MOUNT VERNON — In the Ault family, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But that had nothing to do with the laws of physics; rather it was the elder Ault’s love of teaching and the younger Ault’s penchant for solving puzzles.
Warren Ault, who became a history professor at Boston University in 1910, taught for 56 years.
Addison Ault, who began teaching chemistry at Cornell College here in 1962 will retire this spring after 50 years.
“When he started there,” laughs son, Addison, “he was the entire history department.
“He was a fine example. He was involved in a noble profession.”
So, Addison, born 78 years ago in Boston, graduated from high school in nearby Newton and went on to Amherst College about 90 miles further west. After completing his undergraduate work in 1955, he returned to the Boston area and Harvard University where he earned his doctorate in 1959, although it wasn’t conferred until 1960.
After writing 63 letters for a job, he spent two years at Grinnell College which, at the time, hired young teachers for two years and then replaced them. After a year with Grinnell’s participation in a project at the Argonne National Laboratory, associated with the University of Chicago, he was offered jobs at Monmouth College in Illinois and Cornell College.
Impressed with Bill Deskin, chairman of the chemistry department, Addison took the position at Cornell. He had no idea that he’d stay half a century, although the signs were there. For, when Deskin retired, his career was well over 40 years and his successor, Cindy Strong, is wrapping up her 23rd year. Truman Jordan has been with the department 36 years.
“Longevity is one of our strong points. We get along with each other extremely well,” he says.
In fact, even though Addison has been part-time the last 13 years and is “retiring” (he’s being honored Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in The Commons), he’ll continue to oversee a couple of labs. That means he’ll walk all of two blocks to work, as he’s done for 49 years from the home where he and his wife, Janet, raised five children.
Addison has stuck around so long because his true love, teaching, can take precedence over research.
“I’ve always thought I found it, my perfect job,” he says. “Here, research with students is another form of teaching, especially in the summer.”
While Addison taught summer chemistry labs early in his career, he stepped back when the budget grew tight. But, by connecting with a friend at Dartmouth College, he was able to teach summer labs elsewhere, including a 13-year stint at Harvard that ended in 1998.
“Students can have insights,” he says matter-of-factly, recalling how his own curiosity was exactly why he studied chemistry in college after skipping it in high school. The element that interested him?
“It seemed like a series of puzzles,” he says. “You could do things in the lab. You could experiment in a practical way.”
As far as science goes, it’s all an endless supply of puzzles, he says, although chemistry bridges the gap between physics and biology. His textbook, “Techniques and Experiments for Organic Chemistry,” copyrighted in 1988, still sells 2,000 to 3,000 copies a year.
“The challenge was to find out what was going on at the molecular level that you couldn’t see. That’s what kept me interested for 50 years.
“It’s just one level of puzzlement after another. The good thing is there is an answer that you can figure out.”
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