The Libretto

A celebration of the importance of public education in America, Gathering's libretto weaves together important texts from revered scholars with meaningful ties to the University Illinois. Drawing upon his own deep connection to his alma mater, Richard Powers' powerful libretto celebrates 150 years of tradition and innovation in leadership, creativity, the sciences, and the humanities at the University of Illinois.




About Richard PowersPowers_DiOrio

Excerpted from Understanding Richard Powers by Joseph Dewey

Powers’s characters themselves shift between the impulse to connect and its inevitable crash and burn; between the Emersonian urge to embrace the difficult ad-lib of the world and the Dickinsonesque need to recoil from its evident bruising into the supple sanctuary of the aesthetic enterprise, to withdraw into the secured refuge of a novel, a piece of music, a movie house, a museum, even cyberspace. Although long reluctant to encourage the distraction of biography, Powers has lived–like his characters–sustained within a curiously similar geography; never quite at home, never quite comfortable with belonging, shifting between engagement and escape. Powers was born 18 June 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, the fourth of five children, two older sisters and a brother and one younger brother. Early on, in the mid-1960s, his father, a high school principal with a working-class background, moved the family to the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood, an older neighborhood, Powers recalls, that was heavily Jewish. 

Powers then spent what he has frequently described as five “eye-opening” years in Thailand when his father accepted an appointment with the International School of Bangkok during the height of the American military presence in Southeast Asia. Amid such dramatic relocations, the young Powers discovered the aesthetic sanctuary: he tapped into both a sustaining love of music (an accomplished student of vocal music, he trained in the cello but also plays guitar, clarinet, and saxophone) and a restless curiosity fed by voracious reading. His earliest reading passion, however, was for nonfiction, specifically biographies and science (he has cited particularly the impact of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle—which he read, amazingly enough, in fourth grade). As a teenager, he explored careers in paleontology, oceanography, and archaeology before ultimately choosing physics.

In his formal studies, however, Powers would soon find himself pulled between science and the arts. In 1975, he enrolled as a physics major at the University of Illinois. Following a pivotal course, an honors seminar taught by Robert Schneider, a charismatic teacher and an accomplished Freudian critic who Powers recalls convinced him that literature was the “perfect place for someone who wanted the aerial view,” he changed to English/rhetoric when he realized, with some frustration, that the sciences demanded, even encouraged, an intolerable specialization. Powers completed his M.A. in late 1979. But the humanities could not provide Powers a secure space. He elected not to pursue doctoral studies as he feared finding in literary theory and criticism the same limiting need to specialize.

Powers moved to Boston in January 1980 and worked as a computer programmer and freelance data processor, skills he had developed ruing his off-hours learning the massive computer network systems at Illinois. He lived near the Museum of Fine Arts, where he would spend Saturdays (admission was free before noon), and where, one week, he chanced upon an exhibit that included August Sander’s 1914 black-and-white photograph of three Westerwald farm boys heading, according to the title, to a dance. Within forty-eight hours he quit his job to devote himself to producing his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. Powers's other major works include Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Gold Bug VariationsOperation Wandering Soul, and Galatea 2.2, an ingenious retelling of the Pygmalion story using a bizarre university computer experiment in which an eccentric neurologist, assisted by a young, successful writer named Richard Powers, attempts to teach a computer network to respond to literature.

Named in 1996 to Illinois’s endowed Swanlund Chair in English and appointed to the Center for Advanced Study (1999), Powers continues to write, teach, and travel. His twelfth novel, The Overstory, will be published in April. […]


About the Selected Authors

Fazlur Khan

Fazlur R. Khan, in full Fazlur Rahman Khan (born April 3, 1929, Dacca, India [now Dhaka, Bangladesh]—died March 27, 1982, Jiddah, Saudi Arabia), Bangladeshi American civil engineer known for his innovations in high-rise building construction.

After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Dacca in 1950, Khan worked as assistant engineer for the India Highway Department and taught at the University of Dacca. Qualifying for a scholarship in 1952, he enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where he received master’s degrees in both applied mechanics and structural engineering and a Ph.D. in structural engineering. He returned briefly to Pakistan and won an important position as executive engineer of the Karachi Development Authority. Frustrated by administrative demands that kept him from design work, however, he returned to the United States and joined the prestigious architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago in 1955, eventually becoming a partner (1966). In 1967 he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Khan’s many skyscraper projects include Chicago’s John Hancock Center (1970) and Sears (now Willis) Tower (1973), which are among the world’s tallest buildings. The Sears Tower was his first skyscraper to employ the “bundled tube” structural system, which consists of a group of narrow steel cylinders that are clustered together to form a thicker column. This innovative system minimized the amount of steel needed for high towers, eliminated internal wind braces (since the perimeter columns bear the weight of the wind force), and permitted freer organization of the interior space.

Khan’s later projects include the strikingly original Haj Terminal of the King Abdul Aziz International Airport (1976–81) in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, and King Abdul Aziz University (1977–78), also in Jiddah.


Mark Van Doren

Mark Van Doren was born in Illinois in 1894, the son of a doctor. He and his brother, the literary critic and teacher Carl Van Doren, grew up on the family farm. Both Van Dorens attended Columbia University, where Mark also earned his PhD. He would go on to become one of Columbia’s most renowned professors, teaching there for nearly 40 years.

Van Doren helped shape the humanities curriculum at Columbia and the great books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. At Columbia, he influenced a number of student writers, including John Berryman, Richard Howard, Allen Ginsberg, John Hollander, and Louis Simpson. Van Doren also published scholarly books on John Dryden, Shakespeare, and Nathaniel Hawthorne as well as An Anthology of World Poetry (1928) and the essay collections The Noble Voice (1946), Introduction to Poetry (1951), and The Happy Critic, and Other Essays (1961).

Van Doren’s own poetry favored traditional forms; David Perkins in his A History of Modern Poetry noted that “[Van Doren’s] mind was balanced, sane, humorous, and detached, and his poetry was low-keyed.” A 1938 reviewer of The Last Look, and Other Poems found that Van Doren created “a domestic metaphysical verse at a very sensitive level, a heightened reality, a satisfying recognition of the gods inhabiting things.” Van Doren’s poetry collections include Spring Thunder (1924) and the book-length narratives Jonathan Gentry (1931), A Winter Diary (1935), and The Mayfield Deer (1941). His Collected Poems (1939) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1940.


Rosalyn Yalow

Rosalyn Yalow (born July 19, 1921, New York, New York, U.S.—died May 30, 2011, New York), American medical physicist and joint recipient (with Andrew V. Schally and Roger Guillemin) of the 1977 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, awarded for her development of radioimmunoassay (RIA), an extremely sensitive technique for measuring minute quantities of biologically active substances. Yalow graduated with honours from Hunter College of the City University of New York in 1941 and four years later received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois. From 1946 to 1950 she lectured on physics at Hunter, and in 1947 she became a consultant in nuclear physics to the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, where from 1950 to 1970 she was physicist and assistant chief of the radioisotope service.

With a colleague, the American physician Solomon A. Berson, Yalow began using radioactive isotopes to examine and diagnose various disease conditions. Yalow and Berson’s investigations into the mechanism underlying type II diabetes led to their development of RIA. In the 1950s it was known that individuals treated with injections of animal insulin developed resistance to the hormone and so required greater amounts of it to offset the effects of the disease; however, a satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon had not been put forth. Yalow and Berson theorized that the foreign insulin stimulated the production of antibodies, which became bound to the insulin and prevented the hormone from entering cells and carrying out its function of metabolizing glucose. In order to prove their hypothesis to a skeptical scientific community, the researchers combined techniques from immunology and radioisotope tracing to measure minute amounts of these antibodies, and the RIA was born. It was soon apparent that this method could be used to measure hundreds of other biologically active substances, such as viruses, drugs, and other proteins. This made possible such practical applications as the screening of blood in blood banks for hepatitis virus and the determination of effective dosage levels of drugs and antibiotics.

In 1970 Yalow was appointed chief of the laboratory later renamed the Nuclear Medical Service at the Veterans Administration Hospital. In 1976 she was the first female recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. Yalow became a distinguished professor at large at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in 1979 and left in 1985 to accept the position of Solomon A. Berson Distinguished Professor at Large at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1988.