Cutler Shepard

Cutler Shepard spent the summer of 1955 at work in the field, at a mine somewhere I no longer remember. He was an extractive metallurgist, skilled at getting metal out of the rocks. He was the Department Chairman for mining and metallurgy at Stanford—logically so since he created the Department. Just after he left for the summer, a letter reached his in-basket.

I spent that summer (after my junior year in geology at San Jose State) working in a gas station. My advisor, Prof. Norman Dolloff, himself an inspiration like Cutler, appeared late one August day and asked. "How would you like $2000?" With out even giving it a thought, or asking what for, I said, "Yes". That was at least 10 times more money than I had ever seen before all in one place.

It turned out that there was a slight string attached. I would have to change majors from geology, my first and continuing love, to metallurgy and go to Stanford. It seems that the letter Cutler received was from Kennecott Copper offering a fellowship where the student and University each received $2000 per year. It arrived too late for proper processing on schedule. Having no ready candidates that late in the year, Cutler inquired of all his ex students, did they know anyone? Norman immediately recommended me. Lots of hassles and an interview at the "Top Of The Mark" in San Francisco (I didn't even own a suit) followed. A few days before the fall Quarter was to begin, I was accepted.

To that point I had been working 40 hours a week, carrying a full academic load and still doing well enough grade-wise. Stanford grads could find jobs; San Jose State folks had harder times. That figured into my retrospective excuses for making the switch. I have always been an Intellectual and Stanford would add to that aura—a second retrospective reason for the switch.

Cutler was a slender man about 5'10" with a big booming voice, a large shock of gray hair and dancing blue-gray eyes. He absolutely loved teaching. And he could inspire. Something as simple as dumping mud on a conveyor belt, washing it with water to move the light minerals off first and dropping the heavy stuff into a bin became a drama in his description—we sat on the edges of our seats to catch every word.

Cutler had three careers and was into the second as I arrive at Stanford. My first exposure to his new skill came when he strung this piece of iron wire across room 101 in the Peterson Building. He hooked a variable electric power source to each end and began to heat it. Finally it got a little red, then redder and redder. As it heated it sagged—of course. But then something strange happened. It stopped sagging and got suddenly shorter, reversing the sag! We were enthralled by our introduction to the ferrite-to-austenite transformation in steel. It seems in austenite that the atoms are closer together than in ferrite. That is just one lecture I shall never forget. When I saw Richard Feynman on TV years later, I remembered Cutler. Feynman demonstrated for Congress how the rubber gaskets used in the Challenger disaster turned brittle when dipped in ice water. Miles apart, Cutler and Feynman were brothers in the dramas of science and technology.

Cutler's three careers began with several years in industry followed by establishing the Mining and Metallurgy Department of Stanford. His third career was to anticipate the future and thereby elevate Stanford to among the leading schools in Materials Science. Yep you guessed it; my Ph.D. came in Materials Science. One of Cutler's students, Bill Nix, did my "Finishing" years later. I had taken 10 years out after my MS to get my hands dirty, see below.

Cutler arranged summer jobs for his students in their field of study, and in that way too anticipated the future in education. Temperament and commitment can mean more than shear brilliance. Cutler had an abundance of both. No Nobel prize for him, just hundreds of protégés and students to carry on his very beingness, to coin a word I cannot find.

From Cutler I learned many things. Most importantly
* It pays to get your hands dirty, be able to practice what you preach. 
* Be direct with honesty and integrity in all communications, especially the mentor type.

Communication is where it is at, especially when salted with a sense of humor which he had in abundance. Cutler used ordinary words to explain the complex and arcane and to make it all so real and obvious—after the explanation. In those characteristics he was like Kris who brushed away the mystery of Freud in about five seconds. More important even than his teaching, was Cutler's humanity. He found loan after loan for needy students. He played softball with us during Department picnics. At 50, he got all banged up sliding into second with a double laughing his head off. He invited us to his house. I had a family and we were scratching for a living and he knew we would appreciate a meal and conversation.

Cutler made a difference in the world for so many. He turned 90 in '92 and I went to the reception the Department held for him. I only flew 3000 miles; others came from around the globe. He had shrunk 5" and was frail and weak. But his inner zest was still there as he caught up on his ex student's lives and times. Colleagues came too. Craig Barrett, now chairman of Intel (and a member of my Graduate Committee) came. Many of his students are famous and others merely successful like me. When asked what he thought about so many students surpassing him he replied "Why now that I think of it, I would not want it any other way". Being simple, straight and direct can have profound results. In these ways he was like Helen, Norman and Kris.

I haven't touched as many people as Cutler did, but he inspired much of what I have been able to do. Never could I match his resonant voice, but I did catch his enthusiasm and I use it to this day in the twilight of my own life—coaching people how better to communicate, invent and compress time-to-market and yes, how to construct web pages—to their astonishment. In that way too, Cutler taught me how to pursue new things.

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