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Climbing the Logarithmic Ladder

Climbing the Logarithmic Ladder



By Duane Ellifritt


Dr. John Lombardi, ex-president of the University of Florida and my former boss, is a man I always admired. He was skillful in his interactions with politicians, alumni, faculty and students, was very approachable, could always be seen at most Gator athletic events, played in the alumni band at Homecoming and drove an old red pick-up truck. He could expound extemporaneously on a variety of subjects and was always enthusiastic and entertaining. In short, he was ideally suited to be a university president. By the way, his father was also a university president.


General Norman Schwartzkopf has led troops in combat in Vietnam and the Gulf War and is recognized by all as a great military leader. My university granted him an honorary doctorate a few years ago. Oh, incidentally, his father was also a general.


Ken Griffey, Jr. and Barry Bonds are two of the greatest players in baseball today. Their fathers—well, I guess by now you are beginning to grasp the point of this essay.


Success does not necessarily demand that one have a famous father in the same field, but it doesn’t hurt. Just ask George W. Nor does having a successful parent guarantee a child’s success, but one’s chances improve immeasurably when there are positive role models, an atmosphere of success in the home, an expectation of greatness, application of the right proportions of pressure and encouragement, good schools and good guidance in those schools. Kids who grow up with these kinds of examples and expectations with parents who are educated, experienced and “know the ropes’’ may not find it so difficult to become a university president or a four-star general.


The measure of a person’s success—in ways that society generally measures success—usually means getting to the top in your profession or trade. It is my belief that the proper measure of success is not the height to which you have risen, but how far you had to come to get there. My thesis is simple: it is much easier to reach the top rung of the ladder when you start halfway up!


If one looks for metaphors for success, the ladder comes immediately to mind. It is a device for vertical movement and one must always begin by stepping off the ground onto the first rung. Ever since Jacob of the Old Testament had a vision of a ladder extending into heaven with “angels of God ascending and descending,” the ladder has been used a symbol for upward mobility and eventual success, as well as many other human experiences, including death. Literature is full of such examples.


I can buy into this symbolism if allowed to make a major adjustment to the ladder. Engineers, mathematicians and statisticians are accustomed to plotting data on paper that is laid out on a logarithmic grid, called log paper. Somehow the plots always look more reliable that way. Data with much scatter always smooth out when plotted to logarithmic scales. Suppose the rungs on a ladder were laid out according to a log scale. The result would look like the sketch below where a logarithmic ladder is on the left and a conventional ladder is on the right.


In climbing this ladder, the first steps are the most difficult. The higher one goes, the easier the next step becomes. The next step is never as big a hurdle as the last one was. The key variable is where you begin. Those who enter the ladder at its mid-point usually find it easier to get to the top.


It is a bit risky taking the position I do here because it is bound to be interpreted as self-serving or merely a thin justification of my own failures—maybe a little of both—but I am willing to take that risk.


Let me tell you my story. I was nurtured by a community where no one had a college degree, few older folks had attended high school, many of the kids my age dropped out of school at the eligible age of 16, and many of the girls got married at 15 so they could legally drop out sooner. Neither of my parents went beyond the eighth grade in school.


The men in town worked for the faceless oil and gas companies from out of state as pumpers, drillers and pipe line walkers. Most would have a small subsistence farm, too, where they kept a milk cow, chickens and fattened a couple of hogs to be butchered in late fall. Many also owned a team of draft horses to pull the plow, harrow and mowing machine. Those who didn’t depended on the kindness of their neighbors to plow their fields and plant their corn. Whenever one farmer had hay down, several others would help him get it in the barn or on the stack before the rain ruined it.


While my father did not farm—he bought a general store and barber shop and took only an acre of the Ellifritt land to build a house on—we did raise a large garden every summer and kept about a dozen chickens for the eggs and an occasional Sunday dinner. His brothers split up the family farm, so when I got big enough, I spent a lot of time in the summers helping them and other neighbors putting up hay, hoeing corn, building fences and cutting “filth” with a scythe.


Harry Golden, once editor of the Carolina Israelite, remarked that if you survived a fall from the second story of a building, it was a great temptation, in relating the story later, to tell people you fell from the fifth floor! Likewise, the more successful a person becomes, apparently the more miserable his childhood. We all like to think, I suppose, that we have succeeded despite great hardships in our youth. I am not trying to convince you that I grew up poor. I never went to bed hungry. With a garden and chickens and milk straight from the cow and hogs to slaughter in November, there was always enough to eat. We had a comfortable home, with indoor plumbing and electricity, even though we had no car or telephone. We considered ourselves rather well off, in fact. There were many in this small hill community in West Virginia that had no running water in the house, no electricity, and burned coal in the fireplace for warmth in the winter.


We had an elementary school in our village, although no one called it that then. It was referred to as the “grade school,” a four-room, two-story wooden fire trap that handled grades one through eight, two to a room. There was no pre-school, kindergarten, middle school or junior high; you went eight years to grade school, then rode the school bus to the County high school for four years. There was also no such thing as Special Education and, since all children under the age of 16 were required to attend school, every class had two or three kids who came from an inbred clan up some hollow and were clearly retarded, although we didn’t know that word then. They usually sat in the back of the room, looking vacant and absorbing very little, I suppose. There were only four teachers in grade school, one for each two grades, and the teacher of the seventh and eighth grades also acted as principal. He was the one who meted out the punishment with a long hickory board with holes bored in it so there would be no air cushion to soften the blow when it came down on your backside.


Many kids repeated grades and the eighth grade was full of repeaters, great big hulks who could barely write their names and who beat up on the smaller kids. And the boys were almost as bad!


The ride to the County High School was nine tortuous miles over the hills to the County Seat, population around 1500. There were around 400 students in the school, many of whom lived so far back up hollows on dirt roads that they had to catch the school bus at 5:00 a.m. There was no guidance counselor in the high school; with so few graduates going on to college, what was the point? There was no foreign language taught; who needs that to go to work in the local hardware store? Technical courses like wood shop and drafting were popular as were clubs like the Future Farmers of America and 4-H. In grade school I took 4-H for four years and took the potatoes I raised to exhibit at the County Fair. I also took three years of something called “rural electrification,” making extension cords and lamps.


The County Extension Agent, Mr. Edeburn, used to come to our school periodically to advise us on rural matters. I can still remember him talking to us about the proper care of milk cows and their udders. “I know you boys call ‘em tits,” he said, “but the proper name is teats.” I had never heard anyone say teats.


I was well along in my senior year in high school before I ever entertained the notion of going to college. My brother, a year older, decided he wanted to go and an affluent uncle offered to loan him the money, to be paid back interest-free after graduation. So he was a freshman at Marshall College when I was a senior in high school. On one of his trips home, he brought a catalog of courses and I sat out on the sidewalk under the big maple tree and flipped through it. My father had told me that civil engineers make good money (he was wrong about that!). He knew the County Surveyor, who called himself a civil engineer, although I doubt that he had any formal education. That was the extent of the guidance I received from anyone, and since I had taken four years of math in high school, (at the same time avoiding both chemistry and physics) I decided that civil engineering was for me!


I didn’t know any engineers; I didn’t even know any college graduates, except for my high school teachers, most of whom went to a Seventh Day Baptist college nearby. I did not know a good engineering school from a bad one, didn’t see much difference between MIT and Salem College. They were both colleges, weren’t they? Such was the extent of my preparation for higher learning. I enrolled in the fall of 1953 at Marshall College, with the blessing of the same benevolent uncle, for no better reason than that my brother was there.


One of the first things I learned in college was that there were an awful lot of forms to be filled out requiring a home address, which included a line just below your name called “Street.” Street? Our village of 366 did not have streets, or house numbers, just the highway, U.S. 50, the B&O railroad, and a lot of dirt roads with names like Gum Run, Sugar Run, Yeager Run and Long Run. Neither were there any house numbers. I was mildly embarassed by this requirement that emphasized to me what a small town I was from and so started making up fictitious street names, knowing that the mail would still get to my home and maybe the postmistress would find some humor in it. I sometimes copied street names I had read in books or newspapers or had seen in movies. The more ritzy they sounded, the better I liked them. It was fun to see how many of these would actually arrive on a letter to my home in Greenwood. I remember filling out a form one time and writing in under “street,” “4795 Westphalia Boulevard.” I don’t know where that came from, but it sounded pretty hi-falutin’ to me. Eventually Mother chastised me for using these phony addresses, but I continued to do it for the next four years. I guess she thought I was “puttin’ on airs.” One of my college chums, determined to show me what a hick town I came from, once sent me a letter with only two words on the envelope, “Duane, Greenwood.” This was before the days of Zip Codes and the state was not even written on the envelope. Of course I got it.


The summer before I started to college, I worked in the hay harvests for the local farmers for $3 a day and dinner, mowed around seven yards a week, and also worked for a few weeks taking up old two-inch pipe line that had been on the ground for 40 years or so. That paid according to how much you could take out and we averaged about $8 a day. So I opened an account at the First National Bank of West Union and started saving my money for college. I had put away about $200 by September and the beginning of school.


Tuition at Marshall in 1953 was $25 per semester, with another $17.50 for something called an “activity fee,” which covered all sporting events and stage performances. When I went to pay my fees at the registrar’s office, I found that I did not know how to write a check! I had never had need to write one and no one had thought to show me how. The lady at the window was very understanding—she must have encountered this situation often—and very patiently showed me how to fill out my check. After that first semester, I applied for and was awarded a scholarship from the Eunice B. Fleischman endowment fund that lasted through all the remaining semesters. As I recall, it paid $350 per term.


The farther one goes up the logarithmic ladder, the easier the steps become. I sometimes step back and look at my life at age 75 and marvel at how I could have arrived at the position of Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering at one of the country’s finest engineering schools, given the background I started from. That first rung—so far above the ground that you couldn’t even leap and catch hold of it—was made possible by the Orders Foundation of Greenville, South Carolina, who loaned me the money for college, interest free. All subsequent steps were made easier because of that first one.


Even though I have not achieved the success that some of my colleagues have, and I sometimes am envious of them, I console myself by this image of the logarithmic ladder. It’s a lot easier to get to the top when you start halfway up! Just ask Michael Douglas, Dale Earnhart, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Liza Minelli, John McCain , or Bill Gates. The list goes on and on.


I saw a similar metaphor in the news recently. George W. Bush, it said, didn’t hit a triple—he was born on third base! Maybe I never made it to third base, but I started outside the stadium, without a ticket. Making it to first base under those circumstances seems pretty OK to me.


If a man aspires to the highest place, it is no dishonor to him to halt at the second, or even at the third.” Cicero 


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