Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dr. Lawrence Lewis – 1973

Lawrence Lewis
Dr. David Hall, the fifth President of UVI in fifty years is endeavouring to take the institution from good to great. My opinion is that he should go from great to greater – at least in the area of instruction. I know this about UVI - when I graduated with a BA in Biology and went to graduate school at Cornell University I found no gap between the quality of instruction offered at Cornell and the one I received at UVI. There were people who made this possible.

The year was 1969. Fall semester 1969, and UVI was CVI. I was a freshman, and for someone who never dreamed of going to University until the reality of CVI presented itself – it was a big step – a life changing step for me. My declared major was Biology.

I came to CVI from the BVI where I was a Biology teacher. But I never knew Biology until I met Dr. William MacLean III and Dr. Robert Pavlis. Dr. MacLean was still in his twenties, a recent Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, a palaeontologist who kept snakes as pets, and “cocky”. The general biology text was huge and the daily reading assignments were voluminous. The weekly four-point quizzes accounted for 50% of the grade. Fail them and you failed the course. MacLean showed no mercy. The answers had to be concisely precise. By the third week of the semester, most of us wished he were dead. But his insistence on high standards resulted in the eventual graduation of a group of people who learned that a good grade was a thing of pride and the result of hard work.

Dr. MacLean loved CVI/UVI and worked for its growth and development. Today, the Marine Science Center is named in his honor. It was MacLean who introduced the use of the “PC” to students as a tool for solving theoretical and practical problems. So attractive was the tool that Charles Rawlings, a business major, probably spent more time in the Biology lab than he spent in his department!

Dr. Robert Pavlis was truly a genius. He also came to CVI in 1969. Within the first year, his impact was so profound that Neville Paul and Egbert Hood, chemistry majors, were singing his praises to me so when I took Organic Chemistry with him in 1971, my expectations were high. Dr. Pavlis was the type of person who made us all feel comfortable in his presence. He had that ability to explain things in scientific jargon, getting the listener to understand the dynamic – even if one did not profoundly understand the intricacies of the reaction of which he was speaking. Dr. Pavlis was a chemistry professor who enjoyed the Virgin Islands – its waters (under waters) and its terrain. He taught many of us to SCUBA, to sail, to operate a motor boat. His home was a place where we could go to laugh, chat and learn. He was a mentor to so many of us – and we did not have to be science majors to “hang out with Pavlis.”

At CVI graduation in 1973
It was felt that the administrators did not like him because he was not elitist enough. But we thanked God for him – our big brother. Pavlis was a professor – par excellence. He gave Organic Chemistry exams with no time limit. His objectives – if the answer was not spontaneous, you had enough time to deduce it by using first principles. His teaching was vivid. Truly ambidextrous, he enabled us to understand the existence of L & S isomers of organic substances when subjected to polarized light by constructing an organic molecule with both of his hands moving simultaneously in opposite directions. It was not unusual to see him perched on the teacher’s desk, his two legs drawn under his butt and smiling happily as he brought us the lesson. Truly, I never understood biology until I took biochemistry with Pavlis! He socialized well and went with us one year to enjoy the Christmas festivities – just like one of the boys – in St. Kitts. The memories are warm and vivid.

So, whenever I am asked what made CVI exciting and challenging even before I think of Deans Watlington and Tuitt, I think of Dr. MacLean and Dr. Pavlis. Dr. McLean has passed on. Somewhere in the midwest, Dr. Pavlis is smiling.

Dr. Lawrence Lewis served as Commissioner of Agriculture in the U. S. Virgin Islands after working extensively in Africa. He is currently a teacher at the Central High School in St. Croix.

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