Sudipa Kirtley • faculty writer

My American Airlines plane arrived at Terre Haute, and I remember that I was the only passenger in a full-sized Boeing 737. This was not an encouraging sign about the place at which I was hoping to land a job.
I was coming to this town for my on-campus interview at Rose-Hulman, and I did not know what to expect. I knew that it was a “preppy” school, as my husband had put it when I had asked him about it, and when one of my research collaborators heard that I was showing interest in it, he said that it was an American Midwestern “gem”. At that time, I was a joint post-doc at Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Schlumberger-Doll Research, working from my base in the Schlumberger research labs in Connecticut.
The next day I spent the whole day with Art Western and his wife. At that time, Art was the Physics and Applied Optics department head. We went to different parks and drove around many tree-lined boulevards. I was pretty impressed at how pretty the town was. (Later, I learned that Art had carefully charted his course of tour to only show me the ‘good’ parts of Terre Haute). That evening the Western family welcomed me to their house, and I had a home-made supper with them. The warmth made me feel instantly at home.
The next day was my interview day. Art had warned me that it would be busy, and he was right on the dot. From 7:30 a.m. till 8:30 p.m. I talked to people, toured labs, gave a seminar, taught a class, and ate. There are a few things that stand out in my memory from this day. The people were genuinely nice, the weather was uncharacteristically warm (though Art said it was typical for Terre Haute for February), and the best part of it was that the overall experience was unbelievably enjoyable. I felt so good that later I called up my husband from my hotel room, and gloated about the fast-food restaurants that Terre Haute has. You see, our little town in Connecticut did not allow them, and somehow I had felt very deprived. Terre Haute was full of them! Then, after it was all over, it was back to the airport. There, another disconcerting sign awaited me: The pilot had to hand-crank the propeller to get it started on the little plane that took me to Chicago. Clearly, air travel to and from Terre Haute was not a big business.
When time came, I accepted the offer, still with some trepidation. However, the collegiality of the department erased my doubts. The faculty members were all extraordinarily nice to me, and extended their helping hands even when I did not ask. To this day, I am very grateful to all of my colleagues, and I believe that I am one lucky person to have ended up here. Art Western moved on from the chair’s position to the Dean’s position, and now he has retired from Rose-Hulman. I feel his absence. I will always be indebted to him for his guidance that he offered me unconditionally through my formative years as a professor. He was a friend, an older brother, a mentor, and a confidant. When I think back to those early days, I believe that because of him egging me on, I felt energized to continue striving and to achieve as much as I could.
All this made me realize that how small and insignificant a place is on the world map, or the quality of air travel in and out of it does not matter. It is the people who make a place. I am grateful to all of my colleagues, my students, and my friends who have made this place live up to the description of a “Midwestern gem.”

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