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Rolf C. Syertsen 1896-1960
Memories of "Sy"
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Memories of "Sy"

"Sy" Teacher, Administrator, Counselor, Father-figure

Countless memories of Rolf Syvertsen - Dartmouth Medical School teacher, administrator, counselor, father-figure - live on in the narratives and anecdotes told and retold by his students.

From the beginning, Sy had a special sense of obligation to students. Bill Condon '30 remembers an incident from his first year in medical school. He returned to Hanover just after Christmas to find that his residence, the Delta Tau Delta house, had been completely gutted by fire two days earlier. Only the brick walls still stood, and all he found of his belongings were a few globs of silver, the remains of his clarinet. When he went in to see Sy and tell him that he had lost all of his medical books, he learned that Sy had fought the fire as a member of the volunteer fire department and, knowing of Bill's loss, had already ordered him a new set of books and found a little fund of money to pay for them.

Nearly three decades later, Sy was still exerting the same influence on his students' lives. Writes Melvin Britton '58: "Each of us felt that the dean took personal interest in us, and for those who were clearly without much means (and I was one of those), he suggested a Navy program that would pay for the senior year of medical school in return for an extra year of military service. Dr. Syvertsen's suggestion turned into a 39-year participation in the Naval Reserve for me. In the fall of my second year of medical school, I married the love of my life. Dr. Sy was the one who stood as a father for me. This act of personal caring and intervention typified him-in a sense, the 'father' of generations of DMS students during this time."

Alden Carpenter '52 also remembers encouragement and humor: "Those early months were tough and discouraging, especially when I began to appreciate the brilliance of my classmates and the work expected of us. Sy being omnipresent kept me going. The occasional meetings with him were always encouraging. When I complained that I would never be able to master biostatistics (I think we had about three days to do it!), he said he had never mastered it either, and that ended the discussion! I will be eternally grateful that Sy kept his eye on me."

Despite all his many duties and responsibilities, a personal involvement with his students was one of Dr. Syvertsen's highest priorities. And this applied not only to those in medical school, but to house officers and premeds as well. The manifestations of this interest are legendary.

For example, Ben Gilson '55 relates the story of a DC '54 classmate who went to his premed interview shortly after spring vacation of his sopho- more year. "Have you ever been in trouble with the law?" Dr. Syvertsen asked softly through his moustache. "Oh, no, sir!" came the startled reply. "How about the speeding ticket you got in South Carolina last week?" Sy parried. Of course, he would have been smiling under the moustache.

David Barry, HS '56-58, made his first trip to Hanover in early 1954, while he was still in the Air Force, to interview for a neurosurgical residency with Drs. Fisher and Sachs. He was very impressed; apparently they were as well, and he was accepted. "Dr. Fisher then placed a call to somebody named 'Sy,' to help me find a place to live. By the time he arrived at the Hospital, I had learned that he was Dr. Syvertsen, dean of the Medical School. I thought he would just give me a list of available rentals, but, no, he took me in his car and we visited several places before settling on a place in Norwich. He then requested that the owner hold it free until I arrived four months later. I couldn't believe that the dean of a medical school would be so kind to an unknown future resident. Subsequently, I learned that he was this way with everyone, and that is one of the reasons he has become a legend."

The late Bill Pace '50 felt Sy's influence from his first days at Dartmouth: "I recall our annual undergraduate interview and appraisal sessions. Dr. Sy once chided me for having cut classes to fight the forest fires that were out of control at the time. I was immediately and profoundly impressed that whatever I did, I was being watched!"

"Our class came to regard Sy as knower of all things medical and of all things about each of us."

Bob Hoekelman '48 puts it this way: "Our class came to regard Sy as knower of all things medical and of all things about each of us. Where he gained the latter information remained a mystery, but we believed that he maintained a round-the-clock surveillance of our activities, particularly since he was seen or imagined by us to appear at many odd hours and at many odd places."

Ben Gilson '55 describes an experience that, as unusual as it was, was not unique: "During my internship in Hanover, we held a private, unannounced baptism of my son at St. Thomas Church. My wife, Sarah, sucked in her breath as she saw an approaching acolyte. An acolyte at a private Sunday-afternoon baptism? No mistake. It was Syvertsen in the cassock. He was still in every corner of my life." Sy also surprised Bob Hoekelman at the christening of his daughter, Gretchen.

Sy watched over his students' love lives as well as the products of their unions. Beverly Hoffman, widow of David Hoffman '43, writes: "When I was working at Dick's House and going with David, Dr. Syvertsen came up to the nurses' station a couple of times. One of the other nurses said that he was probably looking me over. The day came when he introduced himself and told me that David and I were seeing too much of each other, that he wasn't studying enough, and that, if we didn't see less of each other, he would call my mother. Well, we didn't and he didn't. Sy was quite a man. He knew everyone and everything. I'm glad he didn't call my mother."

Perhaps Sy's uncanny knack for finding students out stemmed in part from the misdeeds of his own youth. The late James Smead, DC '21 and DMS '23, and thus a Medical School classmate of Sy's, recalled Sy cramming for an anatomy exam-behavior he certainly would have condemned as dean. On another occasion, Smead said, he and Sy sat down to study the evening before a couple of big exams. Suddenly Sy got up, went into another room, came back dressed in winter clothes, and just disappeared. He reappeared two days later, having spent the time putting new shingles on the roof of an Outing Club cabin. Sy then went to his professors and talked them into giving him special exams. "He didn't do this disappearing act very often," said Smead, "but once in a while he just got fed up and went away. Usually, I would find out that he went to Boston or New York or Albany, where he had some friend."

Because DMS had been a two-year school since 1914, students during the Sy years had to transfer to a four-year school for their clinical studies and the completion of their M.D. This offered another outlet for Sy's attention to detail. Recalls Ben Gilson: "One day in the fall of 1954, Dr. Syvertsen went around the class, passing out 3x5 cards [and saying], 'Write "one," "two," "three" under your name. Write three choices where you want to go in order of preference. If you can't think of three, put down one or two.' Three months later I got a dormitory assignment at Harvard. That was the extent of my application process."

Stan Rosenberg '55 listed Columbia as his first choice. Before Thanksgiving break, most of his classmates had been notified of their acceptance to Harvard, but Rosenberg had still heard nothing by the end of Christmas break. He spoke to Harry Savage, then secretary of the School, about his concern. Savage told Rosenberg not to worry, that he couldn't get a word out of Sy but trusted to his good offices. "Just before spring break," writes Rosenberg, "I was crossing the street behind Baker when a speeding car screeched to a halt, narrowly missing wiping me out. It was Syvertsen behind the wheel of his old station wagon. He looked at me with raised eyebrows, over his glasses suspended at half mast, beckoned me over, rolled down the car window, and said, 'You have been accepted at Columbia, so you'd better fill out an application.' He rolled up the window and drove off. I never did see an application. Remembering this reminds me how much I enjoyed Sy. He was always full of surprises."

Merlin DuVal '44 recalls: "My most treasured memory of Sy was of his paternalistic ability to help each of us to work things out. In my case, I stood 21st in a class of 22. Consequently, when it came time to transfer for the third and fourth years, I picked Cornell but was turned down. On learning this, Sy immediately got in touch with me and assured me that the school would change its mind. I'm not quite sure how he did it, but he was successful in persuading the school to accept me, and that was that. Of course, I tried thereafter not to let him down. He went out on a limb for me, and I've never forgotten it." DuVal went on to a distinguished career as the founding dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine and as assistant secretary in the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In June of 1999, Cornell's Weill Medical College presented DuVal with its Distinguished Alumnus Award. Sy would surely have been pleased but not surprised.

Sy could be very persuasive in a quiet and often subtle manner. John Moran '55 recalls a conversation with the dean outside the old Medical Building late in the spring of 1954. Sy informed him that he had been selected to be the ship's chemist and "doctor" (after just one year of medical school) aboard the Blue Dolphin, an ocean- ographic research vessel. Moran argued that he couldn't possibly take the assignment, as he was already committed to a summer job in what used to be called an insane asylum, back in his North Dakota hometown. Moran doesn't recall exactly what transpired next, but only a few days and another conversation with Sy later, he saw the light and took on the shipboard challenge. "Then it was on to Labrador for two and a half months, in the company of some truly outstanding scientists. [I helped] out with their various projects, measuring oxygen, phosphates, and salinity of ocean water samples, and praying for no medical disasters. Actually, the worst thing that happened was the cook cutting his thumb with the knife he was using to scrape the rancid green slime off the last of our poorly refrigerated meat. I treated it with topical sulfa powder, and somehow it healed. In all it was a fantastic, memorable summer, thanks entirely to Sy's power of persuasion."

Sy could use his powers to get students out of commitments, too. An oft-told story has it that a large portion of one of the wartime classes, in Boston for the weekend, got carried away by patriotic fervor and attempted to enlist en masse for military duty. The story differs as to whether the recruiting officer or one of the students, having second thoughts, called Sy. In any event, he made a beeline for Boston to reclaim his charges.

There are a number of similar stories of Sy's "rescues," usually involving his rushing off to appear before some magistrate in behalf of an over-stimulated vacationing student. It seems to have been generally accepted on and off the campus that Sy was the first person to be called on any matter involving a medical student.

The Winter Carnival Ball: The ever-persuasive Sy talks the Boston Herald into assisting with a fashion statement.

Even in his own student days, Sy accomplished things that seemed beyond the means of fellow mortals. James Smead was among those impressed by Sy's ability to "pull strings and do things that were unusual." One year, for example, Sy chaired the Winter Carnival ball. At that time, the Boston Herald's Sunday paper included a section called the "Rotogravure." It was brown and consisted entirely of pictures. Sy went to Boston to talk with the people at the Herald and got them to print the "Rotogravure" section on cloth. He then had his girlfriend and her mother make their costumes for the ball from the cloth. According to Smead, Sy and his date caused quite a stir, especially when people saw that the costumes were datelined the following Sunday, two days hence.

Unquestionably, Sy had an idiosyncratic way of handling academic and disciplinary matters. Jack Wright '34 remembers going to Sy's office to ask how he had done on an exam. "Sy adjusted his glasses, reached in a cubbyhole of his rolltop desk, and took out a piece of paper. After scanning it for a second or two, he said, 'Wright, I have reason to believe you can do better.' It wasn't until some 20 years later that I found he had a unique marking system. If a very bright student wasn't working up to his capacity, he got a 'B.' On the other hand, if a less than very bright student was working very hard, he got an 'A.' No one got a 'C.' I don't believe Sy ever marked a paper in his life."

Phil Brown '51 tells of standing outside the old Medical Building with his classmate Bill Collins, grousing and telling raw jokes. They failed to notice the approach of Sy, who obviously overheard them. Collins, thinking to divert the dean, said, "Dr. Syvertsen, what do you suppose the architectural style of that building is?" Sy, giving them a steely look over the top of his glasses, shot back, "It looks like early penitentiary to me, boys."

Over the years, Sy developed some memorable teaching techniques. Intestinal intussusception was illustrated by removing his lab coat and invaginating the sleeve into itself. Brown describes Sy's demonstration of how to leave a men's room after washing one's hands, without resoiling them by touching the doorknob. "He splashed some water on his hands there at the demonstration desk faucet, then pulled down a paper towel from the dispenser and dried his hands. He picked up his briefcase in one hand, and, with the paper towel in the other, opened the classroom door, hooked his foot around the door, tossed the crumpled towel toward the basket, pulled the door to start the closing, and scooted out. Well, we laughed and clapped, and then silence settled in. After three or four minutes we began to realize, 'No, he's not coming back.' It was the end of the lecture."

Steve Zaslow '58 tells a story illustrating how Sy also taught by example: "It was the Asian flu epidemic of 1958. I knew I had to go to Dick's House when I couldn't walk down the tiers of the amphitheater without leaning on someone for support. After I was admitted and settled into my bed, I reflected on what a lovely, cozy, and homey hospital it was. . . . About an hour after I was admitted, Dean Syvertsen popped in. I was amazed that he visited me. When he left, in a minute, I cried. It was then I realized my vulnerability, sickness, and need for support. That one-minute visit taught me the power and influence of the physician to comfort and reassure, and opened my eyes to the transference issues involved. . . . It's a lesson that comes home to me repeatedly. . . . The heart of the doctor-patient relationship is caring. Thank you again, Dr. Syvertsen!"

Some of Dr. Sy's teaching techniques carried subtle messages and reminders that the science of medicine is not supposed to be separated from its humanity. Harold Habein '45 describes a meeting of the "Eight by Eight by Eight Society," an invention of Sy's for interring the cadavers used in anatomy class. "The grave-diggers and bodies were transported after dark by pickup truck to an isolated region in the New Hampshire hills. Graves were dug, and, after a short ceremony and burial, the dirt was replaced. The hour was late. We returned to the truck, and, as if by magic, a few bottles of beer appeared from out of nowhere. The solemnity of the occasion was quickly dissipated, but Dr. Sy, in his quiet way, indicated that we ought to be grateful for the privilege of using those bodies for our anatomical studies."

The society's work didn't always proceed smoothly, however. Ken Thomas '57 says that the year of his election, Sy was using a brand-new station wagon loaned to him by a local dealer. That night, not all of the tin crates bearing the bodies were sealed tightly, and some of the "cadaver juice" spilled out. Sy drove, with Ken beside him, leading a procession of unlighted vehicles and peering through his thick glasses into the pitch-dark night. They got stuck several times and at one point backed into a tree, denting the bumper and spilling even more "juice" from the containers. "I have often wondered," recalls Thomas, "what the automobile dealer thought when Sy returned that not-so-new station wagon."

Janet Chipman, the wife of Lew Chipman '41, was Sy's secretary during the '40s and so knew well his personal habits. "Dr. Syvertsen had the very admirable trait of making decisions without hesitation when it was called for. . . . Such was the case with my initial interview. At the time I was a fresh graduate of the University of Vermont, and it was the first serious job interview of my life. As it terminated, I expected the usual 'Thank you very much, and we will call you about the position.' Not so. He uttered this happy statement-simply, 'Report to the office tomorrow for work.' This was the beginning of my association with a dear and respected gentleman. . . truly a gentle man."

She goes on to document the classic Sy modus operandi. "Because of his position, periodic trips to meetings were in order, one of the more frequent being to Chicago-in those days of course by train. Preparation awaited the final hours before departure, with his usual flurry of physical, mental, and emotional activity, and, I daresay, it was never quite consummated prior to the rush to his Buick in his usual travel attire of derby hat, a vest with watch chain quite evident, and glasses at half mast. More often than not he did make his departure time from White River. However, beginning at the first stop in Windsor, Vt., Western Union messages would begin to flow back to me in the office about ideas that had not been communicated in the flurry of departure, or relative to documents that had not made it into his ever-present briefcase. Often, between Windsor and Chicago, there were yet more messages."

Although Sy watched over his students like a father-hen, he tended to keep them more or less at arm's length, preferring to be perceived as a stern and demanding teacher rather than as a friend. He avoided any display of camaraderie and turned aside the occasional student tribute. Milt Hoefle '29 recalls that his class had practiced a medley of Christmas carols, intending to serenade Dr. Sy in his office. The all-knowing Sy ducked out, reappearing just often enough to encourage them to follow him all through the School, until he eventually lost them altogether.

Bill Loomis '54 has a couple of amusing recollections as well: "Rolf Syvertsen was always the gallant gentleman, as illustrated by my two memories of his high esteem for the fair sex. My grandmother, Katherine Grant, came to see me when I was in medical school, and having heard a great deal about the dean, requested to see him. I brought her up to the School and went upstairs to Dr. Syvertsen's office, got past his secretary, entered the office, and asked if my grandmother could come up to be introduced to him. Sy leaped from his chair and rushed down the stairs, exclaiming, 'Nobody's grandmother has to come upstairs to meet me!' The second incident occurred when I was an intern at Mary Hitchcock. My lovely wife had broken a cap on a front tooth. She was going to ask our landlady for a referral to a local dentist, but I suggested that the dean would be a better source of advice. I called him up and he immediately set up an appointment for the following day, Sunday, with Dr. Bailey. The conditions were that Jean had to accompany Sy to the Episcopal Church, where he sang in the choir, and then out to breakfast before her appointment. The funny thing was that I was not invited."

Harold Habein sums up the lesson in all of these stories: "Most of us remember many teachers and others who have influenced and affected our lives in some way, but only a few stand out as having had a profound influence. Dr. Syvertsen was one of those. We who were privileged to know him and be his friends will always be grateful. It is most appropriate that his name be given to a scholarship fund at Dartmouth Medical School."

Text excerpts from
Rolf Christian Syertsen:
A Tribute to a Mentor
Published by the Dartmouth Medical School
Offices of Publications and Development
June 2000
Original Booklet Design
by Harp and Company


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