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Good Stories

EVERY SO OFTEN a reader will ask me where we get the stories we run in the Gazette: How do we choose what subjects to cover; learn about the faculty members, alumni, and students we profile; or get our hands on the writing by alumni about their experiences that we publish? The answer varies for practically every article, as illustrated by this month's features.
   In the case of our cover story, about Penn mathematics professor Herb Wilf and his role in a major breakthrough in an area of the field called combinatorial identities, I'll admit it was the Roman Catholic nun that first piqued my interest. Work done by Sister Mary Celine Fasenmyer -- in her Ph.D. thesis during World War II! -- provided the key to Wilf and Dr. Doran Zeilberger of Temple University for their discovery, which makes it possible for computers to simplify highly complex equations.
   Fortunately, as it turned out, Sister Celine did not have to carry the story alone. As portrayed in Mark Bernstein's article, Wilf has a wonderful, dry sense of humor; a powerful sense of the aesthetic as well as the practical value of his work; a colorful personal background (he's an amateur pilot, for example, and his father was connected with the Irgun in Palestine); and some striking opinions about how mathematics is taught in this country and others.
   Our article on Randall Lane, C'90, founder and editor of P.O.V., a magazine targeted to young men that was named start-up of the year by AdWeek, began life as a short item for our "Alumni Profiles" section. But as assistant editor Susan Lonkevich researched the story, learning about the involvement of several other Penn writers in the early days of the "guy's survival guide" (and about how the magazine's office was equipped with a working bar and a pool table), she decided she needed to go to New York and pursue the story in greater detail.
   If I can only with the greatest difficulty get my mind around the significance of what Herb Wilf and his colleagues have accomplished, I know all too well what Lane had to overcome to make P.O.V. a success. Most everyone in publishing has thought about starting a magazine, but -- aside from the fact that good ideas seem obvious only in hindsight -- the rest of us are stopped at the dreaming stage by the sad fact that the great majority of magazine start-ups eventually fail. P.O.V. appears to be the exception, thanks to Lane's tenacity ... and his ability to get his old classmates to work for IOUs.
   My first contact with Dr. Rita Mariotti, CW'52, came when she submitted a travel piece about a trip she'd taken to Southern Africa. In her cover letter, she wrote that she had recently retired from the practice of medicine and had embarked on a new career as a freelance writer. We couldn't use the travel piece, but her note also mentioned she was working on a book about her early experiences as a young doctor in the coal mining country of eastern Kentucky. I asked her to send a sample along.
   Soon after, the mail brought the first three chapters, from which our article is drawn. Fresh from her internship, Dr. Mariotti accepted a position with a hospital owned by the United Mine Workers Union that provided free medical care to miners and their families. Though the time was the late-1950s, the harsh living conditions she describes hadn't changed much from such Depression-era visions as James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Yet the piece is also a vivid portrait of an individualistic young woman, raised in a close-knit family in Philadelphia, tasting the joy of living on her own for the first time. (A note to readers with sensitive stomachs: Whether her subject is dinner or the medical symptoms of her patients, Dr. Mariotti's descriptions can be painfully graphic.)
   However we may find them, we're always looking for more good stories. Let us know when you think you have one.
    -- John Prendergast, C'80

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