Don Whitney - In His Own Words

Don and Jan Whitneys move to, and experiences in - Southbridge


1947 Don Whitney photo above of 122 Litchfield Ave
as it appeared at the time of purchase

Getting Married, moving to Southbridge and buying a house, working at AO and more::


At the end of that semester, I had enough schooling; I wanted to get a job, and get married.  I got a letter from Harvard saying that I had passed all the requirements for a degree in Astronomy, except for the Language Requirement.  I was off to start a career.

Having majored in Astronomy, a logical occupation for me would be something related to optics.  I sent applications to Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and American Optical, and was interviewed by all three firms.   Kodak had nothing to offer me at the time, B & L made me a tentative offer, but AO made me a firm offer.  Jan and I made the trip to Southbridge together, and I remember we were a bit less than impressed with the approach to town along Worcester Street.  However, with a job offer in hand, we decided this would be a good place for me to start.

The Company arranged for me to rent a room at the Baybut house on Elm Street, and I rented a garage on Williams Street, just a short walk from the house.   My first day at AO was on Monday, March 30, 1947.  After a brief welcome interview with Byron Ziegler, I was turned over to John Davis, who would be my boss.  They had set up a desk for me toward the back of a room used by Dr. Edgar D. Tillyer, Director of Research, as an optical laboratory.  I had an office-mate, Marcel Benjamin, who soon became a close friend.

My job was titled Apprentice Lens Designer, and involved trigonometric computations which would be done using logarithms or a mechanical calculator.  It represented a challenge because it involved ophthalmic optics, whereas what little optical training I had was in classical optics.  There is quite a difference.  I was fortunate, though, in having fine teachers including my boss, John, Henry Fernald, a coworker, and even Dr. Tillyer.

I started work Monday and continued on Tuesday.  Just before midnight on Tuesday, I became violently ill, and began vomiting.  I knew from experience that such things hit me hard, so I headed for the car and drove the sixty five mile trip back to Newton in little more than an hour and a quarter, including stops to throw up.  Mother sent for the doctor on Wednesday morning, and he gave me an injection which put me out long enough to interrupt the spells of vomiting.  I finished recovering on Thursday, and was back at AO on Friday.  Not an auspicious way to start a new job, but at least I made it back to work in a couple of days.  The doctor blamed the episode on a piece of Boston Cream Pie I had eaten for supper at a local restaurant.  Cream fillings, it seems, are a good breeding ground for the grippe bug.

I liked my work at AO from day one, and found my associates to be not only helpful but good company.  As it turns out, I had made a fortunate decision to join AO=s Research Department.  It is a move I have never regretted..

With just a few weeks to my upcoming wedding, where we would live became a burning issue.  Being so soon after the end of World War II, housing was scarce.  However, we had a lucky break in that one of Jan=s close friends grew up in Spencer, and her family knew of a furnished apartment which was available for the months of July and August.  That took a little of the pressure off, and we settled for the apartment.

On Friday afternoon, June 20, I left work a bit early to start the weekend of my wedding.  I remember, as I went out the North Street Gate at AO, the guard stopped me and asked where I was going.  I replied that I was off to get married.  His response, which I will never forget, was, AWhy, you=re just a child!@Our apartment in Spencer was very nice and, being furnished, was simple to move into.  It had everything we needed, and it was a good arrangement for the summer months.  I wasn=t especially fond of Spencer as a town, and Jan spent much of her time trying to find a place to live when September came.  Nothing was available.  We were shown houses out in the boondocks, without electricity or running water.  Finally, at the very last moment Jan received an offer from our mailman and his wife to move into their attic.  And so we did, but it was far from an ideal arrangement.  Alice agreed to provide us breakfast, but at a price we really couldn=t afford.  The biggest problem was that there were no windows in the window frames, and as the nights grew colder, it became obvious that we would have to get out.  Then, we got a last minute reprieve.

Harold Moulton, Assistant Director of Research at AO, had a small apartment become available in his house on South Street in Southbridge.  Again, it was furnished, but had no kitchen.  We were told if would be all right for us to set up a hot plate, but there was no place to wash dishes.  The only sink, in the bathroom, had a bowl something like six inched in diameter, and it was impossible to get anything but the silverware into the sink.  We made do by eating our evening meals at the Rendezvous Restaurant in downtown Southbridge, and by going home to Newton every weekend.

 Shortly after we moved into the Moulton apartment, Jan began having morning sickness, which became increasingly severe and lasted all day.  She was pregnant.  This increased the pressure on finding a more suitable place to live.  But in the middle of everything Jan=s nausea became so severe that she was hospitalized for a week in Newton.  And while she was in the hospital we learned that her beloved summer place in Fortunes Rocks, Maine, had burned to the ground in a firestorm.  In spite of all this, she recovered sufficiently to rejoin me in our little apartment, and together we continued to look for housing.

By this time we had several real estate agents searching for us, and one of these, a Mrs. Perkins, came up with a house on Litchfield Avenue which seemed just right for us  B just right, that is, except for the price.  The owner was asking $14,500, and I was earning $2600 per year.  It couldn=t be done.  The owner then came down to $12,500.  It still couldn=t be done.  Then the owner offered to drop to $10,500, but without some of the land.   We said we would pay $10,500, but with the land.  The owner accepted.

Now the trick was to get a mortgage at the bank.  I still was over my head as far as house payments were concerned relative to my annual earnings.  But, I qualified for a GI loan, and Mr. Horsley at the Savings Bank said he felt I had a good future with AO.  He approved the loan.

Papers were passed, and we became proud owners of a new (to us) house.  The only trouble was the previous owners hadn=t yet moved out.  I took advantage of this period to learn how to operate the coal fired steam furnace.  Every night, I would go to the house and, under the guidance of the previous owner, shovel coal, empty ashes, adjust the water level, and all those good things which go with that kind of heating plant.  Then, one snowy December evening, I went over to the house to find the previous owners had moved out.  I had no key to the house, and no idea where they had gone.  Fortunately, a next door neighbor said she thought they had a place on Cedar Lake, and suggested they might have moved there.  In the middle of a blizzard, Jan and I went to Cedar Lake, and succeeded in tracking them down.  They gave me the key, and at last we took complete possession of the house.

Jan was still suffering from twenty four hour morning sickness, but she learned to manage the problem.  We went back to Newton just about every weekend and, since we had no permanent home when Jan=s pregnancy was discovered, she was under the care of a Newton doctor, Herbert Morrison.  It was a stormy winter, and there was much snow to shovel in order to get the car up the driveway.  The trip back and forth to Newton often required mounting and removing tire chains, often at the side of the highway.  But we were young, and took it all in our stride.

Susan was born on May 16, 1948,  and Jan had started her labor pains while still in Southbridge.  Even so, she paused long enough to pick some flowers from the back of our yard, before starting off for Boston.  Jan remained in the hospital for the better part of a week, and then spent another week at her parent=s home in Newton.  Jan=s mother hired a full time practical nurse to assist with the care of the baby during that week, and then arranged for her to come with us back to Southbridge for at least another week.  That was a luxury, but it really helped get us off to a good start.

Meanwhile, things at work were going well.  I had been at AO for about a year, and, among other things, had assumed responsibility for the calculation of special prescriptions.  AO had several hundred prescription laboratories located across the country.  When these laboratories received a specially complicated prescription, for they lacked the knowhow or the equipment to fabricate, such prescriptions were sent to the Special Prescription Laboratory in Southbridge.  When these problem prescriptions required special calculations, beyond the capability of Special Prescription Laboratory personnel, they were referred to the Research laboratory and to me.  Because there were often sales considerations regarding how or if the prescription would be accepted, I would meet every afternoon with Ben Greene, from Lens Sales, and we would review the ramifications of each of these unusual prescriptions.  It is amazing the amount of time and effort that went into trying to help patients with unusual visual problems.  This was certainly not a money making aspect of the business.

Most of my time at AO, during this period, was spent performing lens design computations, using a mechanical calculator, or sometimes just logarithms.  I worked not only on spectacle lens design, but also on a wide range of optical problems ranging from simple camera lenses to Schmidt corrector-plates for projection television.  I became involved in not only the design of these items but also in performing laboratory measurements.  It was enjoyable work, and provided a marvelous training ground.  The whole experience was made was made special by the fine group of people with whom I was working.

When we first arrived in Southbridge, our folks encouraged us to get active in the church.  Having both been Congregationalists in Newton, it was logical that we have our papers transferred to the Elm Street Congregational Church in Southbridge.  However, we never got deeply involved with that church, in part because we went home to Newton nearly every weekend.  Meanwhile, a new young minister arrived in town to become pastor of the Central Baptist Church.  He was Bob Crist who, together with his wife Marion, were like a breath of fresh air.  Jan and I took to the young couple immediately, and shortly after their arrival we transferred out membership to the Baptist Church.  We even went through baptism by immersion, a ceremony for which our folks drove up from Newton to witness.  Almost immediately, Bob and Marion became our closest friends.

In spite of the difficult time Jan had during her pregnancy with Sue, she felt certain she wanted another child and I went along with the idea, albeit with a bit of reluctance.  The first pregnancy had been and eight month nightmare.  Jan was sick the second time around, too, but we both had learned how to do a better job of coping.  It was also made easier by the fact that were in our own house, and relatively settled down.  Dick was born in Southbridge on August 11, 1951, and things went well.

Rather, I should say David was born.   All during Jan=s pregnancy, Mother Stillman extolled the virtues of the name, David.   She applied various forms of subtle pressure for us to name the forthcoming child >David=, if it should turn out to be a boy.  Frequently she would say, AI hope someday I will have a grandson named David.@  And so when the big day arrived, and the nurse asked Jan what the baby=s name would be, in her partially anaesthetized state she answered >David=.  We, of course, had previously agreed upon Richard, and there had never been any difference of opinion between us.  But when I arrived at the hospital to see the new arrival, I was introduced to my son >David=.  Needless to say, the paperwork was changed post haste.

Since Jan=s folks had provided us with help in the form of a nurse when Sue was born, they decided to do it again with Dick.  Unfortunately, the great nurse we had for Sue wasn=t available, so they had to settle for a different individual from the same agency.  Mother and Dad Stillman brought her to Southbridge on the afternoon that Jan was scheduled to come home with the baby from the hospital.  Mom Stillman had made it clear that the plan was for the >nurse= to remain at our house, while we went to pick up Jan and young Dick.  I left directly from work to go to the hospital and, when I arrived, I was surprised to see not only Jan=s folks but also the >nurse=.   Mother Stillman was a very strong willed person, and when she made a decision it usually stuck.  But not this time  B the >nurse= had overruled her, which didn=t bode well for what was to come.

The >nurse= made it clear that the baby was her responsibility, and that things would work out great just as soon as we got used to her ways.  Jan=s mother wasn=t happy, Jan wasn=t happy, and I could sense impending doom as Jan=s folks took off to return to Newton.  I was right  B things went from bad to worse, and by suppertime it became obvious that the tension had grown to a point where we couldn=t make it through the night.  I called Jan=s folks, who had just arrived home, and we agreed the >nurse= would have to go.  Dad Stillman suggested we meet in Worcester, and I called Bob and Marion Crist to see if they could help in the crisis.  They came right up, and Marion stayed with Jan while Bob and I hustled the >nurse= into my car and took off to make the connection in Worcester.  The addition of a rather heavy thunderstorm added to the already eerie atmosphere, and I well remember hearing the nurse call out, as we were climbing the long hill in Charlton, that she had left her eyeglasses on the kitchen window sill.  I said we would mail them to her.

We got through the first couple of nights with the new baby by ourselves, but Mother and Dad Stillman arranged to have a longtime friend and neighbor, Mrs. Cronin, come up and assist Jan with the baby for a week or so.  Though not a >nurse=, Jan knew and liked her, and she worked out fine.  It turned out that a couple of months later Jan developed a breast infection, had to stop nursing Dick, and Mrs. Steinfeldt was again engaged by the Mother and Dad Stillman to give an assist.

 Meanwhile, my work at AO continued to be an educational and enjoyable experience.   I made many lasting friends among the people with whom I came in contact.  Notable among these were

Marcel Benjamin, my original office-mate, Henry Fernald, Allan Jewell (another member of John Davis= Lens Design Group), and Bob Haynes, then an Electronics Technician.  Allan was an especially versatile individual, with many interests and talents.  Among these were carpentry (he showed me how to rebuild the back steps of our house using tongued and grooved craftsmanship worthy of quality interior work), wallpapering (he redid out master bedroom), and electronics.  Allan had previously built himself a high fidelity amplifier, and when I expressed an interest he volunteered to work with me to build something similar.  In this endeavor, we started from scratch, expanding on a circuit diagram contained in the then current version of the RCA Tube Manual.  We incorporated some special features gleaned from electronics magazines, including a volume compensated tone control and an expander-compressor circuit.  Many of the components were obtained from other equipment which Allan had salvaged, and we obtained further assistance from Dr. Roy Gunter who had been one of Allan=s professors at Clark University.  When completed, the unit worked beautifully, and provided many years of listening enjoyment, finally being replaced by a commercial unit when stereo came along.

 It was about this time that Marcel Benjamin decided to get himself a college education.  He had a family with two small children and no money, but the G. I. Bill enabled him to pull it off, together with a great deal of extra work by both Ben and his wife, Lorraine.  I well remember how the tears flowed from Ben=s eyes on the day he left his friends at AO to begin his college experience at Clark.

In the early 1950's the company hired a Vice President for Research by the name of R. Bowling Barnes.  Shortly after this change took place, the decision was made to move a significant part of it=s Research effort to Stamford, CT, using the philosophy that research personnel would benefit from being nearer to a large cosmopolitan area like New York City.  John Davis was asked to make the move, as was Allan Jewell.  I was put in charge of Lens Design, reporting to Harold Moulton who had previously held the title of Assistant Director of Research under Dr. Tillyer, but who now became Lens Development Manager.  A few months later, Harold Moulton announced his retirement, and I was named Lens Development Manager under Louis Rowe, who reported to R. Bowling Barnes.  This was a major promotion in terms of responsibility  B  I now had nearly 20 people reporting to me.  It wasn=t a major financial promotion, however  B  I soon learned that more than half of the people in my organization were making more money than I was.   It took years before this situation was fully corrected.  It was one of my later bosses, Bob Johnson, who spoke an AO truism when he said, AThe main factor in determining how much money and individual will make this year is how much money he made last year.@  A promotion seldom meant much in terms of a salary increase.

On the other hand, people being hired from the outside often made out better.  Bob Haynes learned this lesson when he was offered a position in a new department just being formed, a Testing Laboratory with the AO designation >B2B=.  He was unable to affect a transfer to a better position in that new department, so he resigned his position in the >AL= Research laboratory, walked down the stairs and out the door to Mechanic Street, walked down the street, entered through another door, and was >hired= for the new and better position.

 Don Whitney - May 7, 1998 (12:43PM)

Other Excerpts:
Notes from Don's father
On being sent to Summer Camp
Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard
Glenn Miller
Asbury Park
Harvard Days / Remembering Jack Lemmon
The Totem Pole
Engagement to Jan

Download Complete Autobiography (Zip file of 360 k, in PDF format)

Download text of Full Autobiography (rtf forma
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