We knew him as W.E. He was young and brilliant and possessed a mind and look that made one think he would make an Einstein-like mark on the world.
It would be decades before I learned the initials stood for William Esco, and wouldn’t you know: Shortly after my little discovery, he won international acclaim for a scientific discovery. In 2014, William Esco Moerner – “W.E.” to family and friends – won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy.”
I asked him what that meant a couple of years ago. Moerner explained that he and a colleague were the first to detect a single molecule in condensed matter with light. Before his discovery in the late 1980s, molecules could only be measured in clusters of millions or billions. Today, the optical study of single molecules has become widely used in chemistry, physics and biology.
No one who knew him at Jefferson High School in the early 1970s is a bit surprised. Former classmates recall a student whose genius was evident in middle school. Stories abound. Many were shared Thursday night at the 2016 SAISD Foundation Inspire Awards dinner.
More than 500 guests applauded as Moerner (Class of ‘71) received the Inspire Award for Excellence at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Dr. Jaime Garza (Jefferson ‘72) accepted the Service Award, Lionel Sosa (Lanier ‘57) the Leadership Award, and The Young Men’s Leadership Academy claimed the Innovation Award.
The night belonged to Moerner. I was not a classmate. I was the 12-year-old son of his high school counselor, Blanche Rodriguez, who encouraged Moerner to pursue a Langsdorf Engineering Fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis.
Mom used to come home from school and tell stories about “W.E.” He was a musician and champion debater, the editor of Jefferson’s literary magazine and president of the National Honor Society, a member of so many organizations – Masque & Gavel, Quill & Scroll, the Russian Toastmasters, the Radio Club, BiPhyChem, the marching band – you wondered when he found time to study. Or if he needed to.
Moerner was a National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test finalist. He was valedictorian. Behind those black, horn-rimmed glasses, he never sweated a test or a debate. On top of that, he was friendly, outgoing, and likeable.
Libby Garcia, a retired physician, has known Moerner since they shared honors math classes at Longfellow Junior High. “He was the smartest, most brilliant and most down-to-earth, fun-loving guy,” Garcia said. And that’s not all. “He was humble.”
Moerner is the guy who, 45 years after high school, goes out of his way to stay in touch. He calls old friends. He finds classmates on Facebook. How many Nobel laureates do that?
“He’s the hub,” Garcia said, “the one who keeps us connected. He wants to be around us. That’s very cool.”
In accepting the Inspire Award for Excellence, Moerner recounted, by name, the many people who shaped his youth and future. My late mother was one of them. Her advice led to a full ride at Washington University, which led to a career at IBM and a world of precision lasers and single molecules. “That,” Moerner told the convention center dinner crowd, “changed the course of my life.”
My mother introduced me to Moerner in our home one long ago afternoon. He and three classmates arrived to prepare for a TV quiz show called On The Spot. The program pitted two teams of high school students in a competition about current events. Moerner walked in talking about President Nixon. Libby Garcia and others followed, carrying boxes of index cards and newspaper clippings.
The brainpower in my living room was astonishing. Garcia, for example, placed out of her freshman year at the University of Texas in Austin and completed her bachelor’s in 2 1/2 years. Moerner earned three degrees in four years – one in electrical engineering, one in physics, one in mathematics, all with highest honors.
Mom explained the structure of the quiz show and told them the categories to expect. The other team had no chance. Jefferson crushed the competition – neither Moerner nor Garcia recalls which school they beat – and I remember thinking they probably could have whipped any high school team in the country.
“We played a game of Trivia Pursuit on TV before the game was ever manufactured,” Garcia said. “That was a lot of fun.”
Garcia lived two blocks up the street from us on North Drive in Monticello Park. She remembers my mother encouraging her to apply to Ivy League schools. But Garcia did not want to go too far from home. “She could see in us things we did not recognize about ourselves,” Garcia said. After UT, though, Garcia attended medical school at Stanford and opened a family practice in Pueblo, Colo.
At our table, one former classmate asked Sharon, Moerner’s wife, what it was like to be married to a Nobel laureate. “He hasn’t changed,” Sharon said. “But people put a lot more credence to his words now.”
Forty three years after he walked into my living room, I stumbled upon Moerner on the Internet. He was a professor of chemistry at Stanford who had won the Wolf Prize, second in importance to the Nobel, and had bloggers buzzing about a future Nobel. I sent an email and we chatted by phone.
I asked if he knew Robert Curl, a professor of chemistry at Rice and Jefferson’s first Nobel Prize winner. Moerner said he did. I mentioned that my mother had graduated with Curl from Jefferson in 1950. Moerner did not know Curl was an alum. We stayed in touch and I knew it was only a matter of time.
What they say about W.E. Moerner is true. He treasures friendships. He values people and remembers names and acts of kindness. The only surprise, to me, was finding my mother’s name alongside his. In interviews with the media, in his biography on the Nobel web site, at the awards dinner Thursday night, he never fails to mention the counselor who guided him from Jefferson High School to Washington University and a world of scientific discovery.
Top image: (From left) Jefferson HS principal Orlando Vera, Nobel Prize in Chemistry recipient William Esco Moerner, and former local FOX News Anchor Monica Taylor, who served as the master of ceremonies for the SAISD Foundation Inspire Awards ceremony. Image courtesy of John Lawler, SAISD videographer.