Marlboro Remembers John MacArthur

Longtime professor of physics and astronomy at Marlboro College, indeed one of the founders of the science program, John MacArthur died peacefully on January 4 at his nearby home in the town of Marlboro. He was 94 years old, and died from complications following a hip fracture that occurred while he, determined and resourceful to the end, was getting his snow tires out of the garage.

“John MacArthur was the ‘dean’ of the science faculty at the college,” said Bob Engel, biology professor emeritus. “Everyone understood that. He did nothing showy to command our respect, but we all felt the quiet gravity of his mind, his infrequent, but powerful suggestions, and the almost limitless curiosity he possessed.”

John was born in Chicago to John MacArthur and Olive Turner MacArthur, also founders of the science program at Marlboro, and grew up in Toronto. He attended the University of Toronto and received a master’s degree in physics from the University of Chicago and a PhD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

While a student at Chicago he met his wife of almost 60 years, Margaret, at a folk music society, and serenaded her with love songs outside her dorm room window. They moved to Vermont in 1948, first to John’s parents’ place in Newfane and then to their home in Marlboro in 1951, where they raised their five children.

“In 1947, when Marlboro started, there was a little squib in Time magazine about it,” John reminisced years ago. “My brother Robert saw it and enrolled in the very first class. He wrote us a letter and told us what it was like. We decided we trusted his judgment, so we quit our jobs and came.”

The elder John MacArthur, a tenured professor of genetics at the University of Toronto, taught biology while the younger John taught physics. When John’s father died a few years later, his mother Olive, a bacteriologist, carried on his work, teaching biology at Marlboro until her death in 1970. John’s brother Robert graduated from Marlboro in 1951, and went on to become an eminent ecologist and professor at Princeton.

In addition to being a brilliant physicist, astronomer, mathematician, and ornithologist, John was a much-beloved teacher and familiar site on campus for more than 60 years. A self-described “teacher at heart,” John continuing to teach long after his “retirement” in 1988, offering cutting-edge classes about energy and global climate change for another 25 years.

“I am honored to have had the chance to work with John in his last years at the college,” said Richard Glejzer, dean of faculty. “We would meet late in the spring and over the summer to talk about his yearly course offering, and we always spent most of our time discussing Marlboro’s past and future. He always brought energy and excitement whenever he came to campus.”

John was a builder of many things: banjos, barns, houses, and in the early 1970s, recognizing the looming energy crisis and in hopes of a better future for the planet, an electric car which he drove to and from work. He was a lifelong environmentalist and proponent of alternative energies, engendering in his students the knowledge, hope, and resources for a more technologically benign future.

“His reliance on ‘found’ objects rather than anything new or high-tech was always on display,” added Bob Engel. “He got his hands on a telephone pole for that makeshift windmill.”

A longtime naturalist and birder, John traveled extensively throughout his lifetime on bird-watching expeditions, including trips to Antarctica, Central America, the Galapagos, Greenland, and the Arctic. In the 1960s he went to Panama with his brother Robert, to collaborate on groundbreaking theories of island ecology. But his greatest impact may have been his steady resolve and inquisitive mentorship that buoyed the sciences along at Marlboro for all these years.

There will be a memorial gathering in Marlboro on May 7, at 3 pm, at the family home. In lieu of flowers, John’s family suggests that donations can be made in his name to Marlboro College, to which he dedicated his life, or to VPIRG. 

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