Throwback Thursday: 'I'll Flunk Ye if I Can' - Golden
"A history of Purdue University is being prepared by Robert W. Topping, senior editor, Office of Publications. From time to time, he will share with the Purdue Today readers anecdotes and vignettes from Purdue's colorful past." --Editor, Purdue Today, 1985
Has a college or university ever existed that did not have (at least in the minds and hearts of its students), its faculty "character?"
One such character in Purdue's history was the colorful Michael Golden, for whom Michael Golden Shops (later changed to laboratories) were named in 1920. Golden came to Purdue in 1884 as an instructor in practical mechanics from Boston where he had studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for two years.
He was a poor Irish lad who had worked as a barefoot millboy in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was determined to get an education and enrolled in MIT with $60 and conditional grades in two subjects. He paid his tuition with money he had saved from earnings as a sparring partner in Boston's famed boxing parlors.
Golden had flaming red hair parted on dead center and a temper to match its color. His Irish brogue was as thick as a London fog, perhaps thicker, and he made no bones about who ran his classroom. To most of his engineering students, he was hardly beloved. Fear - cold, clammy-handed fear- was how it was described by students later in life. They were also willing to concede that although he was unanimously feared, he was probably the best instructor at Purdue; few completed his course without knowing what practical mechanics was all about.
He was, as H.B. Knoll wrote in his 1963 book, The Story of Purdue Engineering, "a pugnacious combination of demands, disciplinary measures, and Irish fire." He could be arbitrary and threatening with such first-day speeches that included, "I'll flunk ye if I can, and I can if I want to," or "I'll flunk ye just as soon as I can get my pencil out." He reportedly told one student, "I don't care whether ye are right or wrong, if I say yer wrong, yer wrong!"
The 1905 Debris wrote of him "...if it suits his fancy to call a geometrical solid as large as a peck-measure a point, it is a point, so don't think it is a pussy cat, and if he says that 'dinymite' is a toothpaste or a steam 'ingine' is a flock of ponies, put it down-- for it's so and ye needn't bother yer head about it because I know and could flunk the bunch of ye by raisin' me little finger. Now that's straight."
Golden had a standing offer to put on the gloves with any recalcitrant or argumentative student brave or foolish enough to accept the challenge. Once on a daily quiz, a student who was totally baffled by his assignment, turned in a blank paper with only his name on it. Golden graded it as a minus 10 - for spoiling an otherwise clean sheet of paper.
While a faculty member, Golden was also a student and earned two degrees at Purdue, a bachelor of mechanical engineering and the professional M.E. degree. He was also something of a renaissance man. Golden was a superb athlete, exceptionally good as a wrestler and fencer in addition to his boxing prowess. He was an avid Purdue sports fan, attending nearly every varsity sporting event. He kept baseball alive at Purdue and even played in the faculty backfield for the annual faculty-seniors football game. He was also an accomplished musician on the flute, piccolo, and violin. He collected old books, and works of art, was a good photographer, and invented many of the machines used by manual training schools of that day.
John L. Sullican, colorful heavyweight boxing champion, knew Golden in Boston and said years later that he regretted Golden's decision to become a college professor when he could have been a great boxer and "made something of himself."