By Tatum Lyles Flick
Norman Craig, an emeritus physical chemist from Oberlin College in Ohio, didn’t realize the profound effect he had on the career of Helen Blackwell, a chemist and professor at the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry, until she called one day to ask his permission to honor him by using his name for her WARF Named Professorship.
“When she called me several months ago to tell me of her decision to honor me with her named WARF professorship, I was overwhelmed,” Craig said. “I wondered if I deserved such an honor. I thanked her profusely. Because Helen is one of our most distinguished graduates, I was especially honored by her choice.”
“I always thought that if I ever received this award – and I am amazed that I actually did – I would name it after him, because he was a real fixture at Oberlin College,” Blackwell said, adding that Craig served as an important life and career mentor.
A small department at a small college, with only about 20 chemistry majors at a time, allowed Craig and the other faculty to interact often with students.
“I had to give an oral presentation as part of a class and he encouraged everyone to do a practice talk first,” she said. “Afterward he said, ‘Okay, Helen you can do this anywhere now. You’ve done it and you’re great.’ He believed in young people, that young people can do significant things.”
Craig was an inspiration to hundreds of the students he taught and mentored, and he was dedicated to supporting the next generation of scientists.
“He was always the most positive and the most supportive person,” Blackwell said. “He gave me the feeling that I could do anything and that Oberlin had prepared me well.”
Blackwell and Craig kept in touch over the years, as she attended graduate school, and worked her way up to professor at UW-Madison.
Now the Norman C. Craig Professor of Chemistry, Blackwell uses what she learned from Craig in her own interactions with students.
“He was the consummate experimentalist,” she said, adding that Craig liked to try things out in the lab. “That’s something I use with my students. Even if we think it might not work, there’s a chance. Something completely unexpected might happen – and it might be cooler than we originally thought.”
Many people and experiences throughout Blackwell’s life helped shape her perception of science and her career direction, but she remembers specific instances where Craig made a difference.
“I don’t think he’s the only reason I am here today,” she said, “but he is definitely one of the reasons.”
When asked to share the best part about receiving the WARF Named Professorship, Blackwell said, “I was thrilled to be able to honor him this way. I called him, and he was flabbergasted that someone would ask him to do this. He agreed, of course, but that part – having that conversation with him and explaining why I picked him – that was better than getting the award, just having that conversation. It was awesome.”