15 June 2014

A farmer circa 1930. National Archives, Public Domain
A farmer circa 1930.

I’m the son of a farmer, and a grandson of a farmer, and a great-grandson of a farmer. Tradition dictated that I too would become a farmer.

Growing up, my father was a loving but strict parent. To this day I address my elders as Sir or Ma’am as easy as breathing. My father encouraged me to learn about crop rotation and animal husbandry, but those didn’t hold much interest for me. I worked the farm as required, but didn’t look forward to it with fondness. I’d much rather stand in the field outside our house at night and look at the stars.

In school I was encouraged by my advisors to take classes like welding and “ag.” Things that would be practical for my future. I wanted to take all the math and science courses I could. My advisors would shake their heads, but my father approved every math and science course I wanted to take.

Recognizing my interest in astronomy, my father made sure I received a small telescope for Christmas one year. It wasn’t very powerful, but it was enough to see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. My father still encouraged me to build an interest in farming, but he recognized I had other interests.

When I was about 15, my father told me that if I really wanted to go to college, he would do all he could to support me. Paying for college would still be a challenge, but he made it clear that I did not need to continue on the farm beyond high school. I was his firstborn, and tradition mandated that a farm be passed from father to son. My father chose to let his bookish boy pursue his own interests.

I was the first of my family to go to college, much less get a graduate degree. I went from standing in a field at night to teaching students about stellar fusion, black holes and dark matter. I’ve published a book on astrophysics that my father has prominently on his shelf next to the writings of C. S. Lewis. He doesn’t fully understand what I do, but he is proud of what I’ve accomplished.

I never met Carl Sagan. He never gave me a signed book, nor drove me to the bus station on a snowy day. Instead, I had a father steeped in the tradition of his agricultural heritage.

A man who stood up to tradition and encouraged his son to pursue his dream.