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Anatomy of a Class Note ’90

10:35 AM  Jul 13th, 2012
by Maureen Schlangen

Matty Toomb ’90 (COM) and Annie Kidd Toomb ’90 (MKT) live in Mason, Ohio, with their children. World travelers, they’re already planning their Thanksgiving 2013 trip to Hawaii to see the Flyers in the Maui Invitational. They write, “Matty is vice president of sales and marketing at American Thermal Instruments; Annie is vice president of the household and a volunteer extraordinaire. We started dating our first year at UD and were neighbors on Lowes our senior year. Within a year of graduation, the three guys at 443 married three of the girls from 438, right across the street. The two remaining housemates from 438 married classmates of the guys at 443.” Matty was a co-chair for the Class of 1990’s 20th reunion.








Like Matty, housemates Jim Kuchman and Chris Hodge dated their future wives through college: Jim Kuchman and Lisa Ferrari Kuchman live in Birmingham, Mich., with their three children, and Chris Hodge and Michelle Miller Hodge and their three children live in Mason, Ohio. The other 438 housemates are Margaret O’Brien-Jones — she married Jeff Jones — and Jackie Scheetz Quigley, who married Patrick Quigley.










Every few years, Annie’s housemates get together — most recently for a surprise baby shower for the Kuchmans in Michigan. Says Lisa Kuchman: “I gave the crib away in October 2008, and a month later … surprise.” Son Quinn (pictured, middle) was born Aug. 9, 2009.








The Toombs describe their children as “a scholar, an athlete and a comedian.” Joe, 15, excels in class and plays golf at St. Xavier High School; Shannon, 12, usually plays two sports per season and is good at all of them; and Kyle, 9, tells jokes and stories to keep his family and classmates in stitches.










American Thermal Instruments — 2 miles from campus — was founded in 1981 and produced aquarium thermometers. It now produces temperature sensors for the food, pharmaceutical and medical markets and uses electronic data loggers, a temperature monitoring app and cloud system. Matty says it’s the first temperature system of its kind.








Matty used email, social media and even poetry to promote the Class of 1990’s 20th reunion in 2010. He even managed to bring a popular UD band, the Dumbwaiters, out of retirement for the occasion. His “marketing memories” approach worked: the ’90 contingent attracted 232 alumni and guests.

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The curious case of forensics

2:30 PM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Cameron Fullam

Follow Eric Benbow ’94 into the woods, where he’s challenging students to move beyond the suspect world of TV forensic science and answer questions that could give new life to the study of death.


“So what? Who cares?”

The questions came two decades ago from the back of the room — a senior, tall with black hair and glasses. Two dozen bored faces that only moments ago had been watching the clock were now fixed on Eric Benbow, a junior transfer student completing his first year as a biology major at UD. He stood alone at the front of the classroom.

Twenty minutes earlier, he had dimmed the lights and flipped on the overhead projector. The illuminated screen showed an aquatic insect that filters water through fans on its head in search of bacteria to eat. With chalk in hand, Benbow had filled the blackboard with crude drawings, formulas and key points, hypothesizing how water flow might affect the insect’s life cycle. Then came the questions.

“I said something, but it wasn’t very good,” said Benbow ’94, now an assistant professor in UD’s biology department. “Probably to the effect of, ‘Understanding stream flow characteristics and the insect’s responses to changes in flow could lead to the ability to control their population.’ I forget exactly.”

But he hasn’t forgotten the questions. They have followed him through life — in Ohio woodlands, through Ghanaian streams, into labs and classrooms — and directed his mission as a researcher and an educator answering his own questions and sparking new ones in the minds of the next generation of scientists.


I spy a fly

Benbow and two students hunched over a pig carcass, not believing what they were seeing.

It was late May 2011, unseasonably cold, and the sky had been dumping rain all night. Their lanterns looked thin in the blackness. Three-inch thorns on honey locust trees stretched to shred their yellow ponchos. Slippery mud sent them sprawling. Low-hanging limbs slapped their wet faces.

Roughly four hours earlier, they had placed six fresh pig carcasses in woods outside of Dayton. They were returning now, just before midnight, to study the progress of their decomposition. The trio was studying how bacteria and insects, particularly blow flies, interact in decomposition and how that information can be used to improve estimates of how long an organism — be it a pig in a science experiment or a murder victim dumped in the woods — has been dead.

“Flies don’t fly in the dark, though we don’t fully understand why,” Benbow said. “Because of this, it’s generally accepted among forensic entomologists that flies don’t lay eggs at night, or in cold weather or the rain. If you find a maggot on a carcass in the morning, it is assumed eggs were laid that morning or before nightfall the day before.”

The waterlogged team expected to confirm this. Instead, they witnessed a female blow fly walk out of the pig’s nostril, scamper a few feet and then disappear. Shining a flashlight into the nose, the three scientists saw what looked like 30 to 50 small grains of white rice, arranged in a pea-sized clump: blow fly eggs.

“Write this down,” Benbow told his students. “What you just saw isn’t supposed to happen.”

So what? Just a month before their nocturnal discovery, a criminal case was decided based in part on evidence of blow fly larvae on a dead body. A forensic entomologist testified about time of death. What were the chances, he was asked, of flies laying eggs on the victim’s body in the middle of the night under dry, warm conditions?

“He said it was incredibly unlikely or would never happen,” Benbow said. “But there we were, under the harshest conditions. We saw it. If a criminal investigator assumes eggs were laid in the morning when they were actually laid the night before, the post-mortem interval would be off by 12 hours.”

Who cares? Senior biology major Maureen Berg ’12, who was with Benbow that night. She followed up on the unusual incident with a research project of her own. Returning to the same woods at nightfall, she set out several baits — some on the ground and some suspended 3 feet off the ground — under high light, low light and no light conditions. The experiment tested which conditions were most favorable for a blow fly to lay eggs at night.

Berg observed no nocturnal egg laying, even under high light; however, the baits on the ground and with the most light were consistently the first to have eggs deposited in the morning. She is working the results into a paper she plans to submit for publication. Benbow encourages his students to explore new ideas and pursue work of professional quality.

“There are times students see something in the field that I’ve taken for granted, but they see something because their eyes are fresh,” he said. “I always make sure they get credit.”


Pebble in a stream

Benbow with his 4-year-old daughter, Arielle, at Magee Park near Bellbrook, Ohio

As a boy, Benbow spent summer days wading and digging in the streams of State Farm Park in northeast Kettering, Ohio. He’d bring crayfish, minnows, leeches and other creek creatures home, where his mother allowed him to keep them.

Years later, when he once described his fieldwork to his mother, he said, “You know when I used to go out to the creek to hunt for crayfish and catch minnows? I’m doing that now but with a $10,000 piece of equipment instead of a Styrofoam cup.”

He still visits those streams with students and also with his 4-year-old daughter, Arielle, whose favorite activity with Daddy is putting on flip-flops to wade in the water and dig up critters.

“At a recent parent-teacher conference at Arielle’s preschool, I learned that she is always digging up worms and bugs to show to the other kids,” he said with a proud smile. “And she does it in heels and a dress.”

Both of his daughters — Alia is 1 — will be entomologists, he said, only half joking. “I at least want them to appreciate insects, not to be afraid.”

So far, so good. Arielle confidently picks up millipedes, but she avoids centipedes (she knows they bite). And when Benbow’s wife, Melissa Fortman Benbow ’04, finds a spider crawling in a corner, it’s Arielle who runs to her rescue.

“You know, Mommy, this one won’t bite,” she’ll say as she scoops it up in her hand and releases it outside.

Still, there is a flyswatter in Benbow’s home: “Flies carry pathogens,” he said.


Death becomes him

Forensic science is under the microscope. In 2009, the National Research Council issued what Benbow characterized as a scathing report criticizing the forensic sciences for a lack of sound scientific research.

Benbow is among a team of researchers at the forefront of responding to this report with two articles published in 2011 on the future of forensic science research. That same year, he received a grant from the National Institute of Justice (in collaboration with Texas A&M University and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service) to fund his research on the interaction of insects and microbes in body decomposition. The nearly half-million-dollar grant was UD’s first from the NIJ and its first for forensic research.

“DNA fingerprinting was the only one that escaped strong criticism from the NRC,” Benbow said. “But for the rest of the forensic sciences, too much evidence is anecdotal, and there is virtually no data on error rates. We don’t know how often these techniques are wrong.”

Meanwhile, thanks to popular TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the general public is fed the perception that forensics can pick out the tiniest of threads to unravel an entire case.

“It’s a glammed-up, fabricated portrayal of forensics, and this can hurt cases,” said Benbow, who has worked on several cases and testified in one. “Juries have an unrealistic expectation of evidence, that a scientist can simply go out to a crime scene, find all of the evidence and close the case. But it’s a lot of work, and the data aren’t always crisp and clean.”

In a recent experiment, Benbow and graduate student Andy Lewis ’08 — the third person with Benbow and Berg that night in the woods — found that for a person on trial, the difference between “guilty” and “not guilty” could be 85 feet.

Blow flies are often the first insects to lay eggs on decomposing remains, usually within hours or even minutes after death. The larvae hatch and develop through life stages — called instars — at a rate closely linked to temperature. The warmer the air and soil, the more quickly they grow.

From the time they hatch until they reach the third instar, they are simply growing bigger — about the size of a grain of rice at first instar to 10 times larger by third instar — feeding on the rapidly decomposing carcass. During the third instar, they stop feeding and crawl away in search of a dark, moist place to burrow, become pupae and begin the process of metamorphosis to become flies.

On average, in Ohio’s summer climate, the entire process — from first instar to pupae — takes five to seven days.

Combining the size of the oldest blow fly larvae with data on temperature and other environmental conditions, forensic entomologists can calculate the age of larvae and thus determine the time of initial colonization, biological data that then assists in establishing a time of death.

“It is, therefore, essential that investigators locate the oldest larvae at a crime scene, otherwise the interpretation of the insect data can be compromised and erroneous,” Benbow said.

When forensic entomologists arrive at a scene, they search for the oldest larvae, looking under leaf debris and digging up soil samples. They collect the larvae using forceps or common tablespoons and often kill them by dropping them in ethanol or boiling them in water to stop their growth. For this, some entomologists carry camp stoves into the field.

Most forensic entomologists recommend a search radius of 10 meters for the oldest larvae. Like with flies and egg laying, it’s conventional wisdom that larvae burrow into the ground to begin pupation within 2 to 10 meters of the carcass.

But in Benbow and Lewis’ study, the larvae from two of six pig carcasses moved farther, with one larval mass traveling 14 meters and the other 26 meters — about 85 feet.

“Our study suggests that in a forensic case with insect evidence, there would be a one-in-three chance that the oldest larvae would not be collected if the search stayed within the current recommendation of 10 meters,” Benbow said.

Missing the oldest larvae could affect a time-of-death estimate that might bolster or contradict an alibi.

Still, even with improved research, Benbow knows there will always be uncertainty. Expert testimony will always be expert opinion. But what he hopes he can offer is solid, objective data that can establish a degree of certainty.

“If we can go from making estimates with, for instance, a 50/50 probability to something like 85 percent based on research and data, then you can start giving juries something more concrete to consider, something more objective,” he said.


Stitching disciplines

Forensic entomology has long been an isolated field of study, but Benbow and his colleagues are finding ways to link it to other disciplines. Benbow considers himself a forensic ecologist because of his research on the interactions between microbes and insects. How does the soil composition of where the body is laid affect insect behavior? How do bacteria interact with — even communicate with — insects? What if a body is dumped in the water?

This last question nagged at Jen Lang ’10, now a graduate student in Benbow’s lab. The research on decomposition in water is remarkably slim, and even fewer studies have focused on the role of bacteria. But as a microbiologist who “likes going outside,” Lang couldn’t resist pursuing an answer.

She studies biofilm — the slime on rocks — which is rich in biological diversity. “It’s like a rainforest on a smaller scale,” she said.

Under Benbow, whom she describes as a mentor, she has linked her biofilm research and aquatic insect behavior to estimates of post-mortem interval, or time after death. This new approach caught the attention of the American Society of Forensic Sciences, which awarded Lang, Benbow and collaborators a small grant this summer to explore interactions of aquatic insects and biofilm formation on decomposing pig carcasses.

Lang is also organizing a session on aquatic entomology at the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting in November. She enjoys dabbling in multiple disciplines, likening her work to quiltmaking: “I’m looking at data and research from different disciplines, synthesizing that information and using it to explain new ideas.”

Her approach is essential to good science, Benbow insists, and he urges all his students to think beyond a narrow focus.

“Don’t get me wrong. I still believe in becoming highly specialized, knowing how to do your part really well,” he said, “but you need to know how to connect that with what others are doing. Not everyone can do that, but that’s what I teach my students.”

Even with the National Research Council report, Benbow and his colleagues have met some resistance toward their novel, collaborative approach, often from fellow scientists asking pointed, emotional questions at conferences. But he welcomes it.

“No one has ever tried to look at the interactions between microbes and flies, so I get some scrutiny, but that’s good for the science. That’s the whole point of the NRC criticism, that forensic science had gone unchallenged for so long. We’re just advocating for better science.”


For the living

Benbow received his doctorate from UD in 1999. Soon after, his phone rang. On the other end of the line was Richard Merritt, a Michigan State University professor who at the time was one of just six scientists certified by the American Board of Forensic Entomologists.

Merritt had just received a grant to study the effect of road salt on aquatic insects, and he had been discussing the topic with UD biology professor Al Burky, Benbow’s doctoral adviser. Within days, Merritt hired Benbow to do postdoctoral work in his lab.

Benbow quickly saw the connection between such research and forensic entomology. “It was just a different group of insects in a different environment,” he said.

A few years later, Benbow and Merritt applied the same set of knowledge to a different problem: Buruli ulcer, a disfiguring tropical skin disease thought to be transmitted by a biting water bug.

“I knew nothing of disease ecology, but I was interested in this case,” Benbow said. “I approached it as a microbe/insect question.”

Victims of Buruli ulcer suffer raw, gaping wounds that can overtake an entire limb and force amputation. Children younger than 15 in sub-Saharan Africa and the elderly in Australia are its primary victims. The social stigma can be profound, with permanent disfigurement making it difficult to find a spouse or a job in developing countries of Africa. Scientists have long recognized a connection between the disease and bodies of water such as slowly flowing rivers, ponds, swamps and lakes, but the exact mode of transmission is unknown.

In Ghana, Benbow was part of a team of researchers to run tests in the field. Until then, all of the experiments that implicated the biting water bug had been done in the lab. Wearing waders to protect against infection, Benbow spent hours in ponds and streams collecting bugs and water samples. It got so hot, Benbow recalled, that he often wondered whether his waders were leaking as they filled with sweat up to his calves.

His research produced no strong evidence to support the water bug hypothesis. The disease remains a mystery, but Benbow is today among the top researchers in the world studying the transmission of Buruli ulcer into human populations, acting as a consultant for the World Health Organization, which labels Buruli ulcer as one of the most neglected but treatable tropical diseases. More than 50,000 people in 30 countries have contracted the disease, though it often goes unreported.

“The interaction between bacteria and insects affects all kinds of systems,” he said. “The more we understand these interactions, the better we can apply it to forensics, disease prevention, the health of our water systems; the possibilities go on and on.”


Great questions

In a Science Center classroom full of first-year biology students, Benbow put up a slide of an aquatic insect with the filtering fan on its head — the same one he put up decades ago in the room right across the hall.

He told his students the story of his junior-year presentation. He told them about the questions: “So what? Who cares?”

Then he pointed to the insect and asked them, “Do you know what this is? It’s a black fly larva.”

It carries disease to hundreds of thousands of people all over Africa, he told them: river blindness. It uses the fans on its head to filter water and feed on the bacteria. Could this natural process be used against it? If an insecticide were developed that could be dropped into streams, would the larvae feed on the particles the way they naturally do? Would that kill them? If so, thousands of people could be spared from disease.

Then he told them about mosquitoes, which lay eggs in aquatic habitats and whose larvae feed on algae and bacteria. What if you could disrupt their feeding through a better understanding of how the microbial communities interact with early larval development, he asked them. Would that reduce the spread of malaria?

“So what? Who cares?”

Nearly 20 years after he stumbled through a response to that simple challenge, after 20 years of research in aquatic habitats, disease ecology and forensics, Benbow has a list of ready answers: Buruli ulcer. Disease transmission. Scientific inquiry. Crime victims’ loved ones. Students asking big questions.

“A lot of scientists are in it just for the data, they’re not interested in how their data can be useful. Yes, the science is interesting, but once you’ve testified in court, once you’ve visited victims of Buruli ulcer, once you’ve seen how your data can have an impact on people’s lives, that’s what keeps pushing you forward. That’s why it matters.”

Cameron Fullam is assistant director of media relations at UD. He writes stories about science, the arts, education and the University’s Catholic identity.

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Paradise in 8X10

1:46 PM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Seetha Sankaranarayan ’12

More than 100 years ago, on an island far, far away, a bushy-bearded man hauled his big boxy camera up to picturesque hilltops and down to cascading waterfalls, capturing life on glass plate negatives.

The Society of Mary appointed Brother Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen, S.M., to introduce its educational mission to the Hawaiian Islands, according to Kimberley Neuenschwander, assistant archivist for the Marianist Archives. Bellinghausen took over St. Louis College in Honolulu in 1883 and increased the size of the student body tenfold over the next 22 years. It was just one way in which he was prolific.

While in Hawaii, Bellinghausen shot nearly 2,000 photographs, which Father Paul Vieson, S.M., director of the Marianist Archives at UD, describes as “marvelous” and “incredibly clear.”

“They’re very valuable in the sense that they record pictorially all the flora and fauna and a lot of the life in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” Vieson said.

Bellinghausen saw it all through the 8-by-10-inch glass sheets — panoramic views of the Marianist order lined up in heavy black robes outside St. Louis College, stark shots of bunches of ripe fruits, portraits of the Hawaiian monarchy, collages of St. Louis College’s track and field stars, crisp views of Honolulu’s architecture and more.

But in his day, capturing these images was no simple feat.

“It was a big set-up to take the pictures,” said archivist Jennifer Gerth. “The [glass] plates themselves, that was the actual film he put in the camera.”

Today, the Marianist Archives holds approximately 1,250 of Bellinghausen’s plates, boxed and neatly lined up across 23 shelves, secured with neon green bungee cords. Before arriving at UD, this set of plates traveled from Hawaii to Cupertino, Calif., the site of the former Marianist Pacific province’s archives, Vieson said. The provinces were later combined, and their archives consolidated in Dayton. Vieson said other plates remain at the University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Historical Society.

“The people giving them away didn’t know just how valuable they would be,” Vieson said.

Neuenschwander said Bellinghausen’s photographs have been displayed at UD at least twice. Tom Patterson, adjunct visual arts teacher at Stivers School for the Arts in Dayton, scanned the plates several years ago and printed a selection of them for the exhibitions. The scans were also sent to Chaminade University, right next to what is now known as St. Louis School.

“These photos are valuable for us [the Marianists] because they give us pictures of the schools we had,” Vieson said. “They’re also valuable because there are pictures of the brothers and priests who were there — Marianists and other missionary groups as well — which you otherwise might not get. They really are a treasure.”

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Why Begins With W: A Lesson in Murder

12:46 PM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Thomas M. Columbus

Author unknown

Leo Schulte ’78, who may or may not be the author, called our attention to this mystery for young adults, the first of a projected trilogy. The title page claims it is presented by Hamish De’Lamet and Chandral Ramon, who may or may not exist and who claim to live in Lynchburg, which may or may not be in one of several states. And who knows about the anonymous author of the journals those two found? One very real Edgar Award-winning writer describes the book as “Sam Spade (with overtones of Holden Caulfield) … a can’t-put-it-down-once-you’ve-started-novel.”

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Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943

12:39 PM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Thomas M. Columbus

A book by David J. Ulbrich ’93

During World War I, the size of the U.S. Marine Corps reached 75,000. Following the “war to end all wars,” Americans had little interest in preparing for war, let alone victory. By 1936, the size of the Corps had shrunk to barely over 17,000, less than a quarter of its 1918 strength. During Holcomb’s tenure as commandant of the Marine Corps, the service grew 22-fold to 385,000 in 1943. Ulbrich’s book is the first to document the role of Holcomb — a man with vision, managerial ability and the art of persuasion.

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Around Troy Hill, Spring Hill, and Reserve Township

11:45 AM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Thomas M. Columbus

A book by James W. Yanosko ’89 and Edward W. Yanosko

For James Yanosko and his father, Edward, it started simply with some old photographs of their family and its roots generations-deep in the neighborhood lying across the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh’s tourist-filled downtown Strip District. Then they gathered more and more photos from the area until James Yanosko said to himself, “I think I have a book.” So, too, did Arcadia Publishing, publisher of the Images of America series, which celebrates the histories of cities and neighborhoods.

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Dancing in Heaven: A Sister’s Memoir

11:39 AM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Thomas M. Columbus

A book by Christine M. Grote ’79

Grote’s sister Annie never walked or talked. She lived to the age of 51. And she deeply touched those around her. Grote tells the story of  her sister’s death interspersed with the story of her life, her smiles and what she meant to others. Grote is now beginning work on another story — the Depression-era childhood of her father who, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, himself no longer talks. In the words of one reviewer, Grote writes of  “inescapable pain, unpredictable joy.”

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In Trust

8:26 AM  Jun 29th, 2012
by Thomas M. Columbus

Michael Doman this summer is taking his first classes at the University of Dayton School of Law. He might not be there if not for a man dead for more than a third of a century.

“The program in law and technology,” Doman said, “is one of the main reasons I chose to attend UDSL.”

He points to the qualifications of the faculty and to an annual event — The Scholarly Symposia Series: Current Issues in Intellectual Property Law. “The program provides great opportunities to connect with alumni through the intellectual property symposiums. These events are not only great for networking but also provide an opportunity to hear perspectives from attorneys who are currently practicing.”

Jason Williams, who received a UD juris doctorate in 2010 and a master of laws in 2011, saw the same benefits of the symposium as did Doman. “A number of us in the IP track attended the symposia regularly,” he said. “It’s a great networking event. We go to meet attorneys in the area. We got to know them; they got to know us.”

It didn’t hurt that the people they met at the symposia were people they also met when interviewing for summer jobs. And, said Williams, now an associate in the intellectual property department of Dinsmore’s Dayton office, that networking “helped me in landing this job.”

Williams and Doman both see significance in hearing the perspectives of practicing attorneys. The topics are often current and of a kind not found in class. Bringing that perspective back to class, Williams noted, added depth to the classroom experience.

And the symposium’s treatment of current, cutting-edge subjects draws practitioners to campus, noted Kelly Henrici ’94, director of the program in law and technology.

The symposium is able to exist because of a man dead for more than a third of a century. That man, Hubert Estabrook, before he died in 1975, made a decision that continues to affect the profession that he served.

In 1920, Estabrook was one of the founders of the firm Estabrook, Finn & McKee, the predecessor by merger of the Dayton office of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. At his death, he and his wife, Gladys, left their estate to be used to fund legal education in Ohio. The fund distributes its funds to Ohio’s nine law schools and other institutions that advance the study of law in the state.

According to R. Bruce Snyder, current trustee for the trust, the first trustee was John Henry, an adjunct professor at UD. Upon Henry’s death in 1989, Snyder succeeded him.

“From then until now,” Snyder said, “the trust has distributed about $150,000 a year to try to jump-start programs at the nine Ohio law schools, programs that were perhaps risky and might not be tried.”

On campus in May during Alumni Weekend to accept the Honorable Walter H. Rice Honorary Alumni Award, Snyder remarked that the school’s “professors and students have made a career of making me look good as a trustee; we give seed money and often these things fail; at UD, they don’t.”

Snyder indicated that during his trusteeship, donations to the School of Law from the trust and Porter Wright have supported a number of programs at the school besides the program in law and technology. One of those in tune with the University’s mission as a Catholic and Marianist institution is the Symposium on Law, Religion & Ethics.

“Most recently,” Snyder said, “the trust pledged $100,000 to renovate the student lounge [the Jury Box]. The trust’s first grant to the law school was to create a student lounge.”

As Henrici said in speaking of the format of the intellectual property symposium: “We feed the mind, the heart, the soul and the belly.”

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Awe-filled stories

4:02 PM  Jun 27th, 2012
by Michelle Tedford

I’m not a fan of boxing  — watching hits that barely dent muscled flesh threatens to shatter my eye sockets — but I am a fan of the boxer. Michael Gaffney’s story of his year with Muhammad Ali [“Muhammad and Me,” Page 28] intrigued me because of the intimate lens the photographer had into Ali’s life; I also must admit I glow each time a Flyer does something of wonder and worth. But the photographs completely overwhelmed me. In Gaffney’s book, I can see the physical transformation Ali undertook to rid his body of any softness that contributed to his title loss against Leon Spinks. I see calves famous for conveying deft footwork, arms triggered for the assault. Gaffney captured Ali’s mischievous smile, behind which I see cheek muscles that could crush a can.

By those images, I am both awed and envious.

It’s the same feeling I get when I watch the Dayton Contemporary Dance Co., which begins another year as UD’s community artist in residence. That bodies can be so graceful and powerful seems implausible. In the darkened theater, I squeeze my husband’s arm as a man who seems twice my size leaps in interpretation of an ostrich or airman or pusher or preacher, each muscle moving precisely thanks to training and talent.

I do not look like a boxer. I do not move like a dancer. I occasionally run because I know I should (and because my dog is bored). I poke at my soft spots and order the Peanut Buster Parfait. And I love to watch others move.

This summer will be a cornucopia for spectators who believe bodies are finely engineered temples. Among my favorites at the Olympics will be Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. I will refuse to breathe for the five minutes before — and the 9-point-wow seconds during — Bolt’s race to again prove he’s the fastest human alive. I will devour everything from shot put to sailing, and my dog will be bored.

Before Gaffney met Ali — and before Cassius Clay took the name Muhammad — Ali won the light heavyweight boxing gold in Rome in 1960. In 1996, the former boxer, ravaged by Parkinson’s, set the Olympic torch afire in Atlanta. As I watched through my living room TV, I could see that his loss of strength had not diminished his spark. I said I am envious of exhibitions of strength. But I am equally amazed by what that strength — or lack thereof — says about obstacles overcome, goals attained and limitations accepted. The muscles are not the story; the man is.

What I crave more than anything is a good story, to feel close to people tough as nails or mushy as soft-serve. When they are made real — through words, images or interactions — a sliver of that enigma called humanity is revealed. And I am once again awed.

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How to make it up as you go along

2:21 PM  Jun 27th, 2012
by Meredith Hirt '13

If laughter is the best medicine, the members of the University’s improv team On The Fly are the best doctors around. Founded in 2006, this student-run comedy troupe performs improvisational theater based on audience suggestions and sketch comedy written by the cast. As any member will tell you, there’s a lot of truth in comedy. Here are some tips on living life on the lighter side.

1. Stop trying  “Life is improv,” says Paul Azzi ’12. “I have no idea what is going to come. … I just roll with the punches.” Adds Michael Winn ’12, “Wait for something to happen. Just react.”

2. Make music  Even in improv, a little forethought is necessary. “When you rhyme a word you have to think ahead to the next couplet,” Wil Morris ’13 says. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. “Just put a word out there and babble until you rhyme it,” Paul Azzi says.

3. Have back-up  On The Fly is all about team cohesion. Foremost, they like to make one another laugh. And occasionally, they share their comedy with an audience. “We’re people before we’re performers,” Winn says. If someone flops on stage, another member comes to the rescue. “Everyone exerts their own expertise because no one is an expert.”

4. Figure out what you want  “We’re all attention hogs,” Morris says. “We want attention from the audience and we love getting it.”

5. Be yourself  “Everyone thinks I’m a dweeb,” Paul Azzi admits. The team members consider themselves more playful and weird than funny, but Winn says, “The more comfortable you are with yourself, the more free you are.”

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