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Video: Doc Edgerton’s Personal Take on Gratitude

  • Katherine J. Igoe
  • 5

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Doc Edgerton is known to MIT as a professor of electrical engineering, a leading expert in the development of photography and photographic equipment, and a contributor to sonar and deep-sea photography. But he is also known for his compassion and humility and for regularly opening his home to his students and coworkers. During this time of gratitude, Slice celebrates this man whose presence enhanced camaraderie and collaboration at MIT.

“Doc is one of my heroes,” says Martin Klein ’62, one of Doc’s students and a coworker at the Strobe Lab and EG&G. “With Doc, there was no pretense. He always had time, and he always listened to you.” Doc invited Klein over regularly for dinner, including Thanksgiving. Klein says, “He made you feel at home. He would get out the guitar and sing songs, he would tell jokes, he would take us on the roof to look at the construction. You saw human things—like the notes he and his wife wrote each other on the bathroom mirror.”

Charles Mazel SM ’76 was astounded by Doc’s affability and openness. “He had a basic decency,” he says. When Mazel was looking for work after graduation, Doc contacted him about a professional opportunity. “Somebody had contacted him about doing a sonar survey and he couldn’t go, and he said, ‘Why don’t you take the gear and go?’ I wasn’t an employee, but I knew him well enough, and the next thing you know, I’m the stand-in for Doc. That means something, that someone gives you that opportunity.”

Even after he retired in the 1960s, Doc continued to frequent campus and connect with students. As detailed in a Tech article, Yu Hasegawa-Johnson ’91 recounts that Doc invited her to dinner when he found her walking around campus crying. After that, he continued to support her while she was at MIT. “He told me he was my American grandfather, and [his wife Esther] was my American grandmother,” she said. “He would often ask me, ‘Are you making friends?’ and ask about Japan to make sure I was not lonely.”

Hasegawa-Johnson says she still thinks about Doc all the time. “It’s so comforting, to know that you could be someone so great and still be so warm-hearted, giving, supportive, and loving.” She says his passion for his life and work was contagious. “That’s an ideal kind of life—to love what you do, and, even after retiring, to still be a part of what you love. His love of students and people, and his wonderful wife and children, was an ideal world. It made me think that I could, perhaps, do that too.”

She was in Japan when he passed away, but when she returned to campus, she found a voicemail that Grandpa Edgerton had left before he died, inviting her to dinner. She still has it to this day.

Interested in learning more? Click on Doc's bio page at the Edgerton Center.

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Karl Frederick

Mon, 12/07/2015 11:48pm

Doc was inspiring! Isn't that Jean Mooney, Doc's secretary (during the 1960's), seated at the table at the right side of the frame in the video cover shot of Doc playing the guitar with dinner guests?

Jake Krakauer

Wed, 12/30/2015 2:16pm

One year as the holidays approached I thought it would be cool to add twinkling lights to a Green building Christmas tree. I went to see Doc to ask about some strobe loaners - he gave me a few along with a cart; I placed them strategically in a few windows. You could see them from the Boston side. Not long afterwards I was having lunch with my visiting parents at the old Lobdell dining hall; Doc came by with his tray, saw me and asked if he could join us. We had a nice conversation - my folks were blown away.

Eric Schonblom

Sat, 12/19/2015 2:09pm

I wasn't one of Doc's students, but a friend of mine was. He and I had arranged for a double-date with two Wellesley girls, so instead of bringing a girl to one of Doc's dinners, he brought me en route to Wellesley. We had a nice meal and saw some recent strobe pictures (exciting in 1955!), but we were also "allowed" to wash the dishes!

Katherine Igoe

Tue, 12/08/2015 2:27pm

Hi Karl!

According to the caption of the photo on Edgerton Digital Collections, it’s Carol Rines:

Jean Mooney is in the photo at 2:07. Second one seated from the right side.

In reply to by Karl Frederick

Robert L. Baber

Sat, 12/19/2015 7:42am

I remember Doc mainly from talks he gave at dinner meetings of several student organizations of which I was a member. He always demonstrated droplets sometimes going up, sometimes going down, sometimes standing still in the air, etc. Although we understood immediately what was going on and how the illusions were generated, those demonstrations were very impressive. And we engineering students were able to explain them to our non-engineering dates, apparently -- and hopefully -- impressing them. Doc won, and we students won, too.

I learned later that Doc was the doctoral thesis adviser of my thesis adviser. So Doc was my thesis grandfather.

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