Dr. Joe Vinson, Professor of Chemistry


Family History

Joe Allen Vinson was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas in the closet hospital to Sallisaw, Oklahoma where his parents lived and where his father was a social worker. Fort Smith was the home of the "Hanging Judge" who in the days before statehood had the policy that any serious crime was grounds for hanging. Joe spent the first few years of his life in Eastern Oklahoma where his mother grew up. His maternal grandfather (Joe Allen Wilson) was a Deputy Sheriff who survived a gunfight with two prisoners and who died in his 70's with about seven pieces of bullet still in his face and shoulder. He was also active prohibition searching for moon shiners in the hills and the confiscated booze gave a pleasant smell to the cool, damp basement where his grandson spent many afternoon trying to beat summer heat. His mother Laveda went to high school with the infamous robber Pretty Boy Floyd who had a movie made about him (She Never Dated him). The maternal side had Cherokee Indian Blood and his mother was a member of the tribe with voting rights and more importantly revenues from oil found on the tribal lands. The Cherokee alphabet was the only new alphabet since the Greeks and was invented by Sequoyah in the late 1800's who lived in the same county as the Wilsons, now called Sequoyah County. The paternal side of the family lived in Western Arkansas not far from Sam Walton of WalMart fame. His paternal grandfather was a farmer and mayor of London, Arkansas, a small town of several hundred inhabitants. In the 1950's he and all of the mayors of cities named London were invited to a celebration marking the 500th Anniversary of the founding of London, England. Papa Vinson refused, saying he had to tend his pigs. During WWII he left the family to make money in the shipyards of the San Francisco Bay Area and returned to tell his son, Allen to find his fortune in California. My Father and mother drove west, not quite for the reason or in the style of the "Grapes of Wrath".

They settled in War Housing apartments in Richmond, California across the bay from San Francisco. This where Joe's school years were spent and where his younger brother Fred was born. His father was an accountant for Chevron Oil Company at their refinery in Richmond. He later worked out of the Standard Oil Company's main office in San Francisco. After an exciting childhood of sports, reading many books at home and in the library and using his Mr. Wizard Chemistry set much to his mother's chagrin, Joe went to Richmond Union High School and was Salutatorian of his class of 1959. This was truly the "Blackboard Jungle" of a high school with gangs, weapons, fights, and drugs. Fortunately Joe managed to survive and went to the University of California at Berkeley as a freshman majoring in Chemical Engineering. After a miserable freshman year spend catching up academically and commuting from home, he became a member of Alpha Chi Sigma, a chemistry fraternity and switched to Chemistry, his first love but not his father's! He moved in the fraternity house and was saved from academic failure by his fraternity brothers who were all Chemistry majors and graduate students. He got on his first packet line protesting mandatory ROTC for all male students and his Senior Year an avowed communist was Student Body President. Joe received his first good grade, an B in Organic Chemistry. He got involved with a small organic synthesis and kinetics project and became hooked on research. He managed to graduate in 1963 and with the help of his Quality Organic Professor was accepted in graduate school at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He was a Teaching Assistant for 3 years and did his Master's thesis under Charles Kingsbury on the kinetics and mechanism of the Menshutkin Reaction. Joe took an Organic Analytical Laboratory and thought of an idea to test in the research component of this course, the improved rates of reaction os ester hydrolysis in dimethyl sulfoxide. this idea worked and it evolved into this first publication in Talanta, with the help of his course professor James Fritz who later became his co-research mentor. He received a research assistantship from the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy) and did a joint Ph.D. thesis in 1967 in both organic functional group analysis and physical organic chemistry. This is most unusual since most chemists have a very narrow speciality. However this trait of not "following the crowd" was a result of his days at the radical university, Berkeley. While at Iowa State he met and fell in love with a Bostonian Chemist who is truly his "other half". After a whirlwind courtship of 6 months they got married with grad students and parents at the Thomas Aquinas Campus Church. His wife Yvette helped with the writing of the thesis and then it was time to look for a real job.

Since he did not want to get a post-doctoral position, being too independent, he searched for a teaching position. Reagan was governor of California at the time and had slashed the educational budget. This prompted Joe to look elsewhere and he found an appointment as an Assistant Professor in central Pennsylvania at Shippensburg State College (now a University). His recruitment trip found him sleeping in “Old Main” in a bed where George Washington had really slept. His son Brian was born in Carlisle, PA (home of Jim Thorpe’s Carlisle Indian team) which is fitting for someone with Indian heritage. He and his family left to go to western Pennsylvania to teach at Washington and Jefferson College, the oldest college west of the Allegheny Mountains. There his second son, Kevin was born and there he got the acting bug. His first play he was drafted by a Librarian friend who bowed out. His first play was with the Faculty Dramatic Society and was entitled “The Bald Soprano” by Eugene Ionesco, an absurdist comedy, Joe was cast as the Fireman in pink long underwear who went around putting out fires. The review read “Buster Keaton with all the facial expression of silent comedy”. He acted in Feiffer’s Tales, Gallows' Humor, the musical Damn Yankees, and the Neil Simon comedies Odd Couple (he was Felix Ungar) and Cactus Flower You Know I Can’t Hear You When The Water is Running. This did not get him tenure but he had a lot of fun. He received a grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration to develop a simple urine screening assay for drugs. The first analytical paper with an undergraduate student using DMSO as a solvent for derivatization of amino acids, which utilized his grad school expertise.

The next stop in the journey was a stint in industry, J.T. Baker Chemical Company in Phillipsburg, New Jersey where he was Product Development Chemist from 1972 to 1974. He developed methods for an automated TLC instrument which was a “white elephant” which was too expensive and too difficult to run reproducibly. The methods were the analysis of drugs in confiscated samples for the police lab, drugs in physiological fluids for the clinical and toxicology lab and vitamins and drugs for the pharmaceutical industry. He gave talks at scientific meetings and published both manual and automated TLC methods. The family moved to the Poconos and lived on the other side of the hill from the Appalachian Trail with rattlesnakes, lots of birds and boulders buried in the ground where we tried to grow grass. While there he acted in a dinner theater version of Plaza Suite.

The next and last stop on the journey of life was in Scranton, Pennsylvania in l974 where he returned to Academics, his true love. There he got tenure at the University of Scranton, all the while living in an apartment in the Hill Section and staying with his family in the Poconos on the weekends. His first graduate student was an Indian from Gujuarat, Arun Patel, who worked on a quantitative analysis in blood for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, which was published in Analytical Chemistry. This was designed for testing drivers for legal purposes and could be done inexpensively without the use of elaborate instrumentation. One of his former graduate students gave him some analytical quality control work on a health food vitamin and mineral samples. This led to animal and human research that continues today. He also did some more acting with the University Players, Taming of the Shrew, The Importance of Being Ernest, and his crowning achievement as the father of the girl in the musical The Fantasticks. There he managed to sing and dance without making a complete fool of himself.

His one only sabbatical was taken in 1980-1981 in Reims, France, east of Paris, smack in the middle of the Champagne region. Prior to that he took a refresher semester of French along with his wife which was given by Dr. Bourcier of the language faculty at the University of Scranton. In France he did research at the Medical School situated adjacent to a hospital. So all day long he had to speak French to his research colleagues and his female research assistant. His wife, sons and Honda accompanied him to France and the sons enrolled in a French private school where they inevitable learned French and we all made wonderful friends whom we still visit. After school was over, the family spent several wonderful summer months camping in Germany, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, England, Ireland and Holland along with a tent, stove, etc. which took 3 hours to pack and unpack!

Dr. Vinson is an inveterate traveler and has been to meetings and given invited lectures in Western Europe, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, China, Japan and Mexico. For several years he led an January Intersession trip to Western Europe as part of a course entitled “An Experiential History of Science where they used their EurailPass to visit museums and attend lectures in England, Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Currently he is a National Tour Speaker for the American Chemical Society and does one or two week-long trips a year to speak to Local Section meetings of the American Chemical Society. He is the author of more than 90 articles in scientific publications and has been mentioned in many lay publications for his contributions to the field of antioxidants in health and disease. His extracurricular activities include the participation sports of tennis. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Chemistry. His older son Brian is a Senior Chassis Engineer at PREFIX Corporation and his younger son Kevin is an Accounting Professor at Keystone College and has a tax business.

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