Thursday, February 28, 2008


During the past week, friends from Colby have emailed me two items about the icon of Colby Community College, Dr. Max Pickerill. Pick is 82 years old and this semester marks his 100th semester of teaching. Pick's been a teacher for 58 years. I fully expect the man to die either in his office, or in his beloved classroom.

Pick wasn't only a colleague of mine, he was also my teacher many years ago. I didn't need Chemistry, I already had my science credits; but I decided to take chemistry anyway, just to be able to say that I was once one of Picks students. I took General Chem.

Pick was in his early 60's then. He looked much the same as he does now, oh, maybe he was a little taller. But his hair still hasn't grayed and he was an ornery then as he is now.

I remember watching in disbelief as he lit up a cigarette using the Bunsen burner while he lectured. I remember loving his lectures. Why? Because he related Chemistry to everything!

Let's see what I remember...

I remember him explaining why heaven was hotter than hell. He stood there, and quoted scripture to us describing where heaven is. Then, using the ever-present chalk, he wrote down equations showing heaven's location in relation to the sun. Then, he reminded us that Hell was simply fire and brimstone. Brimstone is sulfur. And Sulfur burns at... (I don't remember that part). Therefore, heaven, with it's location charted out and it's local related to the sun was actually hotter than burning sulfur. Oh, yes, and...if you happen to wind up in hell, don't ask for a drink of water, you'll explode. Pick ended that lecture by telling us that he told a preacher this fact once and was...kicked out of the church. (And Pick is a PK, a preacher's kid!)

Another lecture centered around the structure of atoms, with the nucleus in the center with the electrons in orbit around it. Then Pick asked us what the solar system looked atom. He told us that scientists who didn't believe in God couldn't see the evidence in front of their faces--the same design of an atom and the solar system.

Pick also used to do a magic show. He'd do parts of it in class and bring out different elements to show us different reactions. He had a chuck of sulfur and one of phosphorus in their glass jars filled with water and kerosene. He'd tell us about their instability and then show us. He'd also share stories about previous students who "borrowed" some and dropped it in Villa High Lake, or in toilets, or in sinks... I remember him turning water into wine. I know phenothaline (probably spelled wrong) was involved and he'd chew phena-mint gum and then spit into his "water" mixture. It would turn purple and then he'd add some more water and turn it clear again. I wish I could remember exactly what he used, but I can't. But I remember loving it when he'd "experiment" like that in class.

When I was a student there, Max (Pick) was invited by NASA to come watch a shuttle liftoff. This was in 1982 or 1983, before the Challenger blew up. It was an honor for him to be invited. He went and had the time of his life.

I remember his poster. It was of a bathing beauty, but her measurements were given in metric. Pick had that poster hanging up for years--until one of our Dean's made him take it down because someone might decide to sue him and the college for sexual harassment. That would have been the least of Picks potential charges for sexual harassment. The man liked women...and he liked sex. He always said what he thought. Now, it bothered him if he upset anyone. But Pick is so straightforward and outspoken that he just said things without thinking.

Picks biggest influence on me was when he called me a dumb ass. Yes, he, my teacher, called me a dumb ass. Hey, I deserved it. We were taking a test, balancing equations. Pick was walking around between our desks looking at our work. He paused at my desk, pointed at an equation, and said "what's 5 times 2, dumb ass, fix it!"

No it didn't offend me. Because it was a dumb mistake. But, Max is Max. When he's gone, CCC will lose many many students. I can't tell you how many kids come to Colby just to take a class from Max. Max has been wooed by NASA, many big companies, and by many government departments. He was an early leader in alcohol fuel production in the 1970's. He could have left Colby several times over but always chose to stay. Why? Because he loved teaching and he loves his students. He's on campus every morning, drinking coffee, still smoking, visiting with his students before class, after class, after school at night. He gets to know those in his classes and even those who never set foot in the Chemistry lab. He's simply an icon.

Congrats Max on teaching 100 semesters. You're one of a kind and I love you.


Anonymous said...

Shelljo, thanks so much for your post! I attended CCC in the early 80s, and while I never had a class with Pick two of what became my best friends were his "student assistants" for the science department. David and Randy tuly loved Max as if he was their own father. As evidence, David went on to be a successful chemical engineer but Randy changed "gears" and ended up teaching chemistry because he wanted to be like Pick. I didn't go to college until I was in my early 20s, and I smoked, and as Pick always did I began to join him on Saturday mornings picking up paper, etc. from the around the campus and then joining him for coffee in the student union. The stories he told and the out looks he had on life not only fascinated me but made me think of my Dad and home as I was from out of state. My parents visited Colby once and I think the first person I introduced them to was Max. As you say, Pick affected so many young people in his career, and it's strange because I had a dream just last night about Colby and I couldn't figure out where Pick the first thing I did when I woke up thing morning was to get on-line and find him. I was so saddened to see that he had passed away in May, I lost my own father in January. Obviously his loss is a tremendous loss, but remembering how many kids and kids' kids he influenced makes me smile because....I was one of them. Kevin

robb said...

I am currently in florida, reading about brix, sugars ratios, and acids in oranges and when suddenly i came across Phenolphthalein.... then suddenly i remember Max Pickerall.. i was fortunate to sit for 2 semesters in chemistry (87) - I never continued any further along with chemistry, but i still remember so much - all chemistry from the attraction of man to women... and other such insights i learned from max. we love him so. I suppose he is lying in his casket, confusing his chalk with his cigarettes..telling himself a not so clean joke or 2.