I was born, April 29, 1941, on the kitchen table in the house my grandfather built on the family farm near Wausa, a nearly invisible part of northeast Nebraska. My mom had been sick during most her pregnancy. Her nausea medicine was a tablespoon of whiskey every morning. The doctor had spent the night before my birth as was the usual practice. The day before I was born, my Dad had planted a grove of trees west of the house near the cattle shed. Now, somewhat past 50 years, I have the satisfaction of living longer than that grove of trees and the kitchen table is still in use every day.
My grandparents emigrated from southern Sweden near the end of the 19th century and began farming in Nebraska. My father was born on the same farm as I was. He began full time farming at about age thirteen before he finished 8th grade. He continued on the farm until he retired at age 70. My mother went to Wayne State Teachers College for two years before she began teaching in a one room country school. She taught for four years, happy to have a job during the depression. Mom and Dad married near the end of the depression and dust bowl. Their life choices from the shadow of the depression certainly had a big influence on me.
Growing up on the farm was an ideal childhood. I had lots of pets–cats, rabbits, dogs, calves and horses. The first dog that I can barely remember was a big white collie named Pluto. Then my dog was Teddy, a short-haired brown dog with a curly tail and a white ring around his neck. Teddy was my friend, but I don't remember him following me everywhere. I think he went along when it was interesting, but may often have had better things to do. I had lots of cats, perhaps as many as twenty some times. There was a disease that killed most of the young cats and so only a few reached adulthood. My first horse was an old black shetland pony named Susy. She was foundered from too much grain and so couldn't move very well. She trained me well as I learned to ride and to enjoy riding. My first big horse was a large white horse named Lucky. Lucky was quite gentle but most of what I recall was that he was hard to make move fast. Roger, Susy, cousins Corlynn and Deanna Nyman, and Roger’s sister JoAnn are shown at right.
I started in the first grade at age five at a country school a half-mile away, Lincoln School, District 158. Photo at left is of Lincoln School students in 1946. Top row from left: Joan Peterson, Wayne Wrick, Lorey Anderson, Second row, Barbara Anderson, Marlin Carlson, Front row, Jerry Johnson, Roger Bengtson. I was the only one in my grade for all eight years, and there were from 5 to 9 kids in the school from nearby farms. There was no water at the school; a part of the teacher's duties was to bring a pail of water each day for drinking and washing hands. There were two outdoor toilets that were often tipped over at Halloween. The teachers in the school changed nearly every year, usually to get married. All of the teachers that I can recall had not moved far from their roots. Miss Ottoson was from a farm a mile away, my cousin Joan Peterson grew up less than a half mile from the school, Miss Larson was from Wausa, all of three miles away. Mardell Wrick had gone to the Lincoln school and lived with her parents about a quarter mile south of the school. By modern standards, our education was lacking. There was an old encyclopedia in the school. The books were in good condition, but old. You certainly did not ever write in a book. Everyone at the school seemed to succeed. Often two or three grade levels would be learning the same thing. Yet when we made the big step to Wausa High School, we may have felt we were at a disadvantage socially, but were able to get good grades there too. My estimate is that over half of the kids in Lincoln School while I was there went on to college or professional training. I am aware of a pharmacist, nurse, accountant, and college professor from that school.
The big events of the school year were the Christmas play and the track meet. From a young kid’s point of view, the Christmas program was a night of terror. The schoolhouse was fixed up with a stage separated from the audience by sheets hung on wires. The audience was enormous, probably at least 25 people including your parents and the parents of your classmates. You had to say a piece and then maybe be in a short play and sing songs. As I remember, we must have spent full time for two weeks rehearsing for the Christmas program. The other big event of the year was the track meet held in the spring of the year. The snows and mud were usually late so we felt we didn't get enough time to practice to prepare for the meet which was held in Wausa for all of the nearby country schools. There must have been at least a hundred kids at this meet and we all wanted to win something. I don't remember winning many races.
School District 158 closed in 1960. I went there for all of my grade school years. My sister JoAnn only attended for seven years. I certainly do not regret going to the country school. Modern economics certainly will not allow for that personal an education now. Each time I go back to the farm and see the empty pasture where I first enjoyed learning, I feel sad.
Life at Wausa High School was exciting after country school. Our class had 24 members; most had attended the grade school in Wausa, with about a third of the class coming from country schools. Fortunately, I was able to handle the academic challenges, made the honor roll most of the time, and graduated as salutatorian. My cousin, Vicky Pearson, was the valedictorian. I generally found math and science classes easy and fun. English and writing were not a pleasure though I liked to read a lot. One of the advantages of a small school was the chance to participate in lots of things. I took clarinet lessons and joined the band. My clarinet was handed down to later generations and was used until 2010. I tried to play basketball, football, and baseball but wasn't very good. My lack of speed and coordination kept me on the bench or on second team most of the time. However, I enjoyed pushing my body then, and still do. I sang bass in the chorus, not because of a great voice, but because anyone who wanted to could participate.
I went to college at the University of Nebraska thinking I would be a mechanical engineer. I don't know why I picked the University of Nebraska other than I had a few scholarships, and it seemed more exciting than Wayne State Teachers College. I had no idea what mechanical engineering was but soon into the semester, I found several parts of engineering that I didn't like–drawing and estimating the cost of bridges. All other classes were going well so I switched out of engineering and became a math major. I later added physics as a second major.
The first two years at Nebraska, I played clarinet in both the marching band and concert band. I greatly enjoyed the music activities but realized that my talent level was lower than some of the people around me. I dropped band my last two years because of heavier course loads and work. I held lots of part time jobs during my four years at Nebraska. I was a dishwasher, labor at the college bookstore, tutor, and computer programmer early in the computer age. I first met Billie while stocking books at the Nebraska Book Company. She chewed me out because she bought the wrong book for one of her classes. The first computer I worked on filled a large room and had only paper tape input. What a change. I now have a computer with thousand times more power sitting on my desk. The second semester at the University of Nebraska I pledged Theta Xi fraternity and lived in the fraternity house for two years. The main reason I joined a fraternity was that the people around me in the dorm didn't do anything–just sat around and complained. I preferred to study hard and to play hard.
I graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1962 and went to work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA as an aerospace engineer. I took that job because it offered the best chance of graduate school. I took classes part time, went to Virginia Polytechnic Institute full time for one semester and completed an MS in physics in 1964. Billie and I were married in June 1963 and went to live in Williamsburg. She completed her last year of college at William and Mary in Williamsburg where we lived a block away from college corner and the restored area. One of the pleasures of living in Williamsburg was Arlyne and Edmund Derringe. Arlyne was my cousin; she had grown up 3/4 mile away from the Bengtson farm but ran off and got married before I could remember her. Edmund was the business manager of the athletic department at William and Mary and a football coach as well. We greatly enjoyed living close to the Derringes and their kids.
Billie and I left the Tidewater VA area in fall of 1964 to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland. I began working on a PhD in physics and Billie was a speech therapist in Price Georges County. The basic insecurities moving from a one-room country school were multiplied many times when I began classes at UMD. In conversations with fellow students I heard comments such as "I don't expect this to be a hard course–I took it last year as an elective at MIT," or "I'm just taking this course to brush up for the qualifying exams." However, I managed to survive the course work, the qualifying exam, and the other stresses of graduate school to complete a PhD degree in August 1968. In retrospect graduate school was a wonderful life; we had no money, lots of stress, but wonderful friends and a good social life. We first found out about our penchant for wandering during graduate school. After I passed my qualifying exam and Billie finished her MS in Speech Pathology we took off for 2 + months travel in Europe. We had a few dollars—a thousand—and lived frugally enough to stay for the entire summer.
During the last year of graduate school while writing my dissertation, I decided I didn't want to go back to NASA. I basically felt there might be more exciting things to do, so I resigned. I wasn't aware of a big job crunch for physicists coming up but was lucky enough to get a job as a faculty associate at The University of Texas at Austin. My thought was to sample academic life for a few years and then take a high-paying job in industry. I remained at UT for 46 years.
Our first child, Nissa, was born while we were finishing up our time at University of Maryland. Billie and Nissa flew to San Antonio to be with her parents and buy a house while I drove to Austin. Roger and Nissa are shown at right.
Life at the University was a real pleasure. I would wake up excited to go to my office; there were stimulating people to talk to; interesting research and fun students. There was a big gym only a few blocks from my office where I would go every noon. My activities at Gregory Gym ranged widely, from running to handball, squash, racquetball, weight lifting, exercise classes–basically whatever looked like it would be fun. Quite often, I would play a student in my classes and get to know them better. Several of my friendships came from initial contact and competition in the gym.
Two more children were born in Austin. Eric was born in 1970 and was killed in an auto accident later that year. Hans was born in 1971 and is now a pain management specialist in Austin.
Research work at UT evolved from atomic spectroscopy in my thesis to mostly plasma physics. I found what I enjoyed was the connection between macroscopic parameters and microscopic details. When I arrived, my start-up package was $30, 000—a far cry from the present million dollar packages to get someone set up and going. The good thing about having a limited budget was that it forced you to hustle research money. During my stay at UT, my research was funded by Air Force Office of Sponsored Research, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Sandia National Laboratory, Ad Astra–a privately funded start up company, and Welch foundation. Maybe there were more that I have forgotten.
My research interests varied from edge turbulence in a tokamak, plasma diagnostics, radio frequency heating, laser-produced plasmas in a high magnetic field, and plasma rockets. Yes, I am a rocket scientist and a space cadet. Some of the research that I feel good about is the connection between edge turbulence and plasma confinement, our work on helicon plasmas, and research for the development of a plasma rocket. One of the pleasures of the research work was the people involved–thinking about a single big problem by smart people with different backgrounds and skill sets and watching the knowledge grow. A major part of the research was with students, mostly grad students and a few undergraduates. I felt an enjoyment in watching the students evolve as I was learning from them. Roger and Bille traveling in Canada pictured at right.
Teaching at UT was both the best thing that ever happened to me and the hardest job I ever had. In total, teaching was enjoyable, students were bright, mostly worked hard and wanted to do well. Not all fit this description but enough to make teaching fun. The details of grading, and the bureaucracy detracted from the pleasure of teaching. The longer I taught, the more I enjoyed it–maybe I learned to understand the students more and felt more comfortable with the physics. My favorite courses to teach were upper level physics major courses such as modern physics where the students were learning new stuff and how to apply the many math skills they had developed. I particularly enjoyed junior lab where the students were pushed to do an experiment, analyze it and write about it in a lab report. For most students this was the first course that pushed them to be a lab physicist charting their own way.
A particular pleasure was working with good PhD graduate students. I was the advisor or co-advisor of more than 30 PhDs. I feel good about what they have done after leaving UT and try to maintain contact with them. My ex-students are researchers at national labs, chip builders, provosts at universities, vice presidents at high tech companies, staff members and head of the US fusion program, modelers for financial companies and designing state of the art lighting. Several ex-grad students were present at my retirement party and said things that made me feel good.
From April 1, 1984 to summer 1988 I was chairman of the Physics Department. It was a great time. It was during this period that I saw the University primarily as a teaching institution with a constituency of parents, legislators and donors, along with a faculty, staff and students of many hundreds to deal with. Occasionally, I had to deal with an SOB, but in retrospect, none were 4πSOBs. It was a great learning experience both about the world and about myself but after three years, I realized that being chairman was not what I wanted to do when I grew up. In particular, chairman duties cut into family interactions. There were many evenings when I would get a call from Hans, “Come home and cook, I am starving.” So I completed a little more than a four-year term as chair, took a sabbatical in Munich and went back to the best job in a university–a faculty member interacting with students.
So now that I have retired after 46 years at the University of Texas at Austin what am I going to do? In many ways, I don’t know. I want to do more photography and woodworking. I have taken up tennis as the arthritis in my wrists brought an end to handball. Billie and I have been traveling and there is a lot more enjoyable traveling to do. There are so many things I want to do and the same number of hours in a day as before my retirement so I can’t imagine being bored.
Picture at right was taken in a slot canyon near Escalante, Utah. The caption might read “between a rock and hard place–just like being a chair of Physics Department”
Bengtson Photo Album
Pretext Tokamak Photo Album