Sally Hume Mencimer




My First Year - 1964

In March of 1964, I was teaching English at Aspen High School, grades 9-12. Needing a summer job, I interviewed at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies to be the Secretary for the newly formed Physics Division. I was hired. George’s letter, found in the Archives, to Mike Cohen, said, “We have found someone with her head screwed on straight.” High praise, I thought. None of us would have thought that the ride would last until my 60th birthday, when I retired in February, 1996, upon completion of the Winter Program.

Although still teaching, I immediately began looking for housing for the June arrival of physicists. Housing was always one of the most demanding aspects of the job, especially in 1964. This was before the building of condominiums. The population of Aspen was around 1,000 residents, most living in old Victorians or shot-gun mining homes. (If you shot a gun through the front door, it would exit out the back door. Small.) Apartments were almost non-existent. So renting the Victorians is what we did. In a four-bedroom house, we would put four single men; often sharing one or two bathrooms.

When I starting working for the Physics Division of AIHS in 1964, we had one building with ten offices and a reception area by the front door. Beyond that was a small room, supposedly for informal meetings, which eventually became the coffee area. The four corners of the rectangle building were for storage and two bathrooms. Eventually these corners became the library, kitchen/storage, bathrooms and telephone center.

I worked at the Front Desk, and had in possession on my desk the single telephone for the building. I would meet and greet, type (never very well), answer the phone, yelling down the halls when someone received a call. I was in charge of all maintenance, cleaning, raking leaves, snow shoveling, ordering supplies, stacking journals and books, paying bills, making coffee, ordering donuts, getting keys and directions for arrivals to get into their housing; having already committed to the housing often with a hand shake rather than a lease. I became librarian, bookkeeper, nurse, mother, sports director, hostess, advisor, decorator, connector and maid. One of the questions I was asked that first summer was what to do with the dog dirt in someone’s back yard. Naturally I went over to clean it up. I was very fortunate that throughout the 32 years, I had the total support of my husband, Bill Mencimer, who did so much of the physical upkeep, maintenance and supplementing of the constant growth.

By the end of the first summer, I loved my job, loved the physicists, loved the diversity and challenges, the town and Institute politics, loved the physical surroundings with the closeness to the Music Tent, so my days were filled with the sounds of music. I was hooked. The job spread into the fall and spring, but I continued to teach until 1966 when I started a family. When Stranahan Hall was completed, Richard Ferrell donated 25, fairly mature aspen trees, spaced all around the building. These trees still are living in splendor, 50 years later. We only lost one or two. So in the fall we had leaves to rake and had a big mailing to compile, inviting participants to come join us for the summer of 1965. We had bills to pay, cleaning and maintenance and then the search for housing, and the selection of the next participants; thus ending my first year.

The First Decade 1964-1974

I think I can divide this essay into decades. This is a story of growth, success, advancement of communications, and dedication of physicists to what was becoming an amazing institution. The first decade was one of creation, with ideas to make what we were accomplishing better. We wanted to make the experience of being in Aspen an exceptional one. We expanded our space. In 1965 we added an outside patio for seminars. I remember someone dashing over from the Music Tent at 4:00 on a Sunday, because our cement mixer was drowning out the concert. Then because we had a patio, we decided to have a Patio Party, complete with booze and food. The Stranahans came with huge platters of corned beef and sliced meats and cheeses. We went into the fields and picked wild flowers. We made colorful tablecloths. Each physicist brought an hors d’oeuvre; often the good ones barely made the trip from car to table. The parties grew and we asked our neighbors to join us. We did this several times a year.

In 1965, I ordered a truckload of sand and Bill came with his transit and post-hole digger and created to exact specifications, a volleyball court. The games became a daily 4:00 happening. Every Thursday, we would have a picnic with all the families. For the first few years, we would car pool to different Forest Service campgrounds, like Lincoln Creek, Maroon Creek, Difficult Creek, Snowmass Creek, and sometimes to private vacant properties. We’d supply the charcoal and beer. Everyone had a great time, enjoying the sense of wilderness. The kids would go home tired and dirty.

But the outings eventually got too big with too many cars, so we brought the picnics to our home campus. These worked well, too. We had grills, volleyball games, and boat races on the streams. Bill built picnic tables and benches. Soon these were being used for sack lunches. Then Bill started making sandwiches for the lunches. Our campus was becoming a true gathering place.

I started buying used bicycles and cribs and highchairs, which we would loan to families. The bikes were a huge hit and we eventually had a fleet of 100. They were free, until someone threatened to sue us over an accident. Then we had to rent them and have a waiver signed. Keeping account of the bike monies, I started to buy better quality bikes, even ones with gears.

In 1968, the NAL built Hilbert Hall, which had twenty offices. This was a very rough, unfinished, unheated building, which served us for nearly thirty years. The Community School used the building for the first two winters, so they put in two small furnaces under the crawl space in two of the three wings. The third wing never did have heat. One winter Bill and I (just the two of us) sheetrocked the entire building, even the ceilings. I can remember being on scaffolding and trying to lift an entire unit of sheetrock over my head.

1968 was also the year that the Aspen Center for Physics was born. We had a President, Treasurer, Trustees, a Board of Directors, bylaws. Before that George, Mike and I had a very loose chain of command and decision making. We were simply trying to make the place better on a very limited income. I vividly remember our frugality. We simply didn’t have much money. Mike had created a set of large ledgers, and I would enter each participant and his (rarely a woman in the early years) expenses and then I typed up a bill for each physicist at the end of his stay. By the time we were incorporated, we were becoming established with an excellent reputation; thus better funding ensued. The Astro Program had started with a grant from NASA.

Two other big changes the first decade were in communications and the library. We always subscribed to the best journals. These were stored on shelves that Bill had built in one of the corner storerooms. When we had use of Hilbert after NAL left, he tore out two offices, and built another library.

The first years we had one typewriter and a mimeograph machine. When we typed, we had to use carbon paper. Our fingers were either black from carbon or purple from cranking the mimeo. But we produced a lot. I even was writing a weekly newsletter called “Physical Review E.” This had bio sketches, hikes, social schedules, seminars, rules etc. etc.

During the first decade, I started to have some help. I had a receptionist and a typist. These girls did everything I did and more. They were gracious and helpful and would take on the most difficult chores around the campus. They were the ones putting on the picnics and patio parties, making the housing packets and coffee. They did the typing and took care of the physicists and families. In 32 years I had many employees, some of whom I can’t even remember their names. But the ones I remember best became good friends such as Ann Morris, Sally Smythe, Candi Coe, Ann Altemus, Pat Carey, Bryce Maple, Mimi Langenkamp, Deb Pease, Heather Tharp. And I cannot forget Karen and Joe Villano, who cleaned the housing for over thirty years. My profound thanks goes to all my employees.

Invisible Bureaucracy - The Second Decade 1975-1985

Paul Ginsparg is the one who said he liked to come to the Center because of its “Invisible Bureaucracy.” In other words, he could arrive and never have to worry about personal care: he could concentrate completely on his work. This was our goal: to take care of housing, transportation, entertainment, physical activities, reservations, music tent tickets etc. etc., giving the participant the perfect stimulating, peaceful working environment, in such a beautiful town and mountains.

Housing was always the greatest challenge, because of supply and demand. Few places were for rent in Aspen and other non-profits wanted a piece of the pie. I tried to organize the music, dance, design and Institute groups so that we would standardize what we would pay for the rentals. But this never worked and the prices kept being bid upwards. By now I was renting well over 50 places. This number would eventually get to 90. One way I was able to keep costs down was by becoming the property manager of the rental, in other words, taking out the middle man. Also, the Center had such a good reputation as renters, owners liked to rent to us. This reputation was a result of our management. For three months we took care of the properties, including cleaning, laundry, repairs, maintenance, keys and damages. Believe me with that many properties, I was always getting emergency calls. We would have to clean the property often the same day someone was leaving and the next person was arriving. I had to pick up laundry and had working relationships with Aspen Laundry. I can remember even taking laundry home to wash, so that the exchange could be made for the new arrivals.

Because the prices kept rising, we rented a complex of condos in Snowmass in 1975. This didn’t work, as the families were isolated from the Center. I had buses picking up and delivering the physicists in the morning and evening. The experiment lasted one summer.

The second decade saw us much more financially stable and also our popularity was so strong, we had more participants than we had offices. This was the period when I started to rent a large house near the Center, move out the furniture, and set up tables and chairs for the overflow. We called this the Annex. We even rented J. P. Marquand’s house on Hallam Lake. Each room of the house became an office. Finally in 1978, Bethe Hall was built giving us more offices, a library, a seminar room and a bookkeeper’s office. Bryce Maple became my bookkeeper and Mimi Langenkamp became the first librarian. And we installed a washer/dryer in Bethe, to do laundry for the housing. I can remember sheets being draped over the chairs in the seminar room. What a silly business we were in.

To help with our costs, we instituted a registration fee. Bookkeeping and billings were becoming more involved and I designed a final statement in duplicate to give to participants when departing. Gone were Mike Cohen’s huge ledgers. We also established “dislocations.” This was a classification system reimbursing housing costs according to seniority and summer salary. I feel this system is what allowed us to continue to succeed.

The astrophysicists had their own NASA grant and became a bonafide workshop in 1971 for the first three weeks of June. They have celebrated over 40 years as participants. The astros were in session when the Hubble Telescope failed. Many had been involved. I can remember the pale. When we had a total eclipse of the sun, I can remember the astros creating a box of shadows to view the event. Astrophysicists soon became a very vital force and supporters of the Center. But my own personal observation was that personalities were quite different in the various physics disciplines. The beauty of the Center was a blending of these personalities and interests.

This decade caused us to take ourselves seriously enough to want to preserve our history. Nancy Zachariasen volunteered to create the Archives for us. Now, with our science Anniversary, we owe much to Nancy and Lillian Huddleston for their work and organization. Once the Archives existed we all consciously saved materials to put in them.

With our growth, different philosophies existed about workshops and admissions. I feel the various Presidents’ Essays on this website cover these topics; as well as much discussion over the ownership of our land. I do remember going to City Council meetings about the zoning and coming home so upset and frustrated that Bill refused to let me go anymore. All those who had the patience to see this to completion deserve our everlasting thanks.

Aside from our success and work, both by administration and participants, we had such a lovely, fun time together. We were a very social group and part of my job description was to create so many of the fun activities. Syd Meshkov (see Associated Experiences) has written a marvelous piece about all of these events, so I’m not going to add my two cents, except to say our hearts were young and gay and we had the best of times.

Circle of Serenity - The Third Decade 1985-1996

The final decade of my term at the Aspen Center for Physics is almost a blur; I was just sooooo busy. I felt as though I was working "24/7" before that had even become a slogan. The Winter Conference had started in 1985. The Soviet program was full scale. We were still fighting for our land. We were becoming connected to the rest of the internet world. We were fund raising for a new building. We were running a program with 90 participants a week, for whom we composed a weekly directory, giving names of all family members, telephone and office numbers, and local addresses. The Board of Directors and Trustees was meeting twice a summer. We were now handling music tickets, ski tickets, lunches, weekly picnics, cocktail parties, tennis tournaments, housing keys and packets, large mailings of posters and announcements still by Snail Mail. Public Lectures were scheduled and advertised and the program handouts were created. Each workshop needed support and seminars posted. Our campus was beautiful! Three buildings and grounds needed to be maintained. Scheduling housing for each individual became a master plan and probably one of the most challenging jobs. I was property manager for over ninety houses and condos, even creating the leases. I was paying the bills, doing the final statements and keeping everyone happy. I had the perfect staff to help me. I went to CMC for a semester at night to learn how to use a computer. So that’s ten years in a nutshell.


Pat Carey (left) and Sally Mencimer in Hilbert Hall

 

The Soviet Program was a huge responsibility (we always called them “the Russians”). They would get off Aeroflot in NYC or DC with very little money. We then had to get them to Aspen and totally take care of their costs and needs for a month. Communication was almost non-existent. The country had two fax machines. Phoning was impossible. In the later years we at least could email. Can you imagine the culture shock for them to arrive in Aspen, the airport being crowded with private jets. Most had not been out of the Soviet Union and most did not speak English. Yet they would be standing in front of the blackboard on the patio, giving a talk within a week: physics was its own universal language. They loved to drink and party, and would mix the worse possible combinations of alcohol. After one Patio Party, about three huge Russians climbed into Phil Anderson’s VW Bug. As he drove off, the “Tender” (party member or KGB, but a physicist) tried to follow them on his bicycle. Both were weaving all over the road. I stood in the parking lot, laughing. Phil also had the misfortune of having the maids throw out the Peking Duck he had been preparing for days.

I had other interesting personal encounters with Margaret Thatcher, Steven Hawking, Richard Feynman, R. R. Wilson, and Hans Bethe, just to mention a few. Scotland Yard searched the premises before Thatcher’s visit. I met her at the end of the parking lot and as we walked to Bethe Hall, the reporters were yelling at her about Kuwait. She said to me, “I have learned to never say anything until I know all of the facts.” Our program was much too long, and her husband slept in the back. I fed leftover watermelon to all the press and Bryce and Pat prepared a marvelous English tea, of which she did not participate in one sip or bite.

The first time Stephen Hawking came with his entourage, we were in a dither and getting him to Aspen was not easy. His trip took almost 24 hours and when he got to Denver, Aspen Airways had shut down. Somehow I got on the phone and got them to get Hawking to Aspen. I had rented two Concept 600 condos and finally got everyone settled. The next day was the 4th of July and that morning here arrives Stephen, having ridden in his wheelchair a couple of miles, with the entourage walking behind. Later I was able to get a handicap van for him. David Schramm took him flying in David’s airplane the next day. I actually teared up when Hawking left, as I was so taken by his love of life. Fortunately, he came back to Aspen again and again. One time he nicely consented to do a Public Lecture in the MAA tent. The tent was full and a thousand more stood or sat on the lawn outside, listening to his prepared speech, as he sat on the stage. At the Q&A after the talk, someone asked him if there was a God. A hush came over the huge crowd, as he spent minutes typing out his answer: “I don’t know.”

Dick Feynman was one of the most charismatic men I’ve ever met. I thought I was doing him a great favor putting him in our nicest condo. He hated it. He wanted a house where he and his children could plant a garden. I showed him every property we had. He liked my own house best, but I was not going to ask Pete Carruthers to move. One morning Feynman had walked to the office and seen fires burning on the mountain. He excitedly called the kids to go outside to see them. The Ski Company was simply clearing trails, but this was all new to him.


From left, Hans Bethe, Sally Mencimer and Phil Anderson

Bethe was a gentle man. I remember a lunch with him after picking him up at the airport. We sat outside on the Hyman Street Mall.

R. R. Wilson was my primary contact when the NAL built Hilbert. He came back many years and wrote his memoirs in Stranahan Hall. He let me read parts. Wilson's youth in the ’30’s was so fascinating.

The history of ACP is a history of Communications. We now had copiers and electric typewriters. We had at least nine telephone lines (three in each building). Email was a phenomenon that amazed friends when I talked about it at a dinner party. At first we had to pay a long distance call to Boulder to hook up to a system. When Bill Joy came to Aspen with MicroSun, he ran a line from his office to the Center. We finally took over one office and had several computers set up for use by the participants. I was learning to do database for the many lists we published and for mailings. Looking back, this was all an incredible process, which we take for granted now. Andy Cohen was the guru in the early days. We would have been lost without him.

During this period we had a biophysics workshop for several years, headed by David Bishop and George Bell. They would bring their own tech person and several $100,000 worth of computers. He would work with the phone company, bringing in special lines. I was told how the computers were advancing this field. One of the bio workshops had six Nobel Laureates attend, including Crick, Fitch, Watson and Glaser.

One beautiful story: These men sat outside my office under the grove of aspens, on the benches Bill had built. They were fiddling and twisting multi-colored strands of telephone wire. After watching for awhile I had to join them and ask what they were doing. They were making DNA forms, because the computers could not do so in 3-D. I was told later that Crick said he would not come back to Aspen, because the altitude affected his thinking.

The Winter Program has been written about nicely by the various Presidents, so I won’t spend time on that, except to say that getting housing for the three to five weeks in Aspen in January was every bit as difficult as in the summer. We moved around from the Grand Aspen, to the Inn at Aspen, to the Aspen Meadows. Transportation and ski lift tickets were priorities. The conferences were run beautifully by the organizers. In the early years I would host the welcoming cocktail party at my home. I think the participants appreciated seeing how people in Aspen lived. This is another success story for the Center and its reputation.

In the ’90’s we started talking about replacing Hilbert Hall with a new building. This discussion went on for several years and we hired professionals to advise us about fund raising. They were rather discouraging, even though the MAA had had huge success at raising money in Aspen. Science wasn’t as sexy. I strongly urged them on, as I told them that the physicists would be major contributors even in small donations. And I was right. About a third of the monies came from our participants. I knew of their love for the Center. We had become home and family for many. We had had our share of joys, woes, deaths, marriages, funerals and even one birth. The Pierre Hohenbergs had a baby at Aspen Valley Hospital in the ’70’s. More and more people were building or buying homes in Aspen and Snowmass. Now many are retired here.

This love for the Center is probably the true reason for our success. I don’t think any other organization has such a dedication for volunteering time, effort, advice and money by its members. This has truly been an Institution created and run by the participants. I don’t think there is another place like it in the world. I worked for eight presidents and saw first hand this dedication. I think I fell in love with each.

My last impressive act was the removal of Hilbert Hall. After much planning, on a snowy late fall day, we hired a huge crane and several flatbed trucks. Hilbert had been sliced into four sections, literally. The crane lifted each section high in the air to a flatbed. Not one tree was damaged. What a sight! We donated the sections to the Deaf Camp and to Lift Up in Glenwood Springs. So Hilbert made its departure via Highway 82.

There are many other small tales, such as the use of the Center by the International Design Conference and the Montessori School in the winter. Each week the preschoolers would have special lunches to learn manners. They would invite me to come. When my mother was in her ’90’s and living with us, she would come and read to them. We had physicist work parties to weed the mound, which was removed when the campus was redone. Not many knew that the mound was created because George had let a group of “artists” build statues on our campus. Most looked like phallic symbols. After a summer or two I brought in a backhoe and scraped them into a pile and covered them with dirt and planted perennials on top. Thus the need to weed.

I retired in February, 1996, on my 60th birthday. The last decade had taken its toll and I developed Rheumatoid Arthritis, which was severely painful. The time was right, but I was quite lost the first year of retirement. I was a part of the family, too, and missed the friendship and stimulation. Fortunately, by the second year I had moved on.

FIFTY YEARS!! Doesn’t seem possible. I am so proud of the Aspen Center for Physics. I’m so proud of how Jane and staff have continued what we started. I wish all a Happy Birthday and many more bright years to come.