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50 Plus Club Nimble Mind, Nimble Fingers

Mary Eschwei '46At first glance, the small,
painted, wooden penguin, standing on a shelf among a zoo of other animals of all different types, seems too small and intricately carved to have been crafted by human hands. But it has. In fact, using only an Exacto knife, a small piece of balsa wood, and her lively imagination, Mary Eschwei ’46 has used her hands to carve miniature wooden ornaments and figurines into cats, bears, mice, giraffes, trains, cars, carousels and anything else that strikes her fancy.

Considering both the miniature size of the ornaments and figurines and Eschwei’s lack of any formal training in either carving or painting, when you look at the intricate bridles and saddles that adorn each of the carousel horses in the carousel, you have to ask, “How did she do that?”

It all started soon after she graduated from Albright when she needed an idea for Christmas presents for her aunts. However, the inspiration for woodcarvings came from her uncle, who she remembered as always “working away” with a knife and fashioning a piece of wood into a small sailboat. What began that year as Eschwei’s Christmas presents to her aunts has grown into a tradition. She now makes ornaments for family and friends every year, and says that although it requires much patience, she enjoys working with her hands.

Her sources of inspiration vary; she may peruse Christmas cards in order to find ideas, or carve an animal or bird that she recently saw during her world travels. After carving the balsa wood, used because of its light weight, Eschwei pulls out a paintbrush and goes to work with her rainbow palette of colors, making sure to get every minute detail. She says of the painting, with a laugh, “The older I get, the harder it seems to be!”

While carving figurines has always been just for fun, Eschwei was recently offered the opportunity to display her woodcarving prowess on more than just the family Christmas tree. Her hometown of Sea Cliff, N.Y., a historic village, used to be a “cute little one mile square town” that people considered a vacation center, says Eschwei. Old photographs of Sea Cliff depict it as a bustling place with many hotels and boarding houses, as well as many fancy gingerbread-style houses. Sadly, many of the old and beautiful buildings are gone, so recently the Sea Cliff Village Museum decided to construct a diorama of the historical town.

Eschwei’s love of hands-on work and her practical-minded inclinations produced approximately one by one-and-a-half inch model hotels for the diorama. “It was a challenge to make them to scale and still keep lots of details,” she says, adding that she used old photographs to understand how her models should look. Eschwei’s small wonders are now on display at the Sea Cliff Village Museum, a fact which pleases her because she would “like the current population of Sea Cliff to know the history of the village.”

It’s no surprise that Eschwei chose a hobby that requires her to work with her hands. Her entire career has depended on it.

“You go as far as you can, as fast as you can, as long as you can.”

With her eyes on the goal of a career full of practical applications and hands-on lab work, Eschwei decided to travel a path that few of her fellow female students chose in the early 40s – a career in chemistry. “There were not too many women in the science fields,” she admits, but it is clear that this never discouraged her.

While she was still attending Albright, Eschwei found a summer research job working in the laboratory at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. After graduating from Albright in 1946, she felt none of the stresses of job searching or interviews; her summer stints in the labs grew into a full-time job lasting 46 years! In those days, the labs at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute accepted research contracts from NASA and other government agencies.

Eschwei found her chemistry degree to be very versatile, and soon became involved in research in physics, electro-physics, acoustics and optics. What intrigued her most, and what she loved about her work were the practical uses she could see in the challenging research she conducted every day, and the opportunity to roll op her sleeves and get her hands dirty, so to speak.

Today, Eschwei says it saddens and frustrates her to see this hands-on approach beginning to change. Research today is moving toward completely computer-geared work – and because of this, some of the practical classes and deep involvement in the research that she found so rewarding “has been lost.” Often, during an experiment, “there is a big difference between how the computer says it will work” and how the experiment actually works, says Eschwei. She notes that computers cannot understand or realize everything, which can be a handicap when conducting research.

Eschwei retired from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in 1992, and since then has kept her hands busy not only with woodcarving, but with a multitude of other hobbies as well. From her love of birds – developed at Albright while a student of Marcus Green, D.Sc., she notes – to her passion for slide photography, especially for use in slide shows of her travels, Eschwei says matter of factly, “You go as far as you can, as fast as you can, as long as you can.”

– Loren A. Morgan ’05

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