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Students pay tribute to a great mentor

Raymond Alf in his cot during a peccary trip while student Dick Lynas lights his cigarette PHOTO COURTESY OF RAYMOND ALF MUSEUM

Alexander the Great had Aristotle, Quincy Jones had Ray Charles, Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi—the mentor-mentee relationship is something that runs deep in human culture. What would someone be without a mentor to shape their growth and development, and guide them down a path to fulfill their unique potential?

Raymond Alf, a teacher at The Webb Schools in Claremont, California from 1929 to 1974, was that mentor to many.

As a teacher at this private coeducational preparatory boarding school and the namesake of the only accredited paleontology museum in an American high school, Raymond Alf was instrumental in getting many students engaged in science. In his youth, Raymond was an athlete—a sprinter in both high school and college as well as a football player at his alma mater, Doane College in Nebraska. He made a shift toward academics later in life.

Among those he influenced were Leroy “Patrick” Muffler, Ph.D. (1954 STS), scientist emeritus at the United States Geological Survey, and David Fleishhacker (1955 STS), a retired philanthropist and educator, two individuals whose lives and careers would have had vastly different trajectories if not for Raymond.

Leroy “Patrick” Muffler and David Fleishhacker today PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK MUFFLER AND SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN

Raymond was well-known for what were called his “peccary trips”—trips where he would take his students to locations such as Barstow, Calif. and the Grand Canyon, to hunt for dinosaur fossils and tracks. It was this melding of lectures and hands-on paleontology experience which inspired Patrick to choose his future career as a geologist. These adventurous excursions are also memories that David cherishes to this day.

For some lucky individuals like Patrick and David, a mentor can go above and beyond. They make every lecture a performance. They make every field trip engaging. Raymond made science accessible and shaped his students’ future careers so much so that his students are still sharing his legacy 70 years after graduating from high school.

David also attended The Webb Schools where Raymond was his teacher. He continued his studies in paleontology at Princeton University, but then developed a passion for studying English and the humanities. Although David did not follow in his mentor’s STEM footsteps, Raymond taught David critical life values such as perseverance and teaching with passion and by example. David eventually accepted the job of Headmaster at the private Katherine Delmar Burke School in San Francisco, a position he held for 25 years. During his time at the school he helped break down systemic barriers and diversified the demographics of those who attended the institution.

The Webb School’s finalists in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search of America (left to right): Leroy “Patrick” Muffler (class of 1954); David Fleishhacker (class of 1955); Dwight W. Taylor (class of 1949) PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICK MUFFLER

From their first meeting with Raymond Alf, both Patrick and David knew he was someone special. He instilled a confidence and motivation in his students. One memorable story Patrick recounts was during a lesson about opposable thumbs. Raymond jumped onto a pipe above him, grabbing it with one hand while beating his chest with the other, mimicking a great ape. This was his way of demonstrating how opposable thumbs had evolved to give humans, more than any other primate, the ability to grasp objects easily. Raymond was a teacher who held a mirror to his students, reflecting their dreams and aptitude, excavating the potential and talent they didn’t even know they possessed within themselves. Through his quirky teaching practices, Raymond instilled a love of science in his students.

“He gave me a couple of college textbooks to read while a sophomore in high school,” says Patrick, “and I’ve been a geologist ever since. He was absolutely instrumental to my career, truly an inspiring person.”

“Ray was just this side of crazy,” said David. “It would be impossible to recreate him, which is why no one could be a great teacher by trying to be exactly like Ray; each person has to find his own way to do the best he can.”

Raymond Alf lived at the Webb School for 70 years of his life—having had a house built on campus—touching countless individuals along the way. He passed away in 1993, but his legacy lives on in his work and in his students.