News

Long-Lost Honor Society Key Returned in Shroud of Mystery

by Bill Giduz
Sigma Pi Sigma
The latest six inductees into Sigma Pi Sigma: (l-r) Grace Watt '15, Jacob Simmonds '15, Colin Malone ’15, Sam Castle '15, Kelly Myers '14, Sarah Friedensen '15.

An academic honor society at Davidson is facing a mystery that may never be solved.

Here it is-How did a 1923 physics honor society lapel pin belonging to the late Davidson math professor William N. "Nelson" Mebane '18 end up nearly buried in the dirt in Fairfax County, Va.? Furthermore, who found the relic, and why has the finder chosen to remain anonymous?

The intriguing circumstances were pondered and celebrated in a ceremony at Davidson on Friday, April 24, when Toni Sauncy, the director of the Sigma Pi Sigma (SPS) national physics honor society, returned the "key" (as the small piece of jewelry is known), to the Davidson chapter.

Founded in 1921, Davidson established the first-ever chapter of SPS, designating it as the "alpha" chapter among what are now 400 chapters worldwide. During the past 93 years, Davidson has inducted 452 students into the fraternity to recognize their outstanding scholarship in physics. Six more students were inducted during Friday's ceremony. And, as tradition dictates, each inductee received a key signifying membership in the society.

Toni Sauncy
National Sigma Pi Sigma director Toni Sauncy presented Prof. Mebane’s key to the newest SPS member, Grace Watt '15.

As part of the ceremonies, Sauncy presented Davidson's chapter with Professor Mebane's key. Sauncy also recalled for the assembled students, alumni and faculty members that about a year ago the national SPS office in College Park, Md., received in the mail an envelope bearing no return address that contained a short note and an SPS key. The note read simply, I found this buried in the dirt while hiking in Fairfax County [VA]. Looks like it is one of yours.

The key was etched on the back side with "W.N. Mebane #26."

Sauncy's office did some detective work in society records and determined that the "#26" referred to the fact that Davidson College Professor of Mathematics W.N. Mebane '18 was the 26th member of the Davidson SPS chapter when he received the key in 1923 as a young professor here. Mebane taught mathematics at Davidson for more than 40 years, from 1923 to 1966. He also taught physics from 1923-1929. He died in 1974.

After ascertaining ownership of the key, the national office tracked down surviving family members W.N. Mebane III and W.N. Mebane IV, and offered to return the heirloom to them. But members of the family directed that it should be returned to Davidson instead.

Despite its apparently long exposure to the elements, the key arrived in remarkably good shape because it is fashioned of gold. Formed in the shape of an upside-down bell, it celebrates the society and technology of the day. The front side is elegantly decorated with the Greek letters "Sigma Pi Sigma" across the top, and a voltmeter powering a shining light bulb. The top of the bell is affixed to a small spike so that it can be attached to the wearer's lapel.

A Colorful Life

Prof. Mebane’s key
The back side of the key identifies it as belonging to member #26, Davidson’s late math and physics professor W.N. Mebane '18.

Prof. Mebane enjoyed a colorful life. He was recognized among colleagues and students at Davidson as a rigorous classroom instructor. Mary Beaty's book of Davidson College history notes, "Among the hard graders.... Prof. Mebane, with 24 failures among 78 students, was the toughest of all."

He was also mysteriously called away from Davidson from 1944-1946 by the government to Columbia University in New York, where he worked on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.

Moreover, he not only taught applied mathematics, but also a course in surveying, and earned a surveying license in the 1950s. He was for a time the official town surveyor, and worked with some of his students for Duke Power to survey areas that became Lake Norman.

He rests in the middle of a long, distinguished line of Mebanes at Davidson College. His father, W.N. Mebane, was Class of 1883, and also taught at the college. His son, Dr. W.N. Mebane III, was Class of 1951 and is a physician living in retirement in Pennsylvania. His grandson, W.N. Mebane IV, was Class of 1980, and works as superintendent of the aquaculture engineering division at the Marine Resources Center in Woods Hole, Mass.

Dr. Mebane III recalls his late father as a formal dresser who, in the fashion of the day, always wore a vest, tie and coat, whether teaching, surveying or playing golf. "He also always carried a pocket watch on a chain in one pocket, and though I don't recall it specifically, I could see him with the SPS key attached across his vest attached to his tie chain," said Dr. Mebane.

Permanent Place

Given that evidence, might Mebane have been on a surveying job in the Fairfax County countryside when his SPS key was dislodged and lost in the dirt? Was he in the area on family business, or a commercial job? Mebane IV noted that several relatives live in Virginia, but in the southwestern part of the state rather than in the north, where Fairfax County is located.

It appears that the trail of evidence ends with no scientifically verifiable outcome.

Unless....

If the anonymous person who sent the key to the SPS office could be identified, and would reveal precisely where the key was found, further investigation could ensue. Dr. Mebane III notes that surveyors' names are recorded on plats, and they imprint their initials on the corner stakes they use. "If we knew exactly where the key was found, we could look in the record books, find the stakes and see if my father's initials are on it," he said.

It seems curious that the person who found the key chose anonymity. Was that a simple oversight, or an intentional obfuscation to cover a path of the story that leads in a totally different direction? There is no proof that Prof. Mebane himself dropped the key in Fairfax County. Perhaps it had already changed hands, and was dropped by someone else? Or maybe it was never in Fairfax County at all!

Mario Belloni, a current Davidson physics professor, concluded, "We may never know how it came to return to the campus where Professor Mebane earned it, but we are proud to give it a place of permanent display to help highlight the proud history of physics at Davidson."

The key is being permanently displayed in the lobby of Dana Science Building, the home of the Davidson physics program. It will be mounted beside a plaque erected in 1946 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the society.

Belloni noted that the return of Professor Mebane's key reinforces the profile of physics at Davidson at a time when the program is enjoying increasing enrollment and activity. About 15 members of this year's Class of 2014 are physics majors. The Society of Physics Students has been active as well, and has received three "Outstanding Chapter" awards recently. This year's Smith Lecturer was astrophysicist Nobel Laureate John Mather, and physics major Ashley Finger '14 has received Sigma Pi Sigma's national Mather Fellowship to lobby in Congress for legislation benefitting scientific exploration.

Professor Mebane, with his SPS key back home where he earned it, is undoubtedly proud to be part of the celebration.