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Sumer and Smoke

I got many wonderful things out of my four years as a student at Penn, but one major bad thing was a serious cigarette habit. I started as a freshman, but the addiction really took off in my junior year when, living with fellow smokers, I got up to one to two packs a day. We lived in a (mostly) tobacco haze.

A few years after graduation, I started to think I really should quit, or at least cut down, but was never able to do either for more than a few weeks at a time. It wasn’t until I’d been smoking for about 10 years—on June 1, 1987, to be exact—that I managed to give up cigarettes (so far, anyway).

My willpower was fortified by the fact that, after living in different cities for a few years, my then-ex-girlfriend and future wife Carole Bernstein C’81 and I had enrolled in the same graduate school. She had gone from grudging acceptance of my habit when we were undergraduates to being a pretty virulent anti-smoker. We’d been apart, and were not-quite-back-together, and I didn’t need one more factor weighing against me.

That specific method—fear of rejection—is not among those being investigated by Dr. Caryn Lerman and her team at Penn’s new Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center. (At least, I don’t think so.) The center is, however, engaged in a slew of other innovative studies designed to tease out and counteract the mechanisms of tobacco addiction as it affects different individuals chemically, psychologically, and socially, which are described in our cover story, “Cutting Through the Smoke,” by senior editor Samuel Hughes.

We learn about interesting Penn faculty and alumni in all sorts of ways. In the interest of full disclosure, in this case Sam first encountered Dr. Lerman—then relocating from Georgetown University to the Philadelphia area—when he sold her his mother’s former house.

For as long as there’s been a Gazette, we’ve been writing about Nippur and the discovery there, in what is now Iraq, of thousands of cuneiform tablets bearing the Sumerian language, the world’s oldest known form of writing. But while the story told by associate editor Susan Frith in “Spreading the Words” includes plenty of history, the main focus—the creation of an online Sumerian dictionary—is decidedly contemporary. Rather than take another 30-40 years to complete a print dictionary (on which work has been going on for 25 years already), the new approach will have a beta version available to scholars—and anyone else with an interest—within two years, according to Steve Tinney, project director and associate curator of the University Museum’s Babylonian section.

Also in this issue: “Second Time Around,” which tells about a program for retired professionals (alumni and non-) that lets them join current undergraduates in the classroom—for a lot less than the current tuition—and our coverage of this year’s 50th anniversary of Homecoming and the 2002 Alumni Awards of Merit winners. (For more on the festivities, including streaming video from the Award of Merit Gala, visit the alumni Web site at www.alumni.upenn.edu).

In November, we learned of the death of a longtime friend of the magazine, Ruth Branning Molloy Ed’30, whose obituary appears on page 85. Shortly after the publication of our November/December issue, which included a reminiscence of her first days at Penn for our “Alumni Memories” feature, I received a note from Ruth’s daughter saying that she was in the hospital, and, a few days after that, another telling me that she had passed away there.

I only met Ruth Malloy once—at our Centennial party last February—but we corresponded occasionally, and I felt like I got to know her a bit going through the old copies of the Gazette and finding the columns and articles she published here over the years. Those pieces, like her last one for the magazine, were both sharp-eyed and sweet. I’m sorry we won’t have more.

—John Prendergast C’80

 

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