Melvin E. L. Oakes was born May 11, 1936, in Vicksburg, MS, to Frederick Franklin and Margie Louise Hartley Oakes. He was the second of four sons and a daughter. His father owned an “auto junk yard,” selling used auto parts, recycling scrap metal, and repairing autos and trucks. Growing up in this environment gave his sons an opportunity to learn mechanical principles, pipe fitting, welding, blacksmithing, machining and engine rebuilding. Though his father had only attended elementary school, he had a excellent grasp of machines of all types. He was an avid reader, a habit passed on to his sons and daughter. His mother left school in her junior year to marry. She was an excellent student with beautiful penmanship and fine writing skills.
Above: Mel's paternal grandparents, Charles Franklin and Sophie Dose Oakes with children, L to R, Frederick Franklin (Mel’s father), Laura Annis, Robert Grantham and John Christian. Home was on the Yazoo River, near Harworth, MS (no longer exists). Note the flood water line on house, ca 1913.
Fred was born May 18, 1903, along the Yazoo River in the Mississippi Delta. Surviving in an area remote from cities and subject to regular floods required self-reliance at a high level. Farming, hunting, fishing and engine repairs were essential for survival. Transportation was largely by boats propelled by outboard and inboard engines, both quite unreliable in their early history.
Fred’s maternal grandfather, aka David Christian Dose, had come from Kielerkamp, Germany in 1873. He deserted his ship in New York harbor in May of that year. He was a “coal tender” on the ship Amerika. Several other sailors deserted with him. A search of church records in Germany revealed that his original name was Hans Christian Friedrich Dohse and that he was born in 1844. He arrived in Issaquena County, MS, in 1879; there he married Josephine Bellinger who had moved with her family from Herkimer County, New York. Herkimer County was the home of many Palatine Germans. Chris Dose purchased 260 acres for $73.00. After selling the timber for lumber and the “trash wood” for fuel for passing steamboats, he built his house and planted cotton. His first two children were twins, Jacob Christian and Mary Sophie. Sophie was the mother of Fred and the grandmother of Mel. Sophie married Charles Franklin Oakes in 1900. Charles’ family had come from Guilford County, North Carolina. They built a house on the Dose farm and began farming and fishing. In 1903, their son Fred was born.
Pictured at right are David Christian and Josephine Bellinger Dose and children, L to R, Mary Sophie (Mel’s grandmother), Jacob Christian, Carrie Mae, Walter Samuel (seated). Walter was gassed in France during WWI. He survived, but died after the war due to lung infections. Photo about 1900.
Fred remained with his brothers and sisters on the farm until he was nineteen, at which time he decided to pursue a different life in Vicksburg. There he successfully secured a position working in the machine shop with the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad. He later opened his own shop to repair cars and eventually added a car yard for parts.
Mel’s mother was born in Flora, MS, to George L. and Mary Elizabeth Hartley. They were farmers. Margie’s great-grandfather fought with Andrew Jackson in the Second Seminole War, sadly a war to destroy the forts along the Florida border which harbored escaped slaves. To his credit, William Hartley deserted at St. Marks, just south of Tallahassee, where Mel would do his graduate work.
Margie was very active in the PTA, serving as president on several occasions. Her PTA picture from the Redwood High School yearbook is shown at left. She was an inveterate letter writer, maintaining contact with members of her family throughout her life. She was a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and was very involved with church activities. Fred, a moral man, was “unchurched.”
In 1936, Mel (shown at right) was born, nine years after the birth of his brother Charles. The Depression years delayed the completion of the family. Two more boys were born in rapid succession. A few years later, the hoped for daughter arrived. Growing up, the boys were required to work in “the yard” after school, Saturdays, and summers. The only permitted excuse from this obligation was sports. Fred organized a baseball team long before Little League, which included neighborhood and school boys. This team, “Oakes Auto Parts,” remained together until his sons finished several years of college. Each Sunday during the summer, they would play a team often made up of adults from communities 25-50 miles away. These were major social events for the communities. There would be picnics and barbecues. The field was usually on the grounds of a school or in a cow pasture. The team provided an important and healthy activity in the lives of many young boys. Fred Oakes was a valuable influence in their lives and in the community.
Attending a small country high school gave Mel and his brothers an opportunity (and also the obligation) to participate in all sports. On the downside, however, was the lack of any physical science classes, music, art, or languages. Mel never took a science course in high school. One teacher, in particular, insisted that he consider college. Mrs. Maud Franklin, the English teacher, knew what was required to be academically successful and assured that students who took her classes would be prepared for college work. Her devotion led to four students, out of the 1954 class of 23 students, enrolling in college, a record for the school. She also instilled in Mel a lifelong interest in literature and poetry.
Mel’s ambition was to be a coach, and in the fall of 1954. he received a basketball and baseball scholarship to Hinds Junior College in Raymond, MS. Mel is pictured kneeling at far left with the Hinds basketball team.
Asked to select a major, he settled on engineering (Physical Education was not an option). The engineering major required a lot of mathematics and since he had alway done well in his mathematics classes, algebra and plane geometry, he selected that major. He expected to change once enrolled at a senior college.
At Hinds he encountered a faculty dedicated to teaching. Many teachers were single women living in the dormitories and dedicating their lives to their students. One very special teacher was Miss Lurline Stewart, a mathematics teacher. She taught very demanding classes. In recognition of the deficient background of many of the students, she included two extra lectures each week. The course credit was five hours, however, they all knew that only three hours would transfer to the senior colleges. Extensive homework was an important part of her classe,s and she required that it be completed in advance of the lecture. Those who have taken classes from Mel Oakes will recognize that teaching strategy.
Miss Stewart also took a special interest in Mel. She was determined that he go to Louisiana State University and that he consider a career other than coaching. The mathematics classes introduced him to a world of new ideas and rigor. He found the work enjoyable and satisfying. However, he was mystified when he saw a requirement for engineering that had the name “physics,” a new word for him. Despite having a temporary and very inexperienced teacher, the physics course was populated with some exceptional students who reveled in the challenges that physics provided. Despite the limitations of the teacher, the discussions which occurred among the better students more that made up for the lack of instruction. I should add that the physics teacher was a last minute replacement for the physics teacher who resign at the last moment and taught the course at night in addition to his job at the U.S. Waterways Experimental Station.
Though basketball and baseball occupied much of his time, Mel somehow found the time to complete his assignments, attend classes regularly, serve as class president and graduate as salutatorian. Ironically a classmate from his high school, Hermanell Hearn, was valedictorian. Miss Stewart contacted LSU and secured a scholarship for him which would cover his out-of-state tuition.
In 1958, Mel enrolled as a junior in physics at LSU. The physics classes were a new experience. The professors had worked as scientists during the war years, and they were happy to share stories from that time. One story which delighted them was told by Professor Keen who had worked at Oak Ridge in the magnetic uranium separation facility. He pointed out the dangers of walking near the powerful magnet and having your belt buckle pulled unceremoniously from your pants. The faculty was generous with its time. The work was very demanding, since 18 hours of course work were required each semester in order to graduate on schedule. Classes were conducted on Saturdays. There was almost no opportunity for a social life. Weekends were dedicated to preparing extensive laboratory reports. The department was generous with it facilities; students often studied in the evening alongside graduate students working on their research or preparing for their classes. The boundary between upperclassman and graduate student was blurred. Sadly, there were few if any female physics students at the time.
At LSU, Mel and several other physics students considered a major in mathematics, as well as physics, until they enrolled in an advanced topology course taught by Professor R. D. Anderson. He had earned his PhD at Texas under Professor R. L. Moore and he used the “Moore Method” of teaching. The class was given axioms and asked to prove theorems. No textbook or other references were allowed. Each class period someone attempted to prove a theorem. For weeks, no one was successful and yet, more theorems were regularly added to the load. Finally, a graduate student in the class took the whole period and several blackboards and was successful. All the physics students, Mel included, dropped the class that day and ended their flirtation with a mathematics degree.
While looking around for a graduate program, Mel discovered that Florida State University had recently obtained funds from the State of Florida to purchase a tandem Van de Graaff accelerator. This would offer an excellent opportunity for nuclear physics research. Previously, graduate students spent much of their time building the accelerator and maintaining it. Here was supposedly a turn-key tool that would permit concentration on important nuclear physics discoveries and measurements. Since FSU had only been coeducational since 1947, the physics department felt it necessary to provide very desirable fellowships to attract students to work with the new accelerator. Why they didn’t think a campus full of women would suffice is a mystery. After a visit there Mel decided to attend in the Fall of 1958.
The Nuclear Sciences Fellowship let him concentrate on his classes during the first two years. He became involved with the development of a duo-plasmatron ion source for the tandem. The lead graduate student on the project was Peter Riley. Riley had a master’s and had come from Alberta. Riley and Oakes have remained friends since that fall of 1958. During the first year, it became clear that nuclear physics was not of major interest to Mel. He looked around for something else. He was taking a statistical mechanics class with a new young professor, Ed Desloge. Ed had recently come from Yale, having worked with Hans Margenau. Desloge was an outstanding teacher and was starting a group in plasma physics. He had found support from the U. S. Army. He was interested in cross-modulation between electromagnetic waves in plasmas. The effect had been discovered in 1933 when Radio Luxembourg, a very high power AM station, came on the air. Its modulation was transferred to weaker stations whose signals travelled through the portion of the ionosphere carrying Luxembourg’s signal. The temperature of the ionosphere near Luxembourg was modulated by the station’s powerful signal. This modulation resulted in the conductivity of the ionosphere also being modulated which in turn modulated the signal strength of waves passing through. Mel decided to join Desloge’s group along with another graduate student, Sylvan Bloch, who coincidentally, was also from Vicksburg.
In the summer of 1962, Mel applied and received financial support to attend a plasma physics summer institute at Princeton University. This was an excellent opportunity to attend lectures by Tom Stix, Carl Oberman, Martin Kruskal, Ira Bernstein and Edward Frieman. The lectures were very helpful and each instructor provided lecture notes that he could carry back to FSU.
It was at FSU that he met his wife, Patricia Winter. She was from Miami and the daughter of a Pan Am Airways engineer. They were married on his father’s birthday in 1963. That fall they moved to the University of Georgia where Mel would teach and have an income while he finished writing his dissertation. Pat worked in the university library. Mel had not counted on having such a heavy teaching load. The load required three first-time preparations leaving little time for writing the thesis. At the end of the semester, they returned to FSU, and he completed the PhD dissertation during the summer of 1964, though the degree was officially awarded in December. In the meantime, they had decided to join the Peace Corps following graduation. They were told that there would be an opportunity for both to teach in Nigeria. Pat had graduated with a degree in history and education. To their disappointment, they were informed that there would be nearly a full year delay in starting the assignment. They decided that they could not remain unemployed for that period of time, so Mel began searching for a job. Fortunately, the University of Texas had expanded its physics faculty and research efforts. One of the targeted areas was plasma physics. Professor Hans Schlüter had a very active program there and offered him a post-doc, beginning in October. Peter Riley was on the faculty, and Pat and Mel liked the opportunity of being near him and his wife, Eva.
Schlüter had a number of experiments in his lab and wanted some theoretical support. Erik Lindmann was also hired as a postdoc at the same time. Schlüter had been successful in observing the lower hybrid resonance in his plasma discharges. This resonance was thought to offer enhanced plasma heating of fusion devices. Mel became interested in this area of research and spent most of his career working on such problems.
After his 1964-65 post-doctoral year, the department offered him an assistant professor position which he accepted. It was an exciting time to be at Texas. The department and the administration had set a goal of becoming a top ten university. To accomplish this required the departments to join the top ten rankings. The State of Texas, under the leadership of Governor John Connally, had determined that the state needed to diversify its economy away from oil. One area that was targeted was the emerging semi-conductor industry. To attract these hi-tech companies it was necessary to have a supply of graduates trained in physics, engineering, chemistry and mathematics. To accomplish this, it was necessary to ramp up faculty in all of these areas. It was a time when a good idea was welcomed and the administration made every effort to see that it happened.
Under the leadership of Chair Harold Hanson, the department flourished. A strong fusion program was initiated under the direction of William E. Drummond. In 1968, Schlüter was lured back to Germany to head a research program at the new University of Bochum. Roger Bengtson, who had recently received his PhD from the University of Maryland, was added to the plasma group and remained a friend and valuable colleague throughout Mel’s career.
During this burgeoning period, Harold Hanson asked Mel to become the undergraduate advisor. This position oversaw the operation of the undergraduate classes, curriculum, advising and scholarships. He remained deeply involved in the undergraduate program for the rest of his teaching career. This involvement brought him much satisfaction and pleasure. The opportunity to assist in the development of productive scientists was an honor and he tried to treat it as such.
Over the years, he was recognized for his teaching, culminating in his election as a charter member of the UT Academy of Distinguished Teachers. He was also fortunate to serve on a number of important university and college committees with very talented people. A few of his awards include Natural Sciences Advisory Council Teaching Excellence Award, President's Associates Teaching Excellence award 1985-86, College of Natural Scienxes Teaching Awards, Minnie Stevens Piper Foundation Professor of 2003, Jean Hollaway Teaching Award 1992, the University Civitas Award and the William David Blunk Memorial Professorship 1986-87.
Mel and Pat have three daughters, Elizabeth, born in 1967, a violist in a string quartet and later director of chamber music at the University of Iowa; Sarah, born 1969, a high school chemistry teacher in Alexandria, VA; and Mardie, born 1972, architect and CEO of a nonprofit which is dedicated to building low income housing in the San Francisco Bay area. Pat was a very successful social studies and language arts teacher.
Mel loved repairing things and keeping things out of the landfill; microwave oven (bad solder joint), televisions (bad main boards), refrigerator (thermostats and fan motors), quilting iron (heat limit switch), sprinkler (valves and pipes), plumbing (faucets), dryers (magnets and motors), auto window motor (gear centering balls), cars (brakes, carburators, rear axle assembly, distributors, water pumps, alternators, belts, power steering pumps, etc.), Kodak carousel projectors (advancing mechanism), etc. He and his daughter, Mardie, restored a 1967 VW with a thrown rod. They rebuilt and upgraded the engine and interior. Sadly it was stolen from Rice University parking lot where Mardie was in school.
Mel retired in 2004 after 40 years at UT. He was honored with the establishment of The M. E. L. Oakes Undergraduate Lecture Series. Following retirement he created this web site dedicated to the long and distinguished history of the UT Physics Department. Hobbies pursued before and after retirement include tennis, woodworking, family genealogy, reading and travel. He and Pat celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2013. A family picture from that celebration on Whidbey Island, Washington is below:
Pat and Mel seated. L to R: Emily Buck, Eugene Buck, Elizabeth, Sarah, Joe Pierce, Mardie, Durham Deifell, Tony Deifell, Ethan Buck (front).
Below is a photo of Mel's parents and their children.
Fred and Margie Oakes, with children.
L to R: Mel, Charles (who served in the Navy during WWII and was career Air Force). Eleanor, school teacher, Donald, school teacher and superintendent of schools for Warren County, Vicksburg, MS, Floyd, chemical plant shift supervisor.
Comments on the retirement of Mel Oakes
From Cécile DeWitt-Morette, Professor of Physics:
At each Chair election, Mel Oakes turned down the invitation to become chairman but he has been an all-important person for the Department.
Institutions need structures, but structures need people to make them human. Mel has been such a person, and now the one-who-would-not-be-Chair is giving us a great collection of memorabilia, photos, and documents of the Department.
Thank you, Mel.
From Dr. Barry Moore, a previous graduate student:
April 27, 2012: As a PhD candidate, I was a student of, and worked for, Professor Oakes from 1967 to 1972. I worked as grader, lecture assistant, research assistant, etc., and have benefited greatly by the example he set for me and for all of his students. He was very conscientious with the undergraduate classes he taught, putting a lot of thought into lecture preparations that would be of special interest and would benefit each of his classes. In his treatment of his graduate students, he was just as thoughtful. He organized and guided a long series of seminars on plasma wave phenomena that were a very important part of my graduate studies. My research was in plasma wave theory as was that of others of his students. He also successfully supervised a variety of experimental efforts. For all of us, he was always accessible and helpful in securing summer employment while we were in grad school, and he was very helpful with advice on career choices.
From Dr. Crockett Grabbe, a previous undergraduate and graduate student:
Interactions with Mel Oakes as a Student
Working for my BS and MA during 1969–1973, I had considerable interaction with Mel Oakes the last three years of that period. I came to UT having received afour4-year chemistry scholarship through the University Interscholastic League Foundation (UIL), after winning 5 state medals in UIL Literary Contest in High School, including two state championships in Number Sense. I placed out of quite a few courses in math, chemistry and biology, but within a year, I had grown to love physics better.
Thus, I surreptitiously loaded up, concentrating my major in physics and recall talking with Mel as an undergrad advisor. I did not want to let him know that I had suddenly changed my major to physics while on a chemistry scholarship, and when he asked me about background for all the courses I wanted to take, all I could do was mention the introductory mechanics, electricity, and optics and waves courses, and try to beef that up with in-depth chemistry and math courses. I had a strong mathematical background (I had placed out of several abstract mathematics courses), but he noted my lack of background in mathematics useful to physics (e.g. no complex variables or Fourier transform)!
I ended up taking in that second year intermediate mechanics, intermediate electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and atomic physics all at once, (along with German) despite mechanics and electricity and magnetism being listed as prerequisites for quantum mechanics), and then all three being prerequisites for the atomic physics. I extended that planning to complete my undergrad degree in two years and a summer, including doing a senior honor's under Mel Oakes the next summer. This all went as planned, but a revolting development came along. Remember the draft?
The Selective Service had just gone to a lottery system, and my birthday was picked as number 24. That meant I would lose my student deferment as soon as I graduated (there were no deferments at that time for grad students).
So, I finished the requirements for my degree after working with Mel for the summer of 1971, learning to think on my feet in all the sessions with him on the research, but did not file for a degree. Following MeI's suggestion, I had already applied for and been granted an acceptance to graduate school at Caltech (using Mel’s and other recommendations), but turned that down because I did not want to graduate that early (I explained to Mel my draft situation).
The next semester, I just signed up for courses I was interested in. Mel wanted to know why I was not taking more advanced courses in physics. I told him it was because of the UT rule that undergrad students cannot take graduate courses, and my draft situation kept me from graduating. He said we could get an exception to that rule, and he went to Vice-Dean Thomas Griffy, who gave me verbal permission to take those graduate courses. So, then I took courses for all the graduate school requirements in subsequent semesters, TAing for a while with Mel Oakes, then starting some initial calculations for a graduate thesis, with Mel Oakes and Ed Powers (Professor in EE) advising me on it.
By then, I had learned there might be a way out of the draft situation because I had a real problem with migraine headaches. After submitting a note from a doctor to them, then undergoing two requested trips to San Antonio for physical exams, I finally got a 4F classification and graduated in December, 1972. Then the next semester, prestigious Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs Fellowships became available. Mel recommended me for one and I got it for the Spring 1973 semester. I finished all the graduate coursework I needed for a PhD but decided, despite intense work for over a year (I remember filling up the blackboards with calculations on many a weekend), that my thesis work might be better as a master's thesis, so I planned to go to Caltech for my PhD, where I had been accepted again.
In finishing my thesis and getting it approved in late summer of 1973, the woman in charge of approving degrees phoned Mel after receiving my thesis. "What has he done!" she asked. She noted I took most of the graduate courses satisfying the master's degree requirements, as an undergrad, and UT had a rule that I could not do that! So Mel went to Tom Griffy: "You remember that approval 1.5 years ago?" Fortunately, Tom had a vague recollection of that, and satisfied the woman in charge of approving my MA (no MS in physics thenl). So I left for Caltech for my PhD.
Mel was great to visit in his corner office of RLM, a couple of times as a PhD. student at Caltech, when pursuing a postdoc, and after becoming a Research Scientist at University of Iowa. I had my last visit with him in the Fail of 2008, after he had retired but still had an office in RLM. Kudos to Mel for all he has done for this department.
Mel Oakes was asked to participate in an event of Robbie Knievel jumping over a moving train. He was to work with some UT students to show the physics of the event. There is a YouTube video of the television show. Mel Oakes, Ken Gentle, Scott Nguyen were in the show. Id of others would be appreciated.
Oakes Photo Album
Oakes Lecture Speakers