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Nothing More Important

A $1 million gift from the Midgley Foundation establishes a permanent fund to support summer research projects focused on environmental conservation.

Lax

After graduating 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., 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. His books since have been translated into 18 languages. He also has given decades of his life to literary and human rights non-profits, especially PEN International, the global writers association. Now an International Vice President of PEN, Lax has served as president of PEN Center USA in Los Angeles and as a PEN International board member for many years.

BY ANDREW WICKENDEN ’09

Student scholars and faculty mentors collaborating on summer research: it’s a hallmark of scientific education at Hobart and William Smith, and now students have a new source of assistance with 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 permanently funds summer research focused on environmental science and conservation, helping students understand challenges at the local, national and international levels — and put solutions into practice.

The Midgely Foundation is named for Lax’s cousin Constance and her husband Stan, who both cared deeply about conservation. 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 the Midgleys’ memory.

“Conservation and the environment become 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 great comfort to me.”

Most student projects will be guided by HWS Environmental Studies faculty, but given the interdisciplinary nature of conservation research, the Midgley Fund will also support projects across the curriculum that align with environmental protection. And because research frequently requires travel and supplies, up to 20 percent of the annual support may be used for related expenses.

“For decades, our students have used the living laboratory of the Finger Lakes to explore urgent environmental questions, and now they will have perennial support to pursue innovative research and solutions,” says President Joyce P. Jacobsen. “We are grateful for the foresight and generosity of the Midgley Foundation, and for the friendship and stewardship of Eric Lax, whom we are proud to count among our esteemed alums.”

The inspiration behind the gift

To boost tourism after World War II, the Southern Pacific Railway sponsored a contest for the best film on the Colorado Rockies. Stan Midgley, who spent most summer vacations in Estes Park, Colo., had embarked on a promising career as a chemist and executive at Abbott Labs in Illinois, but when his film won the contest’s $1,000 prize, he 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 across the country, including screenings for the National Geographic Society. Every March, the films ran 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 after booking him to show a film for a hospital 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 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.”

In addition to honoring his cousin and her husband, Lax is gratified to give back to the Colleges.

“I owe so much of my life to Hobart and William Smith,” says Lax, the bestselling and award-winning author of 10 books on subjects as diverse as the discovery and development of penicillin, medical breakthroughs on a bone marrow transplant ward, his own faith, and the life and work of Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart. “The Colleges taught me how to think, to take pieces of information and turn them into something whole. I’m grateful for that daily.”

The relationships he forged at HWS have been just as meaningful. His first day in Geneva, Lax met Edie Sparago Irons ’66 on the Quad and they’ve been close ever since, co-chairing their 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 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 has remained, along with Bob Curtis ’65, Sue Fisher Curtis ’65 and David Lewine ’64, 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 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 see that the people who are attracted and accepted to HWS are of such an impressive caliber is wonderful, even comforting,” Lax says. “Walking onto 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.”