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September 19, 2010

U of C Alumni

So if you’re having second thoughts already or if Big State U suddenly doesn’t sound so bad when you’re struggling through Hum reading at 2 a.m., it helps to be reminded that every so often, someone gets out of this place and makes good. In fact, the U of C has been one of the first stops on the road to riches or renown (the actual Aims of Education, no matter what the speaker tells you) for a long list of people. Being a Maroon isn’t always easy, but it’s nice to know you’re in good company.

For example, Billy Cottrell wasn’t much of a student in high school, but he had a knack for physics, and his essay so impressed the U of C admissions office that they decided to admit him. He arrived here 10 years ago, in the fall of 1998 and, finding himself in an environment appreciative of his smarts, began to excel academically. He collected accolades in the math and physics departments and, after graduation, headed off to Caltech to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

Once he got there, Cottrell began a series of small-time pranks that eventually escalated into a campaign of ecoterrorism, culminating in the destruction by Molotov cocktail of several Hummers at a Los Angeles dealership. For his efforts, the former Maroon received widespread media attention, became a cause célèbre in environmental circles, and was given an eight-year prison term.

Granted, Cottrell chose to distinguish himself in an unusual manner, and, to be fair, our physics department has produced far more Nobel Laureates than ecoterrorists—12 U of C alumni have won the Nobel Prize in physics, including Frank Wilczek (A.B. ’70), one of three recipients in 2004.

Besides those 12, 18 U of C graduates have won Nobel Prizes in other disciplines, the most famous being economist Milton Friedman (A.M. ’33), who also taught here. If you count anyone who was ever affiliated with the University, the U of C can claim a hand in 82 Nobel Prizes—although until Barack Obama won last fall, none were in the Peace category.

Of course, it’s no big news that the U of C practically mints pioneering academics. The Beckers, Watsons, Fermis, and Friedmans have their names and faces on buildings, banners, and T-shirts all over campus. But not every U of C grad becomes a towering intellectual, so in the interest of balance, here are a few alumni that aren’t trumpeted as loudly.

First, more criminals. No rundown of U of C lawbreakers would be complete without mentioning Leopold and Loeb, two students who famously (and brutally) murdered a 14-year-old boy in 1924. Their crime gained great notoriety, which only increased when Clarence Darrow, arguing for the pair before a judge, claimed they only committed the murder because they thought they were Nietzschean supermen. So U of C!

On the other side of the legal system, there was Eliot Ness (A.B. ’25) of Untouchables fame, the Prohibition-era FBI agent who led the investigation that brought down Al Capone’s bootlegging operation. Further up the law enforcement ladder, the U of C has churned out four attorneys general of the United States: Ramsey Clark (A.M. ’50, J.D. ’51), Robert Bork (A.B. ’48, J.D. ’53), Edward Levi (A.B. ’32, J.D. ’35), and, most recently, John Ashcroft (J.D. ’67).

Ashcroft isn’t the only former Maroon who found a spot in George W. Bush’s administration. He was joined by Paul Wolfowitz (Ph.D. ’72), formerly the deputy secretary of defense, and the late Tony Snow, the Fox News commentator-turned-White House press secretary, who was briefly a grad student here.

That Tony Snow never finished his degree puts him in with another notable but largely unsung group: U of C dropouts. Among their ranks are author Kurt Vonnegut, film critic Roger Ebert, actor Ed Asner, and Second City co-founder Mike Nichols.

Rather than just dropping out, Saul Bellow took matters one step further and transferred to Northwestern. Even so, the U of C claims him as one of its numerous alumni who have gone on to careers in literature and journalism. Others include David Broder (A.B. ’47, A.M. ’51), David Brooks (A.B. ’83), Katharine Graham (A.B. ’38), Susan Sontag (A.B. ’51), Philip Roth (A.M. ’55), and Studs Terkel (Ph.B. ’32, J.D. ’34). Those guys graduated a long time ago, but don’t take that to mean the Maroons’ artistic production has dropped off of late. More recent classes have included Tucker Max (A.B. ’98), author of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell; Hayden Schlossberg (A.B. ’00), co-writer of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle; and Jason Shaw (A.B. ’95), the videographer behind one of Paris Hilton’s home movies.

Besides dating a multimillionaire heiress socialite, Shaw appeared in a WB series, several direct-to-DVD movies, and has had a successful career in the male modeling industry. Yes, the U of C is a fine school, and there truly are no limits to what a Maroon can achieve.

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