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Personal Reflections On A 9/11 Hero (repost)

Here is why I will always remember.

Originally posted on 11 September 2006 at Terra Sigillata on ScienceBlogs.

This post tells you what it means.

Let me tell you about John Michael Griffin, Jr.

Griff, as he was known in high school, was a friend of mine.

Late in the first half of our lives, he stood up for me physically and philosophically, for being a science geek. John’s endorsement was the first time I was ever deemed cool for wanting to be a scientist.

Griff died an engineer and hero in the collapse of one of the World Trade Center towers five [12] years ago today.

We lost touch almost twenty years before, but his kindness and friendship formed not only one of the cornerstones of the scientific life I have today, but in the person and father I have become as well.

—–

At a northern New Jersey Catholic high school in a predominantly Irish town, being a gangly Polish boy from two towns over was not the formula to cultivate one’s popularity or self-preservation.

Throwing the curve in biology and chemistry classes didn’t help either, nor did being a David Bowie fan in a place where Bruce Springsteen was as revered as St. Patrick. That’s probably where the nickname, “Zowie,” came from – the name of the glam rocker’s first child.

Worse, I had skipped a grade in elementary school, and being a year behind physically was not compatible with self-preservation during high school gym class.

But, it was a very simple gesture, sometime in junior year, when one of the packs of scoundrels had me cornered, slamming me against the wall and throwing my books down the hallway. I believe that the offense was that our biology teacher had taken to buying me a Pepsi every time I scored 100 on one of his exams, and I had been enjoying yet another one.

John, already well on his way to his adult height of 6′ 7″ or 6′ 8″, stepped in and said, “Hey, lay off of Zowie. He’s goin’ places.” And with that, the beatings stopped.

I didn’t play sports, at least not any of the ones offered by our school. At that time, soccer hadn’t taken off in the States but I was a huge player and had met John at Giants Stadium in the NJ Meadowlands where I had season tickets (Section 113, row 7, seat 26) for the relocated New York Cosmos. At just $4 a ticket for kids 16 and under, I could afford season tickets to see some of the greatest international soccer stars of the late 20th century: Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia, Yugoslavia’s Vladislav Bogiçeviç, and, of course, Brazil’s great Pelé.

All accounts of John as an adult include his devotion to the Giants, NY Rangers, and NY Yankees, but few recall those soccer days. John’s family were long-time Giants season ticket holders and probably got their Cosmos season tickets three rows behind me as some sort of promotional giveaway. I recall that John was surprised that a science dork such as I would be cool enough to know about soccer and come to games myself, my father dropping me off outside the gates so he could go home and watch his beloved football games.

But, we Jersey boys loved soccer at a school where American football and basketball reigned supreme. Many Saturday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the massive stadium during soccer’s American heyday of the late 1970s, with crowds of 50,000 – 75,000 that have yet to be matched today.

—–

Among John’s gifts was the ability to make anything fun and to make anyone laugh. I recall sitting with him in a ski lodge in Amsterdam, NY, as I was recovering from frostbite during an ill-prepared class trip ski weekend. He pulled me into an imaginary board game with a napkin dispenser, where he pretended each napkin contained a message as to how to proceed during each turn. We looked at each other in horror when the waitress came unannounced and cleared our table of the napkins.

As a teenager, John was a physical caricature, handsome but a goof, self-effacing but self-confident, and had a clever and caustic wit, both of which he carried into adult professional life and fatherhood. His 15 Sept 2001 missing notice in the Bergen (NJ) Record noted that schoolkids called him, “Barney,” to reflect how they flocked to his presence.

No one was safe from John’s good-hearted and bombastic comedy routines. My father was nicknamed, “Groucho,” by John due to the resemblance of his thick mustache to that of the 1930′s comedian – John would burst spontaneously into seemingly classic Marx Brothers riffs, but with the content imitating my father carrying on about some printing press mishap.

From Class of 1981, St. Mary’s High School, Rutherford, NJ: Clockwise from John with cap in the foreground: Kevin Tormey, Joe McGuire, Matt DiTomasso, Walter Marlowe (valedictorian), Benn O’Hara. Taken at my boyhood home in Wallington on the afternoon between Communion breakfast and evening graduation ceremonies. Griff and DiTomasso ran around Communion breakfast saying, “Party at Kroll’s house.”

My last remembrances of John are half a life away, from the impromptu high school graduation party he called at my house to his pride at finishing his engineering degree and managing facilities for a million-square foot building in Manhattan.

Perhaps he protected me as a kid because he knew that way deep down, he was destined to become an engineering geek himself. And a hero, a much bigger hero, in protecting the lives of others in a very real way.

—–

On the glorious fall morning of 11 Sept 2001, I was fixing coffee for my wife who had been sleeping in when the newsreader on my pager announced that a jet had struck the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I had missed my recent 20-year high school reunion and had not known that John had only months before been appointed director of operations at the WTC by Larry Silverstein’s, Silverstein Properties.

I did not learn until two weeks later that John had facilitated the escape of dozens of workers, handing out wet towels so people could breathe on their way down the stairs. In the 102 Minutes book by New York Times writers Jim Lynch and Kevin Flynn, John is immortalized in the corroborated account of the elevator rescue of 72-year-old Port Authority construction inspector, Tony Savas.

When he returned to 78, Greg Trapp saw a group of three Port Authority employees at work on the doors to the elevator where Tony Savas, a seventy-two-year-old structural inspector, was trapped. Trapp peered into the small gap and saw him, a man with thinning white hair, seemingly serene. One of the workers grabbed a metal easel, wedging the legs into the opening, trying to spread the doors from the bottom, where they seemed to have the greatest leverage. But their efforts had the opposite effect at the top of the doors, which seemed to pinch tighter.

At that moment, John Griffin, who had recently started as the trade center’s director of operations, came over to the elevator bank. At six feet, eight inches tall, Griffin had no problem reaching the top of the door to apply pressure as the others pushed from the bottom. The doors popped apart. Out came Savas, who seemed surprised to find Griffin, his new boss, involved in the rescue. Savas seemed exhilarated, possessed of a sudden burst of energy, rubbing his hands together, or so it seemed to Trapp.

“Okay,” Savas said. “What do you need me to do?”

One of the Port Authority workers shook his head. “We just got you out-you need to leave the building.”

No, Savas insisted. He wanted to help. “I’ve got a second wind.”

John and Mr. Savas stayed behind.

John’s wife, June, sweetheart of the class behind us, was quoted in John’s NYT, Portraits of Grief:

“He was at the back of about 30 people they were evacuating,” his wife, June Griffin, related from the accounts of survivors. “He had been in fires before — he should have gotten out.”

Mrs. Griffin speculated that her husband, instead of running for the exits, headed for the fire control center, where his training as a fire safety officer would have directed him. “He was an engineer,” Mrs. Griffin said. “He must have thought, ‘Buildings don’t just fall down.’”

John also left two daughters, both now teenagers, his parents, a younger brother and older sister, and literally hundreds of friends.

Not just any friends, either – anyone who knew John still says that when he talked with you, it was as though you were the most important person in the world.

—–

Leaving New Jersey in the mid-1980s and running on the tenure-track treadmill 1,600 miles away caused me to stop living life and lose track of a great many friends. I am deeply saddened not to have known John as an adult, a devoted husband and, by all accounts, a remarkable father.

Since John’s death, we’ve all found a little more time in our schedules to make time for one another. As the father of a little girl conceived in the months after the terrorist attacks, I try to respect June’s privacy and just send little gifts for the girls every so often. I cannot imagine how they and nearly 3,000 other families deal privately with the most public of tragedies.

I finally worked up the guts to go to Ground Zero [seven years and] two months ago for the first time. Despite all the bickering about what the memorial should look like, there is a small memorial area set up in the interim. John’s name sits at the top of one column of names on the placards commemorating those lost.

He’ll always be at the top of my list.

John’s wife, June, put up this as her Facebook profile photo this year.

Postscript

This picture also appeared in 2011 when John’s younger daughter, Julie, now 20, was interviewed for the Waldwick (NJ) Suburban News by Jody Weinberger.

Julie’s memory of the events that took place on 9/11 is spotty. She was a fourth-grader at Crescent Elementary School when relatives came to take her and Jenna home.

“It was kind of chaotic,” Julie recalls, sitting on a stool in her kitchen. “Even though people were saying things, I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know what terrorism was and not even adults could really grasp what was happening.

“My grandpa came up to me and told me bad people did something to where my dad worked and that’s all I could really grasp at the time.”

After discussing her father’s rescue of Mr. Savas, Julie shared more of her mixed feelings:

“But then I think he actually went back to help more people and I think that’s when the buildings collapsed,” Julie said. “I was kind of angry knowing that he went to go save other people instead of thinking about coming home to his family. That bothered me but now I know he’s a hero.”

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, Julie thinks about just some of the many moments she’s missed not having her father around.

“People think that it’s just the anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, and it’s true, those really are hard times, but every day [you have to] keep your head up and think positive,” she said. “It’s little things like learning how to drive and applying for college, or my first day of college that you just kind of wish he was there for, and you just have to keep going, I guess.”

Julie feels that by going after her dreams – which currently means graduating from the University of Tampa and pursuing a career in elementary education – she is making her father proud.

 

That Facebook post from June was from last year, 2012. This year, we hear directly from Julie Griffin in a brave article she wrote for the national website of Kappa Alpha Theta, “Overcoming tragedy with the help of my sisters.”

GriffRocksOnFull

Next Friday, September 20th, many of us are gathering in Rutherford, New Jersey for Griff Rocks On, a fundraiser to honor our fallen hero at our alma mater, St. Mary High School. My sister, Sandi, Class of 1985, designed the announcement for this now sold-out event:

The Nobel’s great, but take a look at this!

Bob Lefkowitz proudly displays his Nobel Prize medal (and diploma on the desk) at his Duke University Medical Center office, 20 December 2012. Photo: David Kroll

 

As I alluded to earlier on this index page, I was fortunate to score the cover story the January 9th issue of the Research Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, INDY Week. Therein, I told the story of Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, the biochemist and cardiologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with his former cardiology fellow, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University.

In this first edition of pixels that didn’t make it to the final article, I want to follow on the moments after I took this photo after interviewing Bob for the article. He was kind enough to bring in his original Nobel medal and diploma for me to see and photograph (he’s currently having a replica made of the medal so that he doesn’t have to carry around the real one.).

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The Official Christmas Video of Terra Sigillata

Harkening back to my Polish roots, I hereby declare Bob Dylan’s remake of Mitch Miller’s “Must Be Santa” (1960) as our official Christmas song. Written by Bill Fredericks and Hal Moore, Dylan’s take derives from the polka adaptation Brave Combo of Denton, Texas (here’s their version for comparison).

 




 

With your help, it might hit 2 million views by Christmas Day. As of the time of this post, it was at 1,997,052.

Best wishes to all of our readers for health and happiness no matter what holiday you celebrate this season!

Well, How Did I Get Here?

To celebrate National Chemistry Week, the esteemed synthetic chemist blogger See Arr Oh put out a call for folks to describe to younger folks how they got where there are in the broad field of chemistry:

What do you do all day? What chemistry skills do you use in your line of work? How do you move up the ladder in chemistry? What do I need to do to be in your shoes?

The resulting answers from other bloggers — and any respondents, for that matter — will be compiled at his blog, Just Like Cooking, in what’s called a blog carnival. Specifically, contributors to blog carnivals are asked to respond to a theme or a series of questions. In this particular case, we are tagging our posts with the hashtag, #ChemCoach.

Here’s the list and below are my responses. You may find it helpful to play this Talking Heads video while reading my answers.

Your current job.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

How does chemistry inform your work?

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*

The most important question to ask yourself - If I were just coming into the field, would I learn something useful from your story?

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RTI scientists solving forensic, designer drug mysteries

Kerstin Nordstrom, PhD, AAAS Mass Media Fellow, News & Observer. Credit: Losert Laboratory/Univ of Maryland.

Catching up on my reading this Sunday morning, I’m beaming with pride on the collective accomplishments and coverage of some old friends and colleagues.

Kerstin Nordstrom, a AAAS Mass Media Fellow with the Raleigh News & Observer, had a nice story on 3 September about the work of Dr. Peter Stout at RTI International. You old-timers will know this non-profit entity as Research Triangle Institute, home to the discoveries of Taxol and camptothecin by Wall and Wani and colleagues.

Kerstin, or Dr. Nordstrom I should say as she holds a PhD in physics, interviews RTI’s Dr. Peter Stout on the institute’s forensic analytical chemistry capabilities with regard to the “designer drug” industry. Yes, here we go again with my long-running commentary on the “synthetic marijuana,” “herbal incense,” “plant food,” and “bath salts” products that have recently taken a direct hit from “Operation Log Jam,” a coordinated, federal operation to shut down the industry.

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Al Malkinson the Scientist: Eulogy by Dr. Lori Dwyer-Nield

Lori Dwyer-Nield, PhD, Associate Research Professor, School of Pharmacy, University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus; Investigator, Eastern Colorado Veterans Hospital

In this second part of my remembrance of lung cancer biochemical pharmacologist, Colorado’s Dr. Al Malkinson, I’d like to share with readers some recollections by Lori Dwyer-Nield, PhD. I’ve known Lori since my appointment to Colorado’s faculty in 1992 when she had already been a postdoctoral fellow of Al’s. Dr. Dwyer-Nield continued on as research faculty at the CU School of Pharmacy and co-authored over 40 publications with Al.

At Al’s memorial service last Saturday in Boulder, Lori was asked by Al’s wife, Lynn, to eulogize Al on behalf of all his scientific colleagues. Her thoughts were so warmly received that I wanted to share them more widely, especially with members of the scientific community who knew Al but were unable to attend the memorial. Moreover, I had reflected in my previous post how supportive Al was of his women trainees in balancing career and family. This eulogy provides a glimpse into this philosophy of Al’s directly from someone who lived it for over 20 years.

My tremendous thanks go out to Lori for agreeing to share with us this text of her eulogy.

 


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Nutley nostalgia on Roche campus closing

The most-viewed article at C&EN online over the last seven days was news from Lisa M. Jarvis on the announced closing of the venerable Nutley, NJ, campus of Hoffmann-La Roche – better known today as simply Roche. A mere 13 miles from Manhattan’s Times Square, the US headquarters of Swiss company moved to Nutley in 1929.

A total of 1,000 jobs will be lost when the campus closes late in 2013 – Susan Todd at The Star-Ledger has a pair of articles with the details (1, 2). Todd also used the term, “venerable.” The Nutley campus is legendary for the discovery and development of major drugs – isoniazid for tuberculosis, for example – and the manufacture of vitamins. At one time, it was the example of how a pharmaceutical company could run an independent research institute with its Roche Institute of Molecular Biology.

But this week, we lament the sadly unsurprising loss of employment for many of our friends in chemistry and pharmacology, as well as a host of good folks in administration and support services. Despite its contraction from a high of 10,000 employees in its heyday, Roche continued to provide 9-10% of the tax base for the city.

Roche, Building 76, Nutley, NJ following 2010 renovation. Credit: green@worktoday

My nostalgia for Roche extends back to my childhood, growing up on a hill five miles across the Passaic River in the predominantly Polish town of Wallington. From a clearing in the woods on the hill, the major landmark across into Essex County was the Roche tower, built the year before I was born and known by the unglamorous name of Building 76. The route my family took while driving back from the official state pastime of mall shopping invariably took us past the Roche campus on the Route 3 side. This drive past Roche from the west was preceded immediately by a glorious view of the New York City skyline, almost straight on with the Empire State Building. Whenever I see these two landmarks, I know that I’m almost home.

My Uncle Tommy was a facilities maintenance worker at Roche for about 30 years. Readers here are certainly concerned about the loss of scientist jobs – but Roche provided upward mobility for high school and GED graduates like my uncle. He used to buy us our vitamins from the employee purchase plan. My daughter – and much of the internet – absolutely hate the smell of multivitamins. When I stick my nose deep into a bottle, I smell nurturing, love and care. Roche brought the first synthetic vitamin C to market using the combined microbial and organic synthesis method of Nobel laureate Tadeus Reichstein.

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Do you remember your PhD defense?

A new and already-dear friend is defending her doctoral dissertation tomorrow. I remembered that I had written a post awhile back on my feelings about my own defense, and how my perceptions at the time didn’t measure up to reality.

The timing of this repost also coincides with the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival just posted at Neurotic Physiology, written by another remarkable woman scientist friend of mine, Scicurious. The theme of that carnival is “imposter syndrome” – the broad pathology of self-doubt that one is somehow not qualified for one’s career. I should have submitted this post for that carnival because it falls into that category.

So, for what it’s worth, I’m reposting my feelings in 2008 from the 19th anniversary of my dissertation defense. (How quaint to see that I was using a Palm Treo back then!)


 

This post appeared originally on 13 November 2008 at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata.

For whatever reason, I woke up really depressed and exhausted today – pretty much for no reason, I think.

I checked my schedule on my Treo – today marks 19 years since my dissertation defense.

I remember being really depressed throughout writing my dissertation thinking, “is this all I have to show for this many years of public support for my training?”

My defense was on a Monday so I spent most of Sunday practicing my seminar in the room where I’d give it – it sucked so badly that I couldn’t even get through it once.

When the time came, it was the most incoherent performance I had ever given or ever would.

I was a blithering idiot during my oral exam. There was a great deal of laughter in the room as I stood outside in the hall.

How in the hell did they give me a Ph.D.?

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2011: The year in blog numbers

Well, we’re right about at the end of 2011 and it’s time to thank you find readers for checking in with us throughout the year. We’re slowly rebuilding our momentum here at CENtral Science since moving from ScienceBlogs and were just shy of 90,000 visits for the year. Many of our colleagues get that many each month or week, and a few even each day. Still, we’re very happy that you take time to read here – we consider our readers to be top-quality – brilliant, creative, good-looking, and they even smell good, too! I’ll take 90,000 of you folks any day over millions of other less desirable readers.

I can’t resist the temptation to put up our year-end traffic report since I have the data available and I just love data sets. In addition, I find it interesting to see what topics garnered the greatest traffic. Below, I’ve put up the list of posts that received 100 or more views. The homepage is obviously the first because of those who have us saved as a browser bookmark. But, no surprise, our major topic of interest overall was synthetic marijuana and other until-recently-legal high such as “bath salts.” But ranking quite highly were our posts on dietary supplements containing aromatase inhibitors for bodybuilding and the newly-approved natural product analog for multiple sclerosis, fingolimod (Gilenya).

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Most important lessons learned from a teacher

Keith with a model of a DNA molecule. Credit: Steve Silberman/NeuroTribes

In the current US political climate, teaching as a profession is taking a beating. I don’t quite understand how one of the most important jobs in this country, particularly at the K-12 level, is somehow perceived at the heart of our economic woes.

Over at his NeuroTribes blog (mind, science, culture) at PLoS Blogs, science journalist Steve Silberman has a superb collection of science writer reflections on the most important lessons some of us have learned from teachers. I’m honored to have been invited to be in such lofty company – thanks, Steve!

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