Mel Levine remembers growing up in a small, rural South Carolina town.
"Remarkably, I think I got an excellent elementary and high school education in the little town I grew up in," he said. "We had very fine schools. They were very strict about what we had to learn. There was no frivolity. We had to learn, recite, explain and write papers to show our understanding of the subject.
"I learned enough French that I can still carry on a rudimentary conversation in that language. Later, my wife taught me a fair amount of German. I hoped to learn Spanish from a Peruvian college roommate - but all he wanted to teach me were some swear words. When I complained, he said, "That's OK; with what you know you can go anywhere." I still remember those words but have no occasion to use them."
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
Mel liked school.
"I did my undergraduate studies at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts," he said. "It was during World War II. I had to go into the service, but the Navy kept me at MIT because they needed people who were trained in highly technical subjects. I did not like the big city. The weather was cold. The people seemed cold. But I think I got a good education there."
Mel first came to Saranac Lake in 1948 as a tuberculosis patient.
"My doctors explained that I must have contracted the TB some time during the years I was in the Navy," he said. "It was scary. I was not a good patient. I was afraid I was going to die, and I didn't want to die."
He spent three years curing and met his wife, Lilo, during that time.
"I was much happier after that," he said.
They were married on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 1950.
They liked Saranac Lake but moved to Mel's birthplace of Richmond, Va., where Mel studied physics at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville's graduate program.
"We moved to Virginia to please my parents," he said. "Also, we needed to rest each afternoon in order to prevent a relapse of TB, and the schedule in Virginia was better adapted to that lifestyle."
After receiving his Ph.D., Mel worked for Babcock and Wilcox in Virginia. The company built nuclear power plants, and Mel's job was investigating safety issues. After a couple of years there, Mel and Lilo moved to Long Island, where Mel worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
"I continued to work in nuclear physics, studying what might go wrong in nuclear plants," he said. "The work we did had to do with simulating accidents. To see what forces are involved in an operating reactor, we would create mathematical equations. These were put on a computer which created simulations."
Mel speaks with pride about his work: "I also taught physics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York and at Columbia University. I retired as a senior scientist from the Brookhaven National Laboratory. I miss the people in scientific fields and the intellectual stimulation. In retirement, I read, listen to music, play on my computer - but it's not the same,."
While employed at Brookhaven, Mel and Lilo spent a year living in England. He recalls that time fondly.
"I was sent there to see what the British were doing about their nuclear plants," he said. "People were very warm and took us in. That wasn't what we expected, you hear about the cold, unemotional stereotype. We got involved in the community. While there, I was Father Christmas at the elementary school and Father Neptune (sea god) at the ceremony opening the school's swimming pool. For that one, I had to get my own seaweed to drape myself with. I padded out my Christmas costume to make myself look fat and jolly. I didn't know that in England, Father Christmas is skinny - not the fat, round character depicted in the USA."
When Mel retired, he and Lilo returned to Saranac Lake.
"Lilo is a romantic soul and wanted to come back and retire in the place where we met," he explains. "Saranac Lake is a small town and a great place to retire. I grew up in a tiny Southern town, so it is the sort of place I appreciate. I don't like large cities. I'm not gregarious, but it's easy to meet people here, and I like the people I've met."
In retirement, Mel volunteered teaching math to inmates at both the state and federal correctional facilities. He and Lilo have two daughters, one son and four grandchildren, though none live in our area.
This article is based on an interview with Melvin Levine. Yvona Fast can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.