My first week in grad school was disorienting. It was the first time I had been East of the Denver, an introduction to serious heat and humidity, and I didn't know anyone. With all of this the letter in the department mailbox was welcome. An invitation to have dinner with C.N. Yang - Stony Brook's only Nobel laureate .. and one of the really significant physics Nobels at that. It said 7:00 PM sharp and noted nine others would be attend due to space limitations and asked us not to mention it as the other incoming students would be for dinners later in the semester.
Another student and I had arrived early and rang the doorbell only to find a confused Professor Yang. We had been set up. As we apologized another student arrived. He was probably busy, but he smiled and invited us in. I didn't know what to expect. He was important as the chief liaison for Sino-American physics exchanges. A few years earlier he had been tasked to lead the scientific exchange component of ping-pong diplomacy and now he was establishing a new center for theoretical physics and mathematics. Add to that two graduate students and his own research and you wondered how he found the time for some lowly grad students.
He had a nice laugh and made us all at ease slipping out of the room to order several pizzas and beer. He told us his childhood hero was Ben Franklin and we were to address him as Frank as that's what his friends called him. The night was great. We learned where everyone came from - only four of us were native-born Americans. We learned some Chinese songs and a few of us stumbled through our own regionals pieces (I know you're wondering Jeri -- it was "I Ride and Old Paint"). We talked about simple physics that most of us hadn't thought about - like how does a train stay on the tracks. And I learned East Coast pizza was much better than anything I had in the West.
It was after ten when it was time to leave and he drove a few of us who didn't have cars back to the dorms. We were asked to return the next week. He sent a note around to all of the students telling them they would all be invited during the semester. My little group went back a few more times and some of us had become friends.
The department was young. He was setting the tone by example and had turned what was to have been a nasty prank into something that touched all of us. He also showed us he was curious about nearly everything. I had seen this in a few others, but he was so delightfully open.
Some years later, when I was working at Bell Labs, a major earthquake struck an area of China where a visiting scholar my wife and I had become close with lived. That evening Frank called us up to let us know he didn't know what had happened to Ge, but he knew we were close and would let us know as soon as he heard news. A few days later the phone rang with happy news.
With all of the xenophobia and nastiness these days it is good to remember there are a lot of good people from everywhere.