FRANK PERCIVAL: A TRIBUTE, cont.

Percival

Colleagues and students alike commend Frank's unflagging commitment to teaching and exploration. Even after four decades in the classroom, he can still be found at his desk during lunch, refining lectures, and thinking through new strategies. "Frank is a master teacher," Jeff states. "Over the years I have watched him refine and rebuild courses from the ground up, trying a range of teaching methodologies and topic foci—not because what he used didn’t work, but because he was committed to leaving no stone unturned in engaging students and in equipping them to engage biology." Generations of biology students have gained a deeper understanding of protein folding and adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight response from Frank's pantomime demonstrations, and will happily oblige anyone with an imitation.

"I find myself sharing Frank's wisdom with many of my own students," Eileen claims. "In fact, there are several Frank adages that I will use regularly and that I will probably use for the rest of my career (e.g. "There is one class that you take that will never appear on your transcript . . . It's called 'Life'). Another 'Percival phrase' that I have adopted to describe the whirlwind of activity and questions in a lab during student independent projects is 'happy chaos.' While it is at times exhausting, Frank loves that 'happy chaos' and I have learned to love it too because it means that students are doing exactly what we want them to do: being scientists and not students."

A large part of the reason Frank prompted students to become scientists was that he was eager to do science himself. "When Frank came to Westmont," according to Jeff, "he purposed—with joy in the discipline and not presumption or arrogance—to cultivate a culture in which science was not just transmitted but actually done. He likes to say 'science is a liberal art—it’s a performance discipline.' He was the first person in any of the lab sciences who developed a research program that resulted in grant-funding and peer-reviewed publication. Frank did biology, and was the beginning of the teacher-researcher and of faculty-student collaboration at Westmont."

A career of 41 years at one institution no doubt brings a faculty member through the ups and downs of the college's history, and Frank has certainly lived through some challenging times. But his colleagues remember his grace and good will in the midst of it all. They remember his pleas for civility during seasons of virulent conflict. They cite his willingness to take the office without the window in the new building—or to take the office in the modular next to the mice when the department outgrew its space. He sat faithfully with a colleague who had Parkinson's in order to keep him company—and appealed against excluding staff from a faculty lunch room. "Frank is one of the wisest persons I have ever known," Steve observes. "I've thought about this quite a bit over the years, actually. I've known lots of wise people, so why does Frank come to the fore of my mind when I think about such persons? I think I might know—it's because his wisdom is, without fail, offered as a means to empower and encourage, and never to draw attention to himself."

Retirement may be edging closer for Frank, but you wouldn't know it. According to Amanda Sparkman, who works next door to Frank, "students are still pouring into his office to receive extraordinarily gentle and incisive mentoring." He continues to supervise student research, immersed, as Amanda notes, "in an exciting new microbial ecology research project that could conceivably keep him busy for years to come."

"Frank simply and unarguably is irreplaceable," Jeff comments, "by temperament, training, gifting, convictions, and academic cohort or professional vintage. We won’t find someone to fill Frank’s shoes. Though he may have taken our program to a place where different shoes will work, all of us have commented on the professional and personal gap we anticipate living with. Not unlike Bonhoeffer’s reflection on gaps: 'nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute . . . That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive the memory of our communion with each other . . . '"