As I continue my efforts to preserve the legacy of Augusta psychiatrist Dr. Hervey Cleckley, two synonymous terms keep popping up — “Renaissance man” and “polymath.”
A polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. Such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve problems and assist individuals and organizations. Rather than referring to Renaissance men and women, I will use the term polymath.
Toward the end of this column I will highlight some of the polymaths in our area and suggest how they may be helpful to you and the organizations with which you are associated.
Dr. Cleckley – with his unbounded curiosity; his interest in travel, languages, literature and athletics; as well as his skills in so many areas – certainly meets the test of a polymath.
History tells us that Leonardo da Vinci probably is the best example of a polymath. Others include Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill and Buckminster Fuller.
In more modern times, Story Musgrave, Steve Jobs, Issac Asimov, Jeff Bezos, Jean Cocteau, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Richard Feynman all fit nicely into this category.
To highlight three of these, let’s examine (with the help of one of my favortie websites, Wikipedia) the lives of Musgrave, Asimov and Cocteau.
Musgrave is a decorated Marine, aviation electrician, instrument technician, aircraft crew chief, mathematician and experimental parachutist (with more than 500 free falls).
Musgrave is a surgeon, a National Heart Institute fellow and a professor of physiology and biophysics. He has an MBA in operations analysis and an MFA in literature. He also is an astronaut – the only one to have flown on all five space shuttles – and he helped design many things that keep astronauts alive. At age 81, Musgrave still is going strong.
Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was a French poet, novelist, artist, filmmaker, dramatist, designer, boxing manager, diarist, ballet scenarist, illustrator and playwright. This polymath par excellence was an internationally renowned figure who was an influence on Modernism and the 20th-century avant-garde.
Isaac Asimov (1920-92) wrote or edited more than 500 books. His works have been published in nine of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal System.
“While most prolific writers tend to concentrate almost exclusively on a single genre,” according to one reviewer, “Asimov was a polymath who wrote widely on a variety of subjects.”
Having surveyed many folks in our area, here are polymaths who keep popping up: Kevin Grogan, Lee Ann Caldwell, Steve Hobbs, Jim Garvey, Dudley Bowen, Benita Long, Dennis Sodomka, Terry Elam, David Hudson, Jane Howington, Brooks Keel, Clint Bryant, Menhard Inhan, Cobbs Nixon, Carl Purdy, Tim Owings, Tom Sutherland, Louie Griffin, Faye Hargrove, Mark Albertin, Bill Toole, Tony Robinson, Billy Morris, Samuel Sullivan, Shell Berry and the late Starkey Flythe.
So how can these remarkable people be helpful to us? Polymaths have extraordinary curiosity as well as the ability to retain information, knowledge and wisdom. Hence, if you need help, they can often come to your aid. They just know a whole lot of stuff and tend to be in contact with a wide range of people from many avocations and disciplines. Hence, when you are looking for help or advice, a good place to start is contacting your polymath contacts.
How do you expand this circle of people?
1. Join a civic club and get to know the polymaths in the club.
2. Start working with one or more nonprofits in our area and try to get to know the board members. Polymaths populate these boards disproportionately.
3. Seek out the polymaths in your church or temple.
4. Ask polymaths out to coffee, lunch or supper, and probe their minds.
To return to the subject of Dr. Cleckley: I am looking for help. Videographer Mark Albertin and I are developing a DVD of Dr. Cleckley’s life. We are looking for stories, pictures, home movies – anything that will help us get a more complete picture of his extraordinary life.
I already have fine input from Joan Walker, Ann Overstreet, Martha Moody, Harry Sherman and Connor Smith. Please contact me at (706) 399-9754 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you think you can assist in this project.
(The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – serves of the board of the Augusta Museum of History. His website is genpsmith.com. Dr. Cleckley was the uncle of Smith’s wife, Connor.)