It was the Fall of 1969 - Union College, Schenectady, NY. I was lucky. Didn’t think so at the time. My goal was to be an Electrical Engineer but I found myself in a Mechanical Engineering class taught by a demanding Professor Panlilio. Strength Of Materials was commonly called a “weeder” class because Freshmen were weeded out of Engineering by such classes. The material was hard. The homework pushed us to the breaking point. Besides, I had no passion for this field.
The first gift I received from the Professor came as I finally figured out a particularly difficult concept. The breakthrough came around Midnight on a Saturday. A blindingly bright lightbulb came on for a tiny bit of knowledge. It took a lot of work for me to arrive at this understanding and the value of that experience transcended the material. I had learned that I could face a complex problem, keep trying, and could figure it out. In other words, I was learning how to learn.
While my first gift arrived in a quiet room late at night, the second gift from the Professor was in class and was piercing. He had a shrill voice that became louder when an important point was being made. We were given a crazy hard problem to solve. Crazy, as in, where do I even start? Most of us just stared at the problem with a pathetic blank look. A few had horror in their eyes. Our collective trance was broken by words that I have grown to treasure – “Assume something!”
Most of the students experiencing horror dropped the class. But for some of us, those pathetic blank stares transformed into furious ciphering. We had learned that it is far better to strike out in the wrong direction than to not move at all. Being on the wrong track is enlightening. You can recognize where you are which will help you see where you need to go.
The class never got easier yet did become increasingly rewarding to master. One of the final exam problems was particularly memorable. I wrote 4 pages of equations. My answer was wrong yet Professor Panlilio gave me almost full credit. Why? Because he was testing my mastery of the two gifts. The exact speed of a fly relative to the ground as it was crawling up a pencil that was pivoting in a circle was just a means to that end.
Professor Panlilio passed away on July 27, 2017. His gifts live on in the countless students he inspired over the decades. May he continue to live on in you.