Take Five with William Stark ’69

William Stark ’69 has been a professor of biological sciences for more than 43 years; he has been a member of the Department of Biology at Saint Louis University since 2000. On September 10, 1976, Stark began a routine of running at least one mile per day; he ran every day until June 2, 2017. His streak lasted 14,876 days (40 years, 266 days) and is listed as the fifth-longest retired running streak in the United States and sixth-longest retired running streak in the world by the United States Running Streak Association.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was so high on myself, Number 36 out of 625 from top-notch Mt. Lebanon H.S. My heart was throbbing as the Greyhound bus came through the tunnel after the overnight from Pittsburgh. New York. How exciting, and the drinking age was 18! I remember strutting proudly across the red bricks next to the library from Carman to John Jay. And yet, I must have been a little insecure. My grandparents lived in Yonkers and I had cousins on Long Island and in Westchester; I stayed with them on numerous weekends. I suppose the transition from adolescent at home to young adult away from home came for me as a sudden realization. I was homesick, like so many college freshmen, especially since my dad had had a heart attack Labor Day weekend (which explains the need to take the bus). Also, I was away from my high school sweetheart, Sharon — now my wife of 48 years. I was a little depressed about Columbia until the excitement of my majors and my plans for graduate school in Madison, Wisc., as a married man took hold.

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

I guess my parents splurged, Carman Hall was brand-new. Each suite had two rooms for two students each (separate beds, not bunk beds) and our own bathroom (not down the hall) — seeming luxury despite the austere cinderblock walls. Jeff Escher ’69 shared my room on the third floor, and Al Kennedy and Dave McCarthy ’69 were in the other room. We yelled obscenities across West 113th Street at the Beta fraternity. The meal plan was so bad that we all dropped it. We became mess-mates at The West End, Tom’s, The College Inn, Aki, Moon Palace, V&T and others. Dave had a KLH, so music played in his room, and that’s when I decided that Butterfield’s East-West was the best record album. Even though the building was new, our shower wall (and others in the building) caved in during that year.

What class do you most remember and why?

This is tough to answer, and so I will offer runners-up: Ronald Breslow’s organic chemistry class (though I dropped chemistry as a major because chemistry, physics and math were too hard) — we gave him a standing ovation and gifts at the end of the semester. Even though I loved many courses in my psychology and biology majors, I have to put Edward Said’s class at first place — it was basically a third semester of Literature Humanities, an elective, that I took in my senior year. Like the required two-semester sequence, we read a pile of books. Professor Said, instead of telling us what he thought, would ask what we thought. He would leap up on the chair in front of a student who might be fumbling with an idea (I certainly was) and, with gestures, rip out our deepest insights. I wrote a term paper comparing Turgenev’s and Whitman’s concepts of time. Pretty creative for a science major, eh? — a confidence I might not have had before Professor Said. I remember questioning, in the blue book final exam, how Tolstoy could share with readers what was going through Anna Karenina’s mind as she was dying (for 50 pages).

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

The runner-up is the Law plaza at night, looking down at the pedestrians on Amsterdam, who went by willy-nilly, never suspecting they were in my surveillance. But first place goes to the Cathedral Church of St. John “the unfinished” (Divine). Technically not on campus, but West 111th Street and Amsterdam is close enough. My understanding was that it was the world’s largest cathedral. It was policy that it should remain unfinished. It was fun to spot a place where there should have been three statues — one was finished, another was a block of marble and the third an empty slot. Inside, the main area filled me with awe. But more impressive was to find some 15 chapels wrapped around behind the altar.

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

I wish I had not become so negative about Columbia. I felt it was a depressing black-and-white island in a Technicolor world. I did not buy the yearbook. I did not go to Commencement — I just wanted to get out of there. And yet, I had become close with a few really cool friends. Since my Columbia years, I have looked back with fond reflections (in Columbia College Today Class Notes in several issues). I have spoken with friends about how awesome many of my professors were. Decades after graduation, I even exchange emails with some of them. In hindsight, it was certainly an impressive experience, academically and in life lessons.