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Mutual affection, a man and his hometown

What happens to a small town in Kentucky when a native son wins the Nobel Prize?

Well, it bursts with pride, that's what.

And if the relationship is one of mutual admiration, so much the better.

When Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, head of the Department of Biology and Salvador E. Luria Professor of Biology, became a Nobel laureate this fall, praise and congratulations poured down on him from across the world. But obviously none meant more to him than that of the folks of Falmouth, Ky., and Pendleton County, who did not try to hide their pride.

His hometown newspaper, the weekly Falmouth Outlook, led the way with its coverage of the award.

In November, the newspaper carried a letter to the editor from Dr. Sharp under the headline, "Sharp writes letter to home folks." It carried this "Editor's Note": "Below is a letter from Phil Sharp in response to the Outlook's piece on him. on the occasion of his winning the Nobel Prize. With this letter, he would like to acknowledge his friends and express his sentiment and appreciation for all the attention paid to him back home."

The letter also included a plug for the teaching profession.

"Dear Friends of Pendleton County," Dr. Sharp wrote, "I want to express my thanks for the warm congratulations upon receipt of the Nobel Prize in recognition of my research.

"I am quite overwhelmed and it is with great pleasure that I share this honor with you. Both of my parents' families are long-time citizens of Pendleton County and I generally return for my family's annual reunion. In fact, I have subscribed to and have enjoyed reading the Outlook for the many years I have been away. You are being watched from afar!

"I want to take this opportunity to also thank the citizens of Pendleton County for my education, first at McKinneysburg, then Butler and finally in the newly consolidated Pendleton County High School. I was taught math, English and science by caring and responsible teachers. This education made it possible for me to make the transition to Union College which prepared me for my continued education at the University of Illinois for my doctoral degree.

"I trust this reminds you that your investment in the young in terms of teachers, schools and personal time will shape the next generation. About 40 years ago the county invested in me!"

***The same issue that included Dr. Sharp's letter also had a reminiscence from a classmate, Avonna Rice Heringer, along with a 1958 photograph of her and Dr. Sharp walking side by side at their eighth-grade graduation.

When she heard the news at 5am on Oct. 11, Ms. Heringer said, "I was very excited, but I was only mildly surprised."

She continued: "I have followed his research through newspaper articles. so I was sort of expecting that someday he would get such a reward.

"I attended grade school with Phillip at Butler, and he and I marched together at eighth-grade graduation, because we were near the same height.

"Our teacher. told the class that all of us had to link our little fingers together as we marched, and while some of us were not happy about this, we guessed it was better than having to hold hands!.

"Later, I also attended high school with Phillip. Phillip was just like most boys in school and he did make good grades, but he never boasted about that.

"The one thing I remember him for is being a kind and gentle person, at least he always was to me, so his parents taught him how to treat other people and for that alone they can feel proud of their son.

"Several people would like a large sign displayed on both ends of the county on US 27 that would read, `Pendleton County, Home of Nobel Prize Winner, Phillip Sharp.

"Finally, everyone I have talked to hopes that through his research, Phillip Sharp will find a cure for cancer because all of us have lost people we love to this awful disease. So, keep working, Phillip!"

***Whether or not Pendleton County (population 11,500) raises signs honoring Dr. Sharp, it already has taken steps to change the name of the road where he lived.

Debbie Dennie, editor of the Falmouth Outlook, said that Tailpoint Road (just beyond the town limits) would be renamed "Phillip Sharp Road."

Dr. Sharp's parents have since moved to Covington, Ky., north of the county, but he will forever be a local hero, Ms. Dennie said.

He stands as a role model to the youth of the sparsely populated county, she said, "that there are no limits to what a person can achieve if you have the mind to do so."

Ms. Dennie said the Nobel Prize had been an honor "for the county" as well as for Dr. Sharp and his family. "It's been the talk of the town here," she added.

***Actually, all those whose lives intersected with Dr. Sharp in his early years are taking pride in his accomplishment, but again he invariably returns their affection.

His long-time secretary, Margarita Siafaca, said, "Anything he's asked to do from that part of his life, he tries to do it."

Dr. Sharp was host this fall to three students from Union College in Barbourville, Ky., his alma mater, and one of them, Beth Hudson, editor of the college newspaper, the Union Express, wrote a story about the visit for the weekly Barbourville newspaper, the Mountain Advocate.

In it, she said that Dr. Sharp's feelings for the college, where he met his wife, Ann, run deep.

"I wanted a small school," she quotes him as saying. "I didn't want to be immersed in a large group of students. Lucky for me, they accepted me. There are certain memories in your brain that are associated with certain places. a crack in the sidewalk will make you remember a conversation, a particular person. That's what it's like to go back to Union. I have very fond memories."

He also told the student editor, "Ninety percent of what you are you will get from Union College, even if 90 percent of what you learn comes from somewhere else. Union is where you will learn to use that knowledge."

The article notes that neither of Dr. Sharp's parents attended college, that it was important for him and his family that he go, that Union was the only school he applied to, and that a Methodist minister had been instrumental in his decision to go to Union.

That minister, Dr. Sharp's parents, his high-school principal and former classmates were all with him on Friday, January 7, when recognition for his accomplishment reached the highest level of his home state at a reception in his honor given by Governor Brereton Jones in Frankfort. The governor designated that date as Phillip A. Sharp Day in the state of Kentucky, a day that will be celebrated every year.

"He said he had a great time," Dr. Sharp's secretary, Ms. Siafaca, said. "The people back home have been wonderful about this. They have really made it a lot of fun."

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 20).

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