Tonawanda News

February 4, 2013

Kenmore native making good on accolade

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Everyone loves knowing the ending to a good story.

When the News had to stop publishing our daily “Do You Remember” feature for a few years because our microfilm machine broke, boy did we ever receive the Sound Off calls and emails. People weren’t pleased. Tonawandans love to be reminded of their personal history ... indeed, who doesn’t? 

When the Historical Society of the Tonawandas offered to launch the feature again several months ago after we agreed to let them house our microfilm archives, we probably got just as many calls and emails from readers happy to read a quick snippet of what happened that day in history 10, 25, 50 and 70 years ago. 

Readers are reminded of that time 10 years ago when boxer “Baby” Joe Mesina visited Tonawanda Middle School students, or perhaps when the Doris Day musical “Jumbo” was playing at the Riviera Theatre 50 years ago.

Or how about the Kenmore West student who was named one of the nation’s most promising young scientists by Westinghouse Science Talent Search 50 years ago on Jan. 23, 1963? Whatever happened to young Marvin L. Marshak, “son of Mr. and Mrs. Kalman Marshak, of 379 Knowlton Ave., Kenmore?”

Marshak was one of only 327 high school seniors across the country named as finalists for the prestigious recognition that came with a college scholarship. 

We decided to find out.

Fortunately for us, it wasn’t all that difficult to research. We tracked him down to Minneapolis, Minn., where he works as a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota. Promising ... certainly.

Marshak told us he didn’t end up winning the scholarship award, but that certainly didn’t deter him from pursuing an education and career in the field of science. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1967, and a master’s and doctorate in physics at University of Michigan in 1969 and 1970, respectively.

He found his first job in the field as a research associated and then assistant professor of physics at the University of Minnesota.

Marshak said he went to Minnesota for the job, but he ended up staying for a very different reason.

“I thought I’d come here for a while and then I’d move back East and then the usual thing happened,” he said. 

He had been in Minneapolis for about a month when he received a letter from his aunt that a friend of his cousin’s — a girl — would be moving to the city to go to school.

“At first I thought it was pathetic to go meet a girl but I was desperate,” Marshak said with a laugh. “We’re still together 42 years later.”

At first he didn’t leave Minnesota because his wife, Anita Sue Kolman, was in graduate school. And then they didn’t leave because they had their first child, Rachel, and the school’s child care was so good. And then came along their second child, Adam. Now he’s a grandfather of three.

Marshak’s profile on the University of Minnesota’s website lists accomplishment after accomplishment he’s achieved since working there. He was responsible for founding the school’s underground laboratory at Soudan, Minn., in 1979, and then supervised the expansion of the laboratory twice, once from 1984 to 1986 and again from 1999 to 2001.

“During the past 25 years, this laboratory has added about $100 million to the economy of an underdeveloped region of the United States,” the school’s website said.

He works in large collaborations with 100s of people testing neutrinos and their possible role in the evolution of the universe at the time of the big bang. 

Marshak says he’s an experimental physicist, meaning “I don’t sit in my office and think great thoughts, I go out and measure things.”

But with all these accomplishments with far-reaching implications, the one thing he said he’s most proud of in his career is teaching students. 

“The most important thing you can do is really help them get going ... get them into a new phase of their lives. When they (go to college), they’ve been told its different but they have no idea of how different it is,” he said.

He said he tries to make them teach them “that if you aim high enough then some of a fraction of the time, you’re going to fail and if you don’t fail you didn’t aim high enough. So go out there and do something.”

“I do get enough feed back from students that I was helpful, and that it keeps me going,” he said.

Marshak said he has fond memories of growing up in Western New York, though he hasn’t been back to visit much since he graduated high school. Immediately after his graduation, his parents moved to Syracuse, and later to Florida.

He remembers days as an 11-year-old spent on his bike riding out to Fort Erie with his friends and playing with explosives on the athletic field as a member of the chemistry club in high school — both things that are likely frowned upon by adults these days.

He also recalled being in the same class as journalist Wolf Blitzer’s older sister.

“He was the pain-in-the butt brother we were always telling to get lost,” he said.

The son of an accountant and teacher, Marshak said he doesn’t forget where he comes from. He considers his mother — a teacher, who was the child of illiterate parents — to be the best role model he could have had as a youngster.

Marshak and his two brothers all have graduate degrees, but “in terms of my family, (my mom) made the most progress,” he said.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that this “promising young scientist” indeed went on to become an accomplished professor of physics as an adult.

If there are any "Do You Remember" features you'd like us to follow up on, contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116, or email tonawandafeatures@tonawanda-news.com.