Joe Platt

Harvey Mudd College’s First President

Joe Platt

August 12, 1915 – July 10, 2012

With sadness, Harvey Mudd College mourns the loss of founding president Joseph B. Platt who passed away peacefully at his home in Claremont on July 10, 2012.  He is remembered with deep affection and appreciation by all of us.  Dr. Platt was 96 years old and is survived by his wife Jean Ferguson Platt of Claremont, Calif., daughters Ann Platt Walker of La Jolla, Calif. and Elizabeth Platt Garrow of Willowbrook, Ill., grandchildren Stephen Walker, Jay Bradbury Walker, Jennifer Elizabeth Garrow, and Erin Alexander Garrow and their families.

Joseph B. Platt served more than half a century in Claremont as the first president of Harvey Mudd College (HMC) from 1956 to 1976, eighth president of Claremont Graduate School and University Center (now Claremont Graduate University) from 1976 to 1981.  In 1981, Platt returned to HMC as senior professor of physics.

Early Years

Platt was born in Portland, Ore., and grew up in Rochester, N.Y. He attended East High School before entering the University of Rochester in 1933, where he was on the varsity swim team. It was there that he was mentored by Lee A. DuBridge, who later became president of Caltech and a lifelong friend and colleague of Platt’s.

Platt spent four months between his freshman and sophomore years as a seaman in the Merchant Marines on a freighter in the South Atlantic. “I had two hours every night on lookout to think about my options,” he said. “Teaching really appealed to me. That took about 10 nights on watch, and I spent the next 10 nights on the question of what to teach.”

With the then-recent discovery of the neutron and positron, physics was opening up rapidly in 1933. Platt decided that this is what he would teach. “I have neither regretted nor changed those goals,” he stated.

After graduating from the University of Rochester with honors in physics in 1937, Platt continued his studies at Cornell University, earning a Ph.D. in 1942 (his doctoral thesis focused on the structure of metallic potassium). At the University of Rochester, he taught physics and helped develop night vision optical devices for use during World War II. He spent most of World War II at the radiation laboratory at MIT, where he put his knowledge of radar devices to practical use for the United States Air Force. At MIT, he worked on classified projects, including a microwave adaptation of a British beacon system for blind bombing by aircraft.

In 1945, Platt met Jean Ferguson Rusk, his future wife. At the time, Rusk, a mathematician, was employed by Polaroid, where she helped develop the company’s trademark Land camera system. The two were married in 1946 after Platt was reappointed as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Rochester, where he worked for most of the decade. During this time, he went on leave to serve the Atomic Energy Commission as chief of the physics branch, research division. Upon his return to University of Rochester, Platt became professor of physics and worked on the design and construction of a 240-million-volt synchrocyclotron. He also directed a research team that produced mesonic atoms identifiable through x-ray spectra. During his tenure, he was named outstanding teacher by the Rochester Alumni Association.

Harvey Mudd College’s First President

Platt left Rochester in 1956 to become founding president of a “then non-existent” Harvey Mudd College. With the atomic age in full swing, the space age just beginning, and the computer age in sight, Platt greeted with excitement the offer to head up HMC, which opened in September 1957 with seven faculty members, 48 students, three administrators (including Platt) and one dormitory—the only building on campus.

By the end of his first decade as president, nearly 300 students were studying under 43 faculty members, and the school had produced 257 graduates. When Platt stepped down in 1976 after 20 years at the helm, about 1,000 students had graduated from HMC.

George I. McKelvey, who joined HMC as director of development when the school opened in 1957, once said that one of Platt’s most important contributions as an administrator was his ability to acquire a consensus. He seldom gave orders; rather, he offered suggestions and waited for a consensus to develop. That ability enabled him to lead HMC on a road to success, a road it continues along today.

After HMC, Platt decided to continue in academia as president of the Claremont Graduate School and University Center (now two entities: Claremont Graduate University and Claremont University Center), a position he held for five years. During that time, enrollment increased 16 percent at the graduate school, new academic programs were offered, and Platt spurred a mini construction boom with a new building for the Management and Policy Program and a new Art Center.

Platt’s other commitments during his career included serving as a science advisor to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization); board member, chair, ANSER (Analytic Services, Inc.); multiple roles, National Science Foundation; member, California’s Select Committee on Higher Education; trustee, China Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture; member, board on Science and Technology for International Development, National Academy of Sciences; trustee, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; trustee, The Aerospace Corporation; director, Bell & Howell Corporation; director, Jacobs Engineering Corporation; director, Automobile Club of Southern California; and several assignments, President’s Science Advisory Committee. Platt also maintained membership in physics and engineering societies.

For his dedicated years of service, Platt received the first Henry T. Mudd Prize in 1992, named for the longtime board chair and generous HMC benefactor who was the son of Mildred and Harvey S. Mudd.  Platt continued to teach physics into his 90s at HMC, sometimes in a rather unconventional manner. Platt, who took up the guitar as a child, often played and sang short ditties laced with technical terminology to entertain his students and to teach scientific principles. “The Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction” is one such tune:

There once was a sprinter in action

Who lost his last race by a fraction.

When he came to the tape

He had altered his shape

By the Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction.

The Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction

Should not be so partial in action.

If the loser was thinner,

Still more so the winner,

The greater the final contraction…

His tunes are much beloved by current students and alumni alike, many of whom would join Platt at Alumni Weekend for the annual sing-alongs. In addition to music, Platt traveled with his wife, Jean, and spent time with their two daughters, Ann Platt Walker and Elizabeth Platt Garrow, and their four grandchildren. He was an avid swimmer, reader and bird watcher.

Joe Turns 90

At Joseph Platt’s 90th birthday party at HMC, alumni and friends reflected on their relationship with him:

William Zimmerman, emeritus trustee, complimented Platt’s calm and wise counsel at critical times and recalled his smooth guitar renditions around the campfire at Saddle Rock. “A true Renaissance man,” he commented.

“Beloved is an overused term these days, but I would not be surprised to look it up in the dictionary and see a picture of Joe and Jean Platt,” wrote Rick Simon ’76.

Joe Stone ’63 recalled the rigorous academic load. “With all the challenges, we knew we had a great man at the helm, not only a leader but someone who would sing for us.”

Mahesh Koteca ’70, one of HMC’s first international students, shared that even 20 years after his graduation, the Platts remain concerned and interested in his life and career. “This is a tremendous asset to every student here because he cares about every one of us. Without that caring, many of us would not have the same bond we have today with the college.”

Koteca said that Platt personifies the central theme of HMC’s founding, the meeting of the two cultures: the scientist/engineer sensitive to the social impact of his/her work.

The Platts’ eldest daughter Ann Platt Walker shared memories before Mudd—sailing balsa wood glider airplanes with her father, watching barges on the Erie Canal during their time in Rochester, N.Y., and her memories of the design and construction of a 240-million-volt synchrocyclotron while Platt was professor of physics at the University of Rochester.

“It took me a while to realize my father was different from most fathers I knew,” shared Walker. “In the 1950s, no one else’s father played the guitar, for example. Dad’s guitar playing and singing has been central to my life for 57 years. For many of them, I took his eclectic repertoire for granted. It never occurred to me that few kids were sung to sleep with Art Roberts’ physics songs. These came with soothing choruses ‘like round and round and round go the deuterons,’ ‘It ain’t the money that makes the nucleus go round, it’s the philosophical, ethical principle of the thing!’ However, our bedtime and after-dinner songs were equally likely to be ones dad picked up [while in the Merchant Marines] in the ’30s, mid- to late-19th-century Baptist hymns, minstrel and Civil War songs, or other chestnuts from the days when families used to sing together. Actually, I now recognize that physics, dad’s faith, his family, and other sources of his fond repertoire have been the cardinal points of his life.”

Central throughout Platt’s life was his wife Jean. Jean Strauss, wife of former HMC president Jon Strauss, commended the Platts for being a true team.

“Joe reveres Jean’s intellect and respects every aspect of her. It’s hard to quantify what that role model has done for the many who were students here. Joe’s respect of Jean transferred over into respect of women on campus,” she said.

As guests discovered, the very fact that women are on campus today is due in large part to Platt. In his remarks, Platt verified that there was a lone board member opposed to admitting women at Mudd. “Trustee Al Thomas said he had an uneasy feeling about who would marry a math major,” said Platt of their conversation. When Platt shared that he had indeed married a mathematician— Jean majored in mathematics—“Well, that was that.”