Wednesday, January 7, 1970

Woodbury's blessing before Dissertation Defense

Event: February 1964
Thesis Cover

Thesis Title Page

Thesis Signature Page

The depression was but a month old when the University of Utah called to arrange the date for my dissertation defense. I had no idea how I would survive the challenge. To make matters worse, my best friend, Cal Wood, a member of the University physics faculty, heard about my defense date and called to invite me to stay with him and his wife Dixie while in Salt Lake. He also invited me to present my dissertation to his department as a dry run on the day before. I tried to explain that I was in no shape to appear before his colleagues and expressed my apologies. Not comprehending my distress, Cal took umbrage and I relented, much to his eventual regret.

My research director, Ivan Cutler, chairman of the Ceramic Engineering Department, was delighted to hear about the dry run. He had for years wanted an opportunity to make points with the physics department. Now his "most dramatic student" would dazzle them. He was soon to rue this day in the wreckage of dashed ambitions. ;-(. Cal would join him in the disaster. The "dry run" revealed nothing but dry rot.

Standing before the physics faculty, my mind suddenly turned off, just as it had weeks earlier when the depression first fell upon me as I stood before my fellow scientists at General Atomic. But this time, contrary to my GA behavior, I refused to sit down. Everyone in that physics room was mortified, scraping their feet and looking at the floor. It could not have been a greater debacle. The only saving grace was that I had brought the movie film that I had made of my dissertation subject that had been set up in that physics department classroom to show at an appropriate time. Someone called out, "Show the movie!" The lights were turned out and the projector began rolling. I finally sat down.

Cal could hardly speak to me, let alone look at me on our way back to his home. I had humiliated him in front of his colleagues. What kind of friend would do that? That night I wandered about his living room like a zombie, my mind in outer space with no idea what would come next. So, I relaxed to await the inevitable end of my short career.

Then, suddenly, an image of a man came to mind. I had heard him speak years before to a University Ward priesthood meeting and recalled being moved by his remarks and expressions of faith. His name was T. Bowring Woodbury, a former mission president of the British mission, now successful business man in Salt Lake City. I announced my desire to seek Woodbury out, but Cal would have none of it. So, I said I would walk to his place, wherever it was, and opened Cal's front door to begin a search. Exasperated, Cal asked if I knew where he lived. I didn't. But he was listed in the SLC phone directory. "Get in the car, I'll drive you", Cal relented, and off we went.

As we arrived at Woodbury's home, he and his wife were walking towards us on the sidewalk on the way to their parked car. As we came close to each other, Woodbury took one look at me and said, "You've come for a blessing?".

"Yes", I answered.

Speaking to his wife he said, "Bubbles, please wait in the car. I won't be long." We three went into his home. Woodbury had no idea who I was. He asked only my name and for Cal (then an active Mormon elder) to anoint my head with consecrated oil. Cal did so with embarrassed reluctance, I'm sure. Woodbury then placed his hands on my head along with Cal's and proceeded to "seal the anointing". But he could not speak! It became immediately clear that he was struggling. After an embarrassed silent pause, he suddenly began speaking with great power. First he addressed my Slavic heritage and went on and on about it. Then with unequivocal confidence he declared: "A cordon of angels will surround you in your hour of need that your mind will be released." After a few standard closing remarks he ended the blessing. After thanking for his generous service, Cal and I returned home. I felt slightly comforted and went to bed. I never saw Woodbury again.

The dissertation defense was scheduled to begin at 10:00 the next morning. I met beforehand with one of the faculty members of my committee, Sherman D. Brown, a fellow Mormon, who offered a supplicating prayer in my behalf. At about 09:00 the curtain of my mind went up! It took a few moments before I realized what had just happened: I was experiencing total recall, something I'd never experienced before or since. There was nothing I could not remember! And I walked into that examination room with the greatest of confidence, knowing my subject better than anyone on earth and proceeded to prove it. No question or challenge was too difficult. Furthermore, I was able to defend all nine original seed ideas that doctoral candidates were obliged to defend in addition to their dissertation. These were ideas that the examining committee members often used as suggestions for future research. I was able not only to defend every single seed idea, but to amplify them on the spot with newly formulated equations written on the blackboard. I could hardly believe what was happening.

After the examination was complete, I was asked to leave the room as the faculty deliberated. Less than 15 minutes later, Dr. Cutler came out of the room with a puzzled grin, extended his hand and said, "Congratulations DOCTOR Kovalenko! You were positively spectacular in there! We want you to change only one word in your title... I do not understand what is happening!"

I left the university happily and looked forward to returning home in triumph, feeling all was well.

It wasn't.

Before boarding the plane back to San Diego, the depression returned, worse than ever. The impulse for suicide never closer!


  1. Gene-

    I remember the incident in the Physics Department. I don't recall feeling the feelings you ascribe to me. Perhaps they were conditioned by your sense of depression. I was embarrassed, but for you, not for myself. I didn't understand what was happening within you and felt incapable of saying anything that could help, which was my desire. I don't recall being exasperated with you nor of feeling embarrassed reluctance in anointing you. I have to admit that my recall of details after this long time is not all that great, but I didn't see things through the same filter you were using. If I came across as insensitive and unhelpful I am truly sorry.

    You must have suffered a lot during those years. I remember when you came to Livermore (in a "white porsche", telling me that it was for you a parallel of Joseph Smith's "white horse" prophecy, and your name means "smith" in Russian) to revisit some places with old memories for you (were you trying to recast the outcomes in some way?) and visiting some friends that you called to repentance and spoke prophetically to. I thought some of your behaviors strange at the time (you had us dress in white clothes as if just coming from the temple, where I was a worker) and I and some of our friends were worried about you (Sandy Sandholtz and Monty Hickenlooper come to mind), but I, and they, felt powerless to help or intervene, as you seemed quite sure of what you were doing and didn't seem to want a discussion, only wanting me to accompany you in your activities.

  2. Cal,
    I'm so glad you responded. Those 1964 days were frightening and puzzling! I suppose one could call them crazy and perhaps they were.

    In any case and without judging any of it--myself, you, other friends, family OR the situation itself--I am attempting to reconstruct what I can, as accurately as possible for the family record. You played such a key role in my life in those days, from the time we met at Berkeley First Ward in 1958 when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, to those tumultuous days in the summer of 1965. I hope you will continue to help me through what you remember.

    This particular blog post was intended to discuss just the event in February 1964, when I defended my doctoral dissertation. Your reply addresses some of that but leaps ahead to the summer of 1965. See:

    At a family gathering for Thanksgiving 2001 here in Los Alamos, more than 37 years later, my wife Birgitta and I, with sons Nick, Jim, Johnny, had just finished discussing this very event, when out of the blue a phone call came in from Sherman D. Brown in Salt Lake City! Sherman had been one of my examining professors during that dissertation defense and I hadn't talked to him since August 1965! This synchronicity astonished us all and Nick exclaimed, "You see, Dad, it's not over yet!"

    In recent days I have interviewed each of my family mentioned above about this, just to check my memory. They all remember that phone call. Johnny remembered the 2001 date, since he was then a senior in high school then and this was the first Thanksgiving he'd spent with us.