The Nobel Conference: A 50-Year Tradition for Two Friends

Posted on September 19th, 2014 by

Bill Harvey, Sue Gray , and Bruce Gray '61 at the 49th Nobel Conference in 2013.

Bill Harvey, Sue Gray, and Bruce Gray ’61 at the 49th Nobel Conference in 2013.

Story by Amanda Dyslin, Special to Gustavus

Year after year friends Bruce Gray and Bill Harvey have sat side by side as preeminent scholars and researchers have taken them from the tiniest corners of the Earth to the farthest reaches of the universe.

Thanks to the renowned Nobel Conference, held every October at Gustavus, the two friends have been to the bottom of the ocean and inside the human brain. They’ve mapped the path of a virus and learned about the legacy of Albert Einstein.

Gray and Harvey are just two of thousands who attend the annual conference, including Gray’s wife of 58 years, Sue. But what makes the two men unique is that they have been in the audience every single year. Beginning with “Genetics and the Future of Man” in 1965—when various scholars and Nobel laureates such as Polykarp Kusch, William Shockley, and Edward Tatum discussed genetic manipulation and biological engineering—Gray and Harvey have attended all 49 Nobel conferences. And they will be taking their usual place together for the 50th conference Oct. 7-8, titled “Where Does Science Go from Here?”

The event will certainly be a meaningful milestone for Gray, who worked for 44 years at Gustavus and watched the conference grow over time.

“As you get older, you have fond memories of things you’ve done earlier in your life, and this one has continued,” said Gray ’61, who retired from Gustavus eight years ago after holding various positions since 1963, including Dean of Students and associate in the advancement office.

Gray remembers the first year of the conference, when it was held in Alumni Hall and was fairly low-key, especially compared to what the event has become. Still, records show that more than 1,000 people attended, and Gray knew the college had started something special.

He remembers thinking how wise it was of then Gustavus President Edgar Carlson and others to ask the Nobel Foundation Board to endorse the series and allow the Nobel name to be used in order to establish its credibility. As a result, the conference is the first formal lecture program outside of Sweden and Norway to be granted that authorization.

“We were very lucky, and we had a very smart president,” Gray said.

Harvey, 90 years old, also remembers that first conference, down to the last detail. He remembers the direction the gallery and hosts were facing. He remembers the size of the crowd. And he especially remembers the moment when Carlson alleviated some of the tension in the room, given the highly academic language being used.

“Someone in the crowd raised his hand and said, ‘I don’t know the nomenclature. I don’t know what they’re saying,’” said Harvey, who taught for 34 years at St. Peter High School. “Edgar Carlson said, ‘It’s OK. I don’t either.’ It was a great beginning; it put everyone at ease.”

Both Harvey and Gray worked in education, which was part of the draw for attending those first conferences. Gray studied psychology at Gustavus before earning his master’s in counseling from Minnesota State University, Mankato. As such, the sciences and ethics were always of interest to him. But Gray said he mostly attended the first Nobel conferences simply out of support for the campus event and with encouragement from his boss.

A large piece of Gray’s legacy on campus was his recruitment of minority students in the 1960s and ’70s, especially black students from the South. The recruitment effort involved a lot of traveling, as did Gray’s fundraising and advancement work during many of his last years at Gustavus. But he said he always made sure to be back on campus in time for the conference.

One of Gray’s favorite conferences was in 1996, when the theme was “Apes at the End of an Age: Primate Language and Behavior in the ’90s.” Gray said hearing from presenters with firsthand experiences working with gorillas and chimpanzees, as well as how those experiences apply to human beings, was memorable.

“It was just fascinating stuff,” he said.

Nobel Programs Photo EssayOther conferences that stand out in his mind include 2004’s well-attended “The Science of Aging,” which attracted a great deal of retired educators, he said. “Evolution of Sex” in 1987 was also well attended, he said, for obvious reasons. Although Gray remembers the most provocative aspect of the conference ended up being the mating habits of tiny flies.

“It wasn’t what everyone was expecting,” Gray said with a laugh.

As technology has advanced over the years, Gray said it’s been fascinating watching the conference’s visuals and effects parallel that growth. Now held in the Lund Center Arena with large screens and a powerful sound system, the videos that accompany many presentations have added a whole other depth of exploration and understanding, he said.

“‘Our Global Ocean’ in 2012, that was wonderful,” he said. “Incredible to see.”

Harvey can pinpoint his favorite Nobel experience down to a single year: 1992’s “Immunity: The Battle Within,” when Poliomyelitis was discussed. During his tenure at St. Peter High School, he saw firsthand the devastation the disease caused.

Harvey had students in braces and wheelchairs. He remembers when people wouldn’t go to public sporting events out of fear of contracting the disease.

“It was really a scourge for mankind. People were afraid,” he said.

Dozens of Nobel laureates and numerous world-class scholars and scientists have visited Gustavus each fall, and the college has made sure Gray and Harvey have had the opportunity to meet many of them and sit up front while they present.

“I’ve got to meet all these fascinating people and have lunch with them. The college has done that for me and for Mr. Harvey and for Sue,” Gray said.

Both men are looking forward to marking the 50th conference together.

“That’s landmark as far as I’m concerned,” Harvey said.

The number of handshakes and conversations over the years certainly is long, Gray said. But when asked if 50 years seems to have gone by in a blink, Gray simply snaps his fingers.

“Just like that,” he said.

About the Author

Amanda Dyslin is a freelance journalist and editor who worked for the Mankato Free Press for 12 years, including several as the newspaper’s higher education beat reporter. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in communication studies from Minnesota State University, Mankato.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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