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Former President Reminisces About Early Life, MIT

By Jiao Wang

Professor of Electrical Engineering and President Emeritus Paul E. Gray ’54 started his career at MIT as an undergraduate student in Course VI in 1950. Through the years, he has served the Institute in a number of positions. He rose to become the 14th president of MIT from 1980-1990 and chairman of the MIT Corporation from 1990-1997. Since then, he has continued to teach undergraduate classes and to advise undergraduate students. This fall marks his 50th year of service to MIT.

The following is the first of a two-part interview in which Gray reflects on his early interest in science and his experiences at the Institute.

The Tech: Describe some memorable moments of childhood.

Paul Gray: I was an only child. I was born in the depths of the Depression and most families in those years had only one child. I have two cousins, one on each side of the family, although I was only in contact with one of them when I was young.

My family, from when I was about five or six years old until when World War II started in 1941, when I would have been nine, spent most of the summers at a place in Manasquan on the shores of north New Jersey and I had wonderful memories of the ocean and time spent in the ocean. I was in the water from morning until night almost every day in July and August.

What else? As I said earlier, I was born in north New Jersey and my family lived in East Orange, New Jersey, until I was about 10 years old in 1942. That year, we moved to Livingston, New Jersey, into a new house, a house that they had built for us, which was very exciting.

We had lived in East Orange in a two-family home. We lived in the first floor and somebody else lived on the second floor in a very urban setting. To move to what was then a “truck-farming community” with very little population was exciting. It was a totally different experience.

As a kid, I was interested in making things and particularly interested in things that had to do with electricity and electronics. All amateur radio operations were shut down during the war. As soon as the war ended, I studied for my license exam and I went to New York on the train one day and got licensed as an amateur radio operator within weeks after the war ended.

TT: Describe some people who influenced you early on in life.

PG: Well, certainly my parents, and particularly my father. He was born in 1900 and my mother in 1902. It was common for people born in that era to drop out of school to start jobs, which my father did after junior high. My mother finished high school. My father worked almost all his life for a public utility, Public Service Electric and Gas in New Jersey on the electricity side.

There was one particular teacher in high school who had an enormous influence on me. Her name was Emily Morford, and I had her for four years of English. She was a very demanding, fair, and wholly committed teacher and I learned a lot more from her than how to read and write English with some clarity. I read all the time.

When I applied to college, I knew I wanted to study electrical engineering. I applied to three places: MIT, [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], and Yale. At that point, Yale had quite a good engineering school. RPI offered me quite a lot of money, Yale offered me some money, and MIT didn’t offer anything at all. I was all set to go to Yale. I told Mrs. Morford this, why my family and I had come to that conclusion, and she sat me down and said, “You are crazy. If you want to be an engineer, you better go to MIT and forget about these other places.”

I took that advice. My parents managed to pay for it the first year. I worked summers and part-time during the year. After the first year, I began to get financial support from MIT, which was very substantial in the last three years.

TT: Did Mrs. Morford support your decision to become an educator later on?

PG: Yes. She was in her fifties when I was a student. By the time I became a faculty member 15 years later, she was retired. But she lived long enough to know that I was elected president. She was not able to come to the inauguration because she was in her nineties at that time and was quite frail, but we had a telephone conversation and she was very pleased.

TT: Did you initially intend to be an educator?

PG: No. When I came here, I thought I would get my MIT education and then go to work in industry somewhere. I did the four years and over the summers I worked at Bell Laboratories and other places. My wife-to-be was one year behind me in college, so I stayed for another year at MIT in graduate school and did a master’s degree. In the 1950s, you could do one in one year.

TT: You did that because of her?

PG: Yes, we planned to be married after she graduated. When I left MIT for the first time, I was commissioned in [the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps]. We got married in the summer between the time I finished the five years and the time I served on active duty in the army. I did job interviews that fifth year and had offers in Bell Labs, RCA Labs and IBM. I accepted an offer from RCA with the mutual understanding that I was going to take military leave in September to be on active duty for two years.

I was in a branch of the army called the Army Security Agency, a branch which no longer exists. It was then doing what the National Security Agency does now, that is, seeing what could be learned by listening to the communications of the folks on the other side of the Iron Curtain, which was a big issue at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s.

I was sent to Fort Devens here in Massachusetts for five months of training from September to January. There were just three universities in the United States that had an Army Security Agency branch: MIT, Texas A&M, and University of Michigan.

There were two ways you tried to understand what the other folks were saying. One was through “traffic analysis,” where you looked at patterns of communication: who talked to whom, how frequently, how do the patterns change over time. You cannot understand what they are saying, but you try to figure out what you can from the patterns. The other, which is no longer possible, is through cryptanalysis, where you try to decode what they are saying to each other. The codes that are used now are essentially unbreakable.

I was being trained as a traffic analyst. It was clear halfway through the program that there were only a couple of really good assignments — by really good, I mean with which you could live in a fairly civilized way and take your wife — and these were assignments to a field station in West Germany. Turkey, Japan, South Korea, and other places where the army was interested in listening to what the Soviets were saying to each other did not permit wives to accompany the men.

It also became clear early on that assignments were made on the basis of class rank. It was not a difficult program of study, and I ended up being first in the class. I got my desired assignment and we got orders saying that in three weeks we were to proceed to West Germany. My wife quit her school teaching. We made arrangements to sell our car and told the landlord we were leaving. About two weeks later, we got revised orders, which said, no, the Army decided you will not go to West Germany, you will stay here and teach. So we unsold the car. We continued to rent the house and my wife got her job back. We stayed in Fort Devens for the rest of my active duty time, which was two years.

I taught enlisted men for the most part. I taught GI’s how to operate and maintain what was then fairly sophisticated electronic equipment. They were all men in those days. There were no women in the army. That was my first experience in teaching.

When I left MIT after five years, I took the job at RCA and worked there June, July, and August before I went into service and took military leave. When I left here in 1955, I never wanted to see the inside of the place again. I was just right up to nose after five years of full time study.

TT: Why?

PG: It was just five years of unremitting hard work and I had enough.

TT: Do you think most people feel that way after four or five years?

PG: I think a lot of people do. IHTFP has its believers. I didn’t hate it, but I had enough. I thought I was going to go into the army, do my service to Uncle Sam, go back to RCA Laboratories, and work in a research laboratory. Being away from MIT for a couple of years, I found out that I really learned quite a lot here and that it was really quite useful to me. The experience of teaching in that kind of setting was satisfying. It was very different from teaching at MIT. Teaching in the Army is a setting where there are very strict lesson plans. You covered certain material in each lesson and had little flexibility in what you had to teach and how you were going to teach it.

After a year-and-a-half away from MIT, I mellowed a little about the place and thought, well, if you are really interested in a career in teaching, you better go back and get some more education. So I applied to go back to MIT in the fall of 1957 when I got out of the Army. The fall of this coming year will mark fifty years of my employment here.

TT: Were your MIT years fulfilling?

PG: Yes, oh yes. I told you earlier that when I left after four years, I had it up to my nose and I was glad to leave, but the excitement of being here and the excitement of learning so much was fulfilling, no question.