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Children of the Blacklist:  Stephen Adler

Stephen Adler is an award-winning physics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. His parents, Irving and Ruth Adler, were Teachers Union members who had been investigated during the blacklist era. In Irving's video, he expressed concern over his son's application to Harvard because of his own dismissal from the Board of Education. Steve tells his own story here:

Stephen Adler
Stephen Adler
Photo by Cliff Moore
Courtesy of  the
Institute for  Advanced Study

I remember feeling that if I achieved in school, and earned people's respect that way, it would redeem my family's reputation. So in a funny way the witch hunt was a positive formative experience for me -- it motivated me to work hard, and to look inwards for self-motivation and self-value.

My experience with the left-wing movement has made me wary of dogmas of all sorts, including in physics, where in my choices of problems to work on I have always been a bit of a contrarian. Sometimes this has been good, sometimes bad -- when the crowd is running in the right direction, it pays to run with them. But when the field becomes bound by dogmas and bandwagons that are dead ends, being a sceptic can pay dividends.

I do remember picketing at the Board of Education, and on occasion I went in to the TU headquarters with my father, and remember Rose Russell, (TU legislative representative) who I recall being glamorous and very gracious. If I remember correctly, she saved stamps from overseas for my stamp collection.

Steve Adler picketing
Steve Adler, son of Irving and Ruth Adler, on picket line in front of the Waldorf-Astoria, where there was a testimonial dinner being held for William Jansen, then Superintendent of the New York City Public Schools

The Community Reaction

I don't recall discussions with other TU children (about our parents' situation)-- we were far from the city in Bayside, but I do recall ugly headlines in local papers, and once, some men coming to our house when my parents were away. When I opened the door and said my father wasn't in, they left, but the episode was scary.

I was picked on by other kids at school until I learned to fight back (by fighting against someone baiting me whom I knew I could lick, and ignoring the bigger ones); in high school I got interested in gymnastics and became muscular, and the bullies interests turned towards girls, so the problems stopped.

There was an atmosphere of fear that spread to all public employees. I learned about radio electronics through an elementary school classmate, but after my father was dismissed, my friend's father, a fireman, was afraid he could be in trouble if the friendship continued, and so it ended. For many other friends (including one with politically conservative parents, whose father was also a firefighter, and whose mother served for years as a social contact for many of the bright kids in school) the friendships continued with no interruption. So whether people gave in to fear or not was very individual.

Another example of fear was when in 8th grade I won first prize at a NYC science fair for an oscilloscope I had built from salvaged parts. That would have made me a natural recipient of the science prize when I completed elementary school, and the wonderful science teacher at my school regarded me highly, but the year I graduated (1953) the science prize was mysteriously omitted! We assumed that the principal was afraid to award it to the son of a dismissed teacher, but have no concrete proof of that.

My father was well-liked by other teachers at Bayside High School, which I attended, and I was respectfully treated by all of them. My physics teacher worried to the principal that since I was "tainted" I might have trouble getting a job in physics, but that was never a problem. (The principal relayed this comment to my dad, which is why I heard it.)

Thriving in the Waning Years of McCarthyism

Despite the political atmosphere, I had a good time in high school -- I was valedictorian and set what was then a record for grade point average, was the first Westinghouse Science Talent Search winner from Bayside, and was also on the swimming team and a respectable gymnast. I was a pet of the physical education teachers, who greatly appreciated having a top student who was also interested in athletics. (I'm still a jock at heart.) I received many awards when I finished high school, unlike my experience in elementary school. But that was in 1957, when effects of the McCarthy era were already fading.

My mother was afraid, somehow, that if I went to Harvard I would be lost to the family, and wanted me to go to Queens College, but my father insisted that since I had gotten into Harvard, I was going to go there, something for which I am eternally grateful.

This is an adaptation of my remarks when the first Ruth and Irving Adler Expository Lecture was given at the Institute for Advanced Study's School of Mathematics -- now an every other year event here.

Remarks from the First Ruth and Irving Adler Expository Lecture

This is a document I prepared about my father's career, including his work as a community servant, to support a proposal (which succeeded) for CCNY to give my father an honorary degree.

Document Prepared for Irving Adler CCNY Honorary Degree

© by Stephen L. Adler. Posted on this Web site with permission for individual, noncommercial use. Other use requires permission from Stephen L. Adler.

This is an article I wrote about my father's influence on my becoming a physicist
for the volume One Hundred Reasons to be a Scientist, published by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics.

From Elements of Radio to Elementary Particle Physics


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