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College Row

Dudley Towne
Professor Dudley Towne

Prof. Dudley Towne

Dudley H. Towne, the Emily C. Jordan Professor of Physics, Emeritus, died November 25 at his home in Amherst at the age of 78. Towne taught at Amherst for 45 years, or, as his colleague Professor Emeritus Robert Romer observed, for one-quarter of the college’s existence. “He was a great teacher of physics and the liberal arts,” says Professor of Physics Kannan Jagannathan. “Rigorous, elegant and demanding, he was loved or at least admired by generations of students. To his colleagues who could appreciate more fully all of the power and beauty of his mind, he was an inspiration and a generous guide.”

Towne’s main research focus was wave phenomena, and his textbook on that subject, Wave Phenomena, is widely used. Although most colleagues recall his teaching approach as elegant and restrained, he knew how to use drama to get a point across: When he was teaching students the Maxwell formulas—the essential, but very difficult, foundation of electro-magnetism—he would perform a striptease he called “Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.” As he explained each successive layer of logic underlying the formulas, he would remove another layer of clothing. As the lecture progressed, the students’ anticipation—and attention—increased until he reached the final layer, his undershirt, on which were printed the Maxwell formulas.

His choice of a title for the Maxwell lecture was not coincidental. Towne traveled widely, including one especially memorable trip up Mt. Kilimanjaro, which was all the more challenging for him because he was an insulin-dependent diabetic. He had a tremendous gift for languages, and whenever he traveled he would make a point of learning the local language first. At the time of his death, he spoke 11 languages, including his first conquest, Chinese.

He learned Chinese during World War II, while he was the chief radio operator at theater headquarters in Chungking, China. The highlight of his military career came when he received a communication from General Douglas MacArthur himself with orders to broadcast it on all frequencies. The communication was for the Japanese emperor, ordering Japan to cease hostilities and giving precise instructions for surrender.

Towne’s World War II uniform played a role in one of the most significant aspects of his life, his sexuality. After wrestling with his sexual identity for the first 54 years of his life, Towne finally came to grips with it in 1978, and told College President John William Ward that he was gay. It was a bold move for any college professor in those days, and Towne was afraid the admission might end his career. But, as he told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Ward was not only receptive, but supportive. “His reaction,” Towne said, “was that there were gay students who came to him, and now he would have someone for them to go and talk to.” Once Towne embraced his sexual identity, it became a central element of his life. He became active in support groups, gay hiking clubs and other organizations. In 1993, he took his involvement further when he went to Washington to join a march protesting the government’s position on gays in the military. President Clinton had ordered the ban on gays to be lifted, but Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, refused to follow the order, prompting the protest. Towne took his World War II uniform out of mothballs, made a sign saying “Colin Powell is Afraid of Me!” and ended up in the front row of the march. A picture of him taken at the march appeared in a number of newspapers and even on a postcard, something of which Towne was particularly proud.

Towne had an unusual countertenor voice and a great love of music. He sang with several local ensembles, including the Hampshire Choral Society, Smith/Amherst Chamber Singers, Da Camera Singers and the Gay Men’s Chorus. He first developed his interest in singing as a high-school student performing Gilbert and Sullivan operas in Stamford, Conn., and pursued it through his undergraduate studies at Yale and his graduate work at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1951.

“He was famous in my family,” said Romer, who worked with Towne through most of his time at Amherst, “for calling at 3 o’clock in the morning and saying, ‘Go out and take a look at the rings around the moon,’ or ‘Did you know there’s a really spectacular display of the aurora borealis out there?’ ”

Towne was also a philanthropist. He donated an $18,000 grand piano to the Northampton Community Center, and when the local community was unable to raise $200,000 to restore the Amherst Cinema, Towne donated all of the money himself. According to Professor Emeritus of Physics Joel Gordon, when Towne was a visiting professor at Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia, in the ’60s, he set up a program to bring Colombian students to Amherst, Williams and the University of Massachusetts. His final donation was his extensive papers, which he gave to the Amherst Archives and Special Collections just before his death.

He is survived by his sister, Will Towne Curtis, and brothers Robert and Stephen, as well as seven nieces and nephews. A memorial service for Dudley Towne will be held at the college on April 27, and his ashes will be interred next to those of his mother and father in Amherst.

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Photo: Gabriel Cooney

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