A $1 million gift from the Midgley Foundation establishes a permanent fund to support summer research projects focused on environmental conservation.
Summer research collaborations between student scholars and faculty mentors are a hallmark of scientific education at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Beginning in the fall of 2021, HWS students will have access to new resources for projects related to environmental science and conservation through the Stanley Wheeler Midgley, Jr. and Constance Lax Midgley Environmental Studies Summer Research Fund.
Established in 2021 by the Midgley Foundation with guidance from Eric Lax ’66, L.H.D. ’93, the $1 million endowment fund will support, in perpetuity, summer research focused on understanding environmental threats at the local, national and international levels, and studying how to solve them.
The Midgely Foundation is named for Lax’s cousin Constance Lax Midgley and her husband Stanley Wheeler Midgley, Jr., who cared deeply about conservation and environmental protection. Lax, who sits on the board of the foundation, apprised the other members of the wide-ranging environmental research and education that occurs at HWS, which led to the endowment in memory of Constance and Stan.
“Conservation and the environment become more and more important daily,” Lax says, “so it’s critical for students to have funding for their education and research. Knowing it’s there for generations to come, and that the Colleges can count on it, is a real comfort for me.”
“This is the kind of gift with a life that goes on and on, offering amazing academic experiences for our students, enabling them to study pressing environmental questions and launching them on their careers,” says HWS Provost Mary L. Coffey. “We’re very excited to start so soon, but the steadiness and the growth over time is going to be deeply meaningful. We are so grateful to the Midgley Foundation for the countless opportunities this will provide, and to Eric Lax, who has been, and continues to be, an incredible friend to the Colleges.”
The majority of student research projects that the Midgley Summer Research Fund supports will be guided by the HWS Environmental Studies faculty; due to the interdisciplinary nature of the work, the fund may also support summer research projects across the Colleges’ curriculum that are consistent with the overall theme of conservation and environmental protection.
Additionally, because research frequently requires travel for faculty and students, laboratory supplies or other expenses, up to 20 percent of the annual support may be used for research‐related expenses.
The inspiration behind the gift
To attract visitors and boost tourism after World War II, the Southern Pacific Railway sponsored a contest for the best film on the Colorado Rockies. Stan Midgley, who had embarked on a promising career as a chemist and executive at Abbott Labs in Illinois, won the $1000 prize and promptly quit his job. An avid hiker and outdoorsman (he climbed every 14,000-foot peak in Colorado), he began traveling the country, producing more than a dozen films documenting Hawaii, Yosemite, autumn in New England and the breadth of the nation’s natural beauty. These hour-long travelogues — or “chucklelogues,” as they were known, for Stan’s witty narration and the sight gags he incorporated — drew large audiences at screenings across the country, from the Women’s Club of De Moines to the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C., and ran every March for many years on Detroit television.
Constance Lax — who was the youngest nurse matron in Britain during World War II — was hired to oversee the nurses in a 1,500-bed hospital in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit. She first met Stan when she booked him for a screening of one of his films for a local group. By then, each had more or less given up on the idea of marriage, but that soon changed.
Happiest when they were alone in the wilderness, “Stan and Constance felt there was nothing more important than conservation and keeping the earth alive,” says Eric Lax — so much so that 20 years ago they earmarked part of their estate to support environmental preservation. “I believe they would have approved wholeheartedly of the endowed fund that will train generation after generation of scientists and teachers committed to conservation, who will train more likeminded teachers and scientists after that.”
In addition to honoring his cousin and her husband, their love of the outdoors and their commitment to the environment, Lax is grateful to pay tribute to the lasting impacts of his relationship with HWS: the quality of the education and the many friends who have been “with me through all my years at HWS and the half century since.”
“I owe so much of my life to Hobart and William Smith,” says Lax, the best-selling author of 10 books on subjects as diverse as the discovery and development of penicillin, life at the frontier of medicine on a bone marrow transplant ward, his own faith, and the life and work of Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart.
After graduating from Hobart with a degree in English, Lax joined the Peace Corps and was sent for two years to an island of 185 people on a quarter-square mile in the Chuuk district of Micronesia, which he calls “a small loss of memory in the Pacific.” He was later a Peace Corps fellow in Washington D.C. and then Overseas Director of the Peace Corps School Partnership Program, which allowed him to travel to more than 40 countries. He published his first book, On Being Funny, in 1975, and in his books since, has explored science, Hollywood and his experiences and beliefs, collaborating with fellow alumni along the way. He also has given decades of his life to a variety of literary and human rights non-profit organizations, especially PEN International, the global writers association based in London with 150 centers around the world. He has served as president of PEN Center USA in Los Angeles and chairman of the trustees of the PEN Foundation, and is an International Vice President of PEN.
“The great thing that the Colleges taught me was how to think, how to take information and turn it into something else. I’m grateful for that daily,” Lax says.
The relationships he forged at HWS have been just as meaningful. “The size and spirit of Hobart and William Smith allow friendships to flourish, and those with my classmates are major reasons that my devotion to the Colleges endures,” he says. “I cannot overstate how important these friendships have been and remain nearly 60 years on.”
Lax met Edie Sparago Irons ’66 on the Quad on their first day in Geneva and they have remained lifelong friends, co-chairing their Classes’ 40th and 50th Reunion Committees. Lax bonded with his senior year roommate, the Rt. Rev. George Packard ’66, through a shared faith “whose subsequent divergent evolutions have profoundly affected us both. [Packard] has been a steady touchstone for me, and he graciously opened himself for my book Faith Interrupted,” Lax explains. Dr. Robert Peter Gale ’66, L.H.D. ’87 was a subject for another of Lax’s books, co-author of yet another and, along with Bob Curtis ’65, Sue Fisher Curtis ’65 and David Lewine ’64, has remained among Lax’s closest friends.
“Without the late, great Peter Tauber ’68, my apartment mate of a dozen years, I would never have met my wife Karen,” Lax adds. “And Mara O’Laughlin ’66, L.H.D. ’13, my wise-cracking tablemate in the student union and date to the 1963 ROTC Ball, is responsible for admitting decades of impressive William Smith students.”
These friendships, and those with recent graduates like Ella Calder ’18 and Alex Kerai ’19, are the radiant core of Lax’s fondness for HWS. He estimates that half of the campus was built since he graduated, and “probably more graduates have come through the Colleges in the past 55 years than in the 150 before, but to go back and see that the people who are attracted and accepted to HWS are of such an impressive caliber is wonderful and even comforting,” Lax says. “Walking onto the campus and talking with these young people, you realize how talented and smart they are, how lucky the Colleges are to have them and how lucky they are to have the Colleges.”