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Robert Gagné

A note to Bob Gagné’s daughter, on the occasion of her parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1992.

Let’s look back to those years at Brown, when Bob and I were students together with so many others of whom and with whom I daresay I share with Bob many fond memories.

When I arrived at Brown, fresh from the University of Va. in the fall of 1938, like Neil Bartlett, Charlie Cofer, and Frank Finger, Bob had already been there a year, working with Clarence Graham doing research stemming from Clarence’s theory of operant conditioning. I had come to work with Clarence on vision, joining Neil. (Bob’s work with rat’s on runways and the Graham-Skinner connection later led me astray). Bob enjoyed a certain prestige as resident Yaley, and as holder of a fellowship, assistantship, or whatever that paid $600 an academic year rather that the $500 all the rest of us got. We were in and out of courses, offices, hamburger joints, and so on together until early ’42, when I got shipped to New London, where I spent the duration (plus a year). Through my last year at Brown, as I remember, Bob and Patty started going together, and I didn’t see much of them or of anyone else, for that matter…dissertation rat-running then writting time!

Oddly enough, try as I may, I can’t think of any specific incident in which Bob played a major role, so, no anecdotes…. Rather I remember some scenes that I recall as recurrent. Lots of them, all good. Not a single unpleasant one. And most of all, I remember him as a man with a distinctive style.

Back then, all we had by way of recorded music were thirty-five cent 78 platters; some great bands, some great players, some great singers, some great songs. But all of them were recorded on 78s, a medium totally lacking in dynamic range. The loudest were not very loud, the softest could not be heard, the music lost in surface noise. The highest pitches weren’t very high, and there was not much by way of bass. They lacked dynamic range. Now, what with tapes and CDs, we have `dynamic range’ coming out of our ears. We can both shake the room and yet hear the smallest sound, unmasked by the hiss of the needle. (Cactus needles were quietest). We do not lose the highest overtone or the deepest boom; we have broad dynamic range.

Well, we graduate students at Brown were mostly 78s. Except Bob. He had dynamic range – in his voice, his spoken ideas, his body language, in all his expressive behaviors. When he spoke, he could and did the whole range of loudnesses, without shouting. If someone said something witty, or if something funny happened, at the low end one could see his faintest smile. At the high end, his guffaws could shake the rooftops. It was the same with his body-language. This ranged from the faintest nod or motion of the hand, to leaning so far over a table towards the person he was addressing or answering, that he seemed to stretch like modeling clay. Where others moved an inch, Bob would move a foot. Not fast, mind you. No hyperactivity, no jerks or jumps, just actions larger than life, carried out at the same pace as others. You never had any questions about whether Bob was interested in something that was going on or being said. You knew how to read him if he paled, or blushed, whether in embarrassment or displeasure. He’d get red. You didn’t have to ask him. He was, as it were, open and voluble in word, in action, in complexion.

I find it easy to remember the many times when he, Clarence Graham, one or two others and I would be eating lunch at a little hamburger joint on Thayer Street. There were recurring themes and discussions, I could not even begin to guess how many times each of topics would recur. They were, indeed, ritualistic. One of them was Bob’s patent objections to eating anything other than hamburger. (He took a lot of kidding on that!) Another was Clarence’s despair that the Dept of Agriculture had made it illegal to sell “Taylor Ham” as ham, because it was, after all, pickled pork. Since nobody would buy stuff called pickled pork, Taylor Ham was disappearing. And then there was the recurring discussion of frappes, cabinets and chocolate frosteds, which were all the same thing, the name depending on whether you were in Mass., RI, or NY and NJ. Too, there was Bob’s recurrent pleasure in telling us about his Yorkshire grandfather, and his accent “Pu’ ‘boward i’t’ oyel”, Yorkshire for ‘shut the door’. Bob liked to pronounce that, and we enjoyed the sound of it. Pretty dumb things to remember, aren’t they?

Then there the recurrent bullsessions that would catch fire in the old seminar room/library, often when Vince Tomas, Bob’s best friend, was there. Vince, a gentle and valuable graduate student in philosophy, was around a lot; he’d keep us laughing, and thinking. (I never did see Vince after those Brown years but know that he earned a Silver Star as a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge, then finished his degree and wound up in Brown’s Dept. of Philosophy. And then died too young)

After the first couple of years I didn’t see much of Bob, as before, not only because he lived in a different graduate dorm, but also because I got tangled up in or tied up with my own dissertation and wartime research. I do remember when he first went out with Patty. I remember her well, and how good a couple they made. They fit together. The fifty years since shows that was a good guess.

Odd, since ’41, I recall seeing Bob and Patty only once. I wonder what they looked like on that fiftieth anniversary and what their kids were like.

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