Instrument of Friendship

Dec. 4, 2014
Optics Site Image

The banjo is frequently associated with country, folk, bluegrass and even classical music. Recently, I learned that it also has the power to endear one to new friends, bring together opposing camps and woo pretty young women. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Professor Emeritus Stephen F. Jacobs achieved all of these feats picking tunes on his five-string banjo.

It was 1957 and Steve was working at Perkin-Elmer in Norwalk, Connecticut with Roland Shack who would join the faculty at OSC in 1964. Steve and Roland had become friends and Roland wanted Steve to meet his wife, Pam. At the time, Roland and Pam were living in Brooklyn Heights, New York while Pam completed her degree at New York University.

Plans were made for Steve to spend the weekend with Roland and Pam in their small studio apartment. Steve had readily agreed to sleep on the floor and was looking forward to meeting Roland’s wife. Unfortunately, the morning of Steve’s arrival in Brooklyn, Roland woke with a high fever and a horrible case of the flu. Pam called Steve immediately to cancel.

Optics Site Image

Six hours later, Pam answered a knock at their door and was greeted by a man with a banjo and a grin. The man identified himself as Steve Jacobs, Roland’s friend from Perkin-Elmer. A surprised Pam explained to Steve that she thought he had understood that Roland was very sick and they would need to reschedule. Without missing a beat, Steve exclaimed, “If Roland is sick, he needs music!” He then proceeded to spend the weekend playing and singing to Roland and Pam, with no thought to himself or the possibility of catching the flu. Pam said Steve “endeared himself to [them] that weekend and [they] have been friends ever since.”

Steve achieved the second feat three years later in 1960. He was working at TRG (Technical Research Group) alongside Gordon Gould. Herman Cummins was a Ph.D. student at Columbia University working with his adviser, Charles Townes. History depicts this time as “The Race for the Laser” but for Steve and Herman it was a time of friendship between two physicists in “opposing camps.” On at least one occasion, the two were photographed together on a rooftop in NYC with Steve picking the banjo and Herman strumming the guitar.

Two feats down, one to go. A young woman named Kathy just happened to attend one of those rooftop parties and was impressed by a young man named Steve making a banjo “sing.” Later, at another party, Herman introduced Kathy to Steve and the rest, as we say, is history. Steve and Kathy have been married 50 years.