Published in Des Moines Register on November 2, 1999


A Tree of Legacies


Crockett Grabbe


"IS IT TRUE?!" I will never forget that telephone call on a sunny autumn day that Friday afternoon. "Did a student walk in and shoot Dwight dead?!"

My mind was racing as I ran down toward his office on the second floor. Dwight Nicholson, Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Iowa, was a close friend and colleague. When I arrived, 2 policemen were there with rifles. Dwight's office was closed, and concerned staff and students were looking on. I had just returned to my office stunned by all this, when a policeman stopped by and stated they were clearing the building. He would not answer any of my questions, so I was still baffled by the situation. Was Dwight dead?

After listening for any information on the local news on radio and television for some time, I phoned a colleague's family and quickly received a second shock. Not only had Dwight been killed by Gang Lu with a handgun, but 4 others were as well!. 3 I knew, and 2, Chris Goertz and Robert Smith, were friends and colleagues I also knew well. To top off this rampage, Gang Lu had permanently paralyzed Miya Sioson, shooting her in the mouth through her spinal cord to leave her a quadriplegic.

This horrendous set of events on November 1, 1991 had a lasting effect on the University community, particularly on the physics and astronomy department. Because it was intertwined with certain events in my life as well, and because of my closeness to 3 of the victims, it was literally years before I recovered emotionally.

The 3 physics professors were quite intelligent and productive, very essential for the department and their colleagues. And killed by an emotionally-flawed foreign student who had legally obtained a handgun permit and purchased a handgun, became a sharpshooter on readily-available practice ranges, and easily concealed that handgun in his pocket to take it into a normal Friday research discussion meeting.

Chris Goertz directed the research that Gang Lu was involved in for his Ph. D., and Bob Smith collaborated with Chris on part of his research. Both could be very critical of research ideas, but then turn around and be best of friends personally. Obviously Gang Lu never appreciated this. He took the criticisms of his Ph. D. dissertation, and the fact that a Chinese rival, Chan Lin-hua, received the award he was vying for as a personal affront to him by all 3. He appealed that decision through the chairman Dwight Nicholson, but at the same time went out and purchased the handgun.

Dwight handled Gang-Lu's appeal with absolute confidence, but when the decision came from the Vice-President for Academic Affairs T. Anne Cleary a few months later, he quickly killed all 5. According the letters the police intercepted that he had mailed back to his sister in China, he had no intention of stopping there. His plans included the rest of the university administration up to president.

For Dwight to have been a target of Gang-Lu is a particularly ironic tradedy, because one of his first accomplishments after becoming the Chair of the department of Physics and Astronomy was to open a program for brilliant Chinese students to pursue graduate studies in the University of Iowa physics environment. Gang Lu, as well as a number of other Chinese students (all of whom were utterly outraged by these shootings), would not have been there if it were not for Dwight's efforts. But it was just one example of the reaching out to others he did. One other example is among my fondest remembrances.

A decade ago I was struck by a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage which left me paralyzed on the right side for about 3-4 months. This got the attention of my 71-year old dad, who lived in a rural area in Texas, when the surgeon phoned by permission for emergency operation, informing I might be dead within a few hours. My mother had died shortly before this, and my condition led Dad to leave the state of Texas for the first time in his life and come to Iowa to visit me in the hospital.

Dad came to the ward every day for about 3 weeks, wobbling on his misfitting crutches that he used because of pain and disability in his leg originating from an old injury sustained from being thrown from a horse. 2 others consistently visited me daily: a lady friend of mine, and Dwight Nicholson. Dwight had just become chair of the department, replacing the distinguished James van Allen. However, Dwight's duties as chair did not deter his visits to visit me at the hospital.

While growing up I never recall my Dad speaking of professors without appropriate curse words to put down the profession. However, Dwight was probably the first professor that ever engaged in an extensive discussion with Dad. And several times he took Dad, who was without a car, out to dinner. At the end of 3 weeks my Dad very tearfully said goodbye. Unfortunately, that was the last time I would see him alive.

Dad died almost a year later, just as I was planning a trip down to see him. In telephone conversations I had with him meanwhile, he would always end the conversation with "Please say hello to Dr. Nicholson". Dwight had clearly made an impression on Dad in the last year of his life, in spite of being a professor! This ability to make friends with people from diverse walks of life was one of the marvelous aspects of Dwight's character. This was recognized posthumously by the American Physical Society by instituting the Dwight Nicholson Humanitarian Award in his honor.

The tree that was planted by the department in 1991 in honor of the victims of this violence has grown quite large and healthy, and is a reminder of the healthy and abundant legacies they produced. That tree, and Miya Siosin, live on.


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