Recollecting “A Wild Four Years of a Shocking Decade”

Peter Joseph
Dr. Peter G. Joseph ’70 is the group leader of the Marin County, Calif., chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which strives for effective carbon pricing legislation. He is also liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives for California’s 2nd congressional district. Joseph retired from emergency medicine in 2011 after a 35-year career in Castro Valley, Calif.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was an 18-year-old kid from Long Island, son of a Holocaust refugee doctor and elementary school teacher whose own mother had fled pogroms in Ukraine. I was the product of a solid public school education who was not (yet) opposed to The War — a viewpoint quickly demolished when Marine recruiters met stiff resistance outside of Hamilton Hall during Orientation. As a newbie wandering the intimidating campus in a blue beanie, I was thrilled and proud to be on this stunning campus whose history stretched back to my country’s origins, and was determined to do my best.

But the Kennedy assassination and Cuban Missile Crisis still cast dark shadows that fall of 1966. Now I was living at ground zero and the Marines wanted me to go to Vietnam. Who was trustworthy? What was real? Where was this heading? This was the beginning of what turned out to be a wild four years of a shocking decade. Thankfully, I emerged less confused.

I was shy and unathletic, having spent most of my adolescence working hard in school, deeply engaged in science, passionately studying the oboe, building ham radios and terrifying my mother from the roof. I could talk Bach better than baseball and send Morse code lightning fast. I knew where every country was and that the ionosphere was favorable for radio signals.

Biology was my love; I read my dad’s physiology books, and wanted to know more deeply how it all happened. I had known since the age of five that I wanted to follow in the steps of my father, grandfather and uncles. But I wasn’t ready to leave the nest and went home most weekends, to Grandma’s cooking, my dog, my ham buddies and the security of family. When I didn’t, I found the campus unfortunately lonely and forbidding.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

My first-year living situation, as well as second, third and fourth, was in lovely Cinder Block (Carman) Hall. Although sterile, we decorated with posters, played good music and had a mini-fridge and hot plate in the bathroom/kitchen/dark room. Sharing a room was an adjustment, but we had fun. Someone — not me! — produced some pot. We listened in fascination to the likes of Santana and John Coltrane, had stoned snowball fights and sometimes took the IRT down to The Village, feeling slightly paranoid (there were cops on those trains; did I look stoned?). Once there was a wine tasting event in the lobby. All I remember is stumbling back to my room, doing a face plant and waking up fully clothed. My favorite roommate, Jim Haug SEAS’70, and I are still in touch.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I was pretty confident in my abilities — they let me in, right? — until I met Plato. Yes, I had read “The Greeks over the summer as directed, but as I sat outside Low on a beautiful fall day, distracted by pretty girls and wondering how I’d break the ice, reading page one over and over again with my yellow highlighter but without comprehension, I thought, “What am I doing here? Do others actually understand this stuff? I’m in way over my head. I should have aimed lower.”

But thanks to patient and humane teaching in small groups (Stephen Marks stands out), I gradually realized I wasn’t stupid; I gained ability and confidence and came to appreciate the intellectual challenge the Core presented. Although I remember the experience more than the specifics, I firmly support the notion of the Core Curriculum for two reasons: 1, It forever binds students together in a common experience, and 2, it’s a superb exercise in brain development. Since the malleable 18–22-year-old brain is undergoing a massive maturation process, meeting the challenge of the Core does for the brain what rigorous physical activity does for the body. When else does one get the opportunity and guidance to delve deeply and broadly into the foundations of our culture? (Maybe in retirement, when it’s still valuable to stem the tide of dementia.) The opposite of football, the Core is good is for the young brain.

I do agree with the idea of flexing the curriculum to include important non-dead, non-white, non-men, to keep the Core au courant.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

My dorm room was an oasis. And also WKCR’s studio, where I hosted a classical music program, “King’s Crown Concert,” on Fridays from 9:00 to midnight — right after the basketball game, when you could feel the radios tuning out — was a cool place for techies like me. The venerable McMillan Theater, where the (not very good) orchestra rehearsed and where a furious [Professor Emeritus] Seymour Melman GSAS’49 almost beat up futurist Herman “Survivable Nuclear War” Kahn, was where the best of NYC often performed. But my go-to place was a deli a few blocks south, Mama Joy’s, where I’d pick up lunch or dinner. If ever I suffer a heart attack, blame it in part on their delicious roast beef sandwiches. (Make mine an Impossible Burger now.)

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

In retrospect, I regret not spending more weekends on campus with guys (girls seemed a distant mountain top). I just wasn’t ready. I would have made more friends, participated in sporting events, drunk more beer and been less hesitant to cross the widest street in NYC — Broadway. But it all worked out. I wound up at a great medical school (University of Michigan), then drifted out to California where I had a satisfying career in emergency medicine and created a family. I still have purpose in life (combatting global warming through the political process) and still treasure my Columbia education. I’m happy to have been able to give back to multiple parts of the University, including the College, Law School, Earth Institute and now the exciting new Climate School. Though it’s been a few years since I’ve been on College Walk, I’ll be back.