and more commencement speeches, there is increased pressure to say something different.

The tyranny of the Internet demands fresh material. Some of you may have looked up my previous commencement speeches to see if I am going to repeat myself today.  How many of you looked at some of my previous commencement speeches?

As an experiment, I googled "Steven Chu, commencement speech," and 57,000 hits appeared. I find it really scary that the Web is recording your every move. The next time you are tempted to post something dumb on the Internet, just remember: Like a tattoo, you may be stuck with it for the rest of your life. 

Instead of the usual speech, I will tell you the story of a former faculty member of Brooklyn Poly, Donald Othmer. 

Othmer was born in Nebraska in 1904, the son of a sheet metal worker. From this humble beginning, he earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and began his career at Eastman Kodak. While at Kodak, he invented a new way to manufacture acetic acid, an essential ingredient to replace the explosive film used in photography and the movies. In the course of this work, he invented the "Othmer still" that allowed him to precisely measure vapor-liquid equilibrium data. Othmer's pioneering work formed the basis of my father's 1956, gripping, best-selling book, "Vapor-liquid Equilibrium Data." Amazingly, the book it is still available on the Internet.

In 1932, Othmer joined Brooklyn Poly's Chemical Engineering department.  Five years later, he became Chair and served in that position for the next 25 years. Although he "retired" in 1976, he remained active in the department for 19 years until his death at age 91.

In 1949, he recruited my father from Washington University in Saint Louis. My father spoke of Othmer not as a colleague, but as a mentor. The words I heard in my childhood were that he was a "good man," a "wise man," a "great man."

Several times, he and his wife, Midge Othmer, visited our home in Garden City, New York. Every Christmas, we would receive a "Christmas card" in the form a 6 by 6 inch ceramic tile, dated and signed "Midon," their abbreviation for Midge and Don. Those Christmas ceramic tiles are now collector items for sale on the Web.

When my parents moved, my mother, not being a sentimentalist, threw away the tiles. She also threw away my prized bubble gum baseball card collection. I chewed and traded my way into assembling a complete collection of every player of every team in the days of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Yogi Berra. If it were not for tidy mothers like mine, a complete collection of 1950s baseball cards would not have the value they enjoy today. She also threw away my father's book, which in fairness, would not be worth as much as the baseball cards.

From my memories of 50 years ago, I remember the couple as being modest, soft spoken and unassuming.  I had no idea Othmer would own more than 150 patents and was largely responsible for building a fledgling department into an internationally recognized center.

Othmer and a Polytech chemist, Raymond Kirk, published the first of a series of editions of the "Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology."  This work has been called the "most famous chemical encyclopedia" and the "single most valuable resource in a chemistry library's reference collection." 

For his contributions, Othmer received numerous awards from chemical engineering and chemistry societies, including the Perkin Medal, the highest honor given by the U.S. industrial chemical industry. The Chemical and Engineering News named him one of the 75 greatest chemical scientists ever.

After the death of Othmer in 1995, and his wife in 1998, their close friends were shocked to learn that they were worth $800 million. The couple gave no indication of their enormous wealth. Don would bring a brown-bag lunch to work every day. No fancy homes, no fancy cars, no fancy vacations.

How did they get so rich? While Othmer made some money from his patents and consulting, the vast majority of his and his wife's wealth was made from an investment made in the early 1960s with an old friend from their home town of Omaha, Nebraska. Their friend was Warren Buffet. They essentially never took any money out of their initial investment and never let their wealth change their lives. Warren Buffet told the New York Times, "They just rode along."

By the way, Buffet was cut from the same cloth as the Othmers. He still lives in the same home in Omaha he bought in 1957 for $31,000, and pays himself $100,000 per year to manage Berkshire Hathaway.

Why am I telling you this story? It is not to inspire you to invest wisely or make friends with the next Warren Buffet, so you too could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The reason I am telling you this story is to remind you of the importance of cultivating a core sense of values. As you navigate your way through life, you will have to meet new challenges in situations that no college education can ever equip you for.

For 26 years, I was a research scientist at Bell Labs and a professor at Stanford. I never imagined or aspired to be an administrator or government bureaucrat. It was a big jump from running a group of 20 students and post docs or serving as Chair of a Physics Department to running a large National Laboratory. It was another huge jump to become the Secretary of Energy and be thrust into the political world. Any success I have had - including the fact that I am still standing - is primarily due to an internal compass that had developed over the years. In my experience, your best chance of success in navigating new waters is to have an internal guidance system and steady rudder. 

Two days ago, I emailed a friend, Martin Perl, a Stanford colleague, who majored in chemical engineering at Poly in the 1940s.  Marty wrote back immediately.


 "I am sorry that I have no precise or anecdotal personal recollections of Othmer. I met him a few times. He was a scholarly gentleman, and in his conversation he often emphasized that chemical engineering had to develop a more mathematical and analytical base, less random mixing and heating, more theory. Thus, I was influenced by him. [and] gradually slipped into physics."

Marty Perl grew up in Brooklyn, a second generation American. His parents came to America as children and neither went beyond high school. After working as a chemical engineer at General Electric for two years, he returned to earn a Ph.D. in physics and became a distinguished scientist. In 1995, he was awarded a Noble Prize in Physics. At the age of 83, Marty is still active. In his email, he writes of his current work with Holger Muller, a former post doc of mine and now a professor at UC Berkeley.  


 "Have you seen the attached paper by Holger, Adler and me? Holger is very busy with his own, very fine research and has not worked with us recently. However he remains one of the fathers of the idea.  We have begun construction at Stanford of the apparatus."

Othmer was an incredible role model. He mentored several generations of students and faculty. He loved his work, and took pride in what his work could do for the world, not what it could do for him. His life was much richer than making money and "owning stuff." His and his wife's hundreds of millions of dollars were bequeathed to numerous institutions, foremost being Poly.

When you are old and gray, and look back on your life, you will want to be proud of what you have done. The source of that pride won't be the things you have acquired, or the recognition you have received. Instead, it will be the lives you have touched and the difference you have made. I've said this before, but it is worth repeating.

You, the class of 2011, are part of a proud tradition at Poly. Like Don Othmer and Martin Perl, go out and do something you love. Recognize what was given to you . so that you may do something that matters to you and to the next generation. 

Thank you for listening.