Stories from Ellie Lwin
My first encounter with Pief was in 2000. I was working down the hall
from Pief for Tom Himel, when Tom was Director of Research. Somehow we lost Tim Toohig, who was visiting SLAC with John O'Fallon.
A fellow called a second time from Germantown asking anxiously for Tim, so I hunted the halls. From his desk, Pief could see
into the hall passageway and sighted my troubled expression. With both arms raised, he waved me in, and asked, "What
His assistant, Nancy Hendry was in his office also, with pad and pen. Apparently, Pief and Nancy were in the middle of something,
but at his invitation,I explained my troubles, and Pief suggested "some good hiding places for DOE types" where I
might find Tim Toohig, and he proved correct.
Fours years later, when I myself became Pief's assistant, I had many direct experiences in Pief's open door policy. My office
was situated in front of Pief's, but I was never much of a gatekeeper. Long-time SLAC folks of course knew the way we did it,
but more often than not, I had to encourage folks to proceed ahead. I was always taken by the hesitation that even the most
senior visitors showed to Pief, knowing he would be busy.
My favorite story is of Sasha Skrinsky, who visited SLAC in 2006 and appeared at my doorway.
When I looked up, he made a smart bow to greet me and said, "I just want to look at him (gesturing an arm toward Pief), I
want to look at my Panofsky!"
When I began working for Pief, I made coffee in the office (per Peet's methods of drip brewing) for Pief and myself.
After about 4 months, Pief mentioned off-handedly that his doctor discouraged his "poison" consumption, so I promptly
removed the coffee paraphenalia and stopped making coffee.
I took to having coffee in another office, so as not to tempt Pief. On his last day, I slid back into my chair
midmorning with what I always thought was a rather convincing nonchalance. Pief came up to me with that smile of his, and
said," Drinking again?"
In mid-2006 when Pief was home recovering from surgery to both legs, we worked at the house. As the surgery had been
major and one incision had not yet healed, Pief had some real difficulty walking. (I suppose I need not mention that we
worked anyway.) From the study of the Panofsky house, I heard Pief trying to get around in the kitchen. I found him
looking through cupboards and holding onto countertops and the table for support. I volunteered to aid in the search and
to make a sandwich or whatever he wanted.
"No, that's quite alright," Pief answered, "you take care of your cats and dogs and I'll take care of
mine." I went back to the study to work, listening uneasily the whole while to sounds of effort in the kitchen.
It must be one heck of a sandwich, I thought. About 10 minutes later, Pief appeared in the study ---
with a somewhat sloshed cup of coffee he had drip-brewed for me.
Dick Taylor has spoken of Pief's "method of friendly persuasion." How I came to work for Pief certainly demonstrates the
effectiveness of that method.
When the position in his office became open, Pief asked that I apply. I labored two hours on a letter declining his
generosity. In truth, I was afraid of the depthless loss that I indeed felt when the day came. Then at age 85, Pief was in
the winter of his life, though a glorious winter at that. I sent my letter; Pief did not reply. A week later, I found to my
horror that I was approaching him in the hall. He saw I was coming, and stopped and waited. When I got within range, he
beamed his wonderful bemused smile at me, and asked, “So, who’s winning?”
Such hallway encounters went on for the better part of 6 --for me, miserable—weeks. "Who's winning?" “What’s the score?" I
never had a clever answer, or even a sufficient one. On two occasions, Pief even came over to my cubicle and gave me work to
Then one day about six weeks after my pathetic letter, Diedre Webb from Human Resources called and said Pief requested that
I meet him in his office at an appointed time. (Please grant there were Pief-waivers in hiring practices.) I confessed my fears
to Deidre, who said wisely, “I guess that means you’ll finish it out with him.” (Yes, I did.)
Being the junior member of the cadre, I felt Pief should not have to ask me twice. I went to his office like a recalcitrant
child in full contrition, and said I had done my better thinking and would like to throw my hat in the ring. Pief said,
“Well, let me see your hat.” I gave him my resume which he studied very, very thoroughly. Then he looked at me with that
smile again, and said, “It appears you don’t know how to take dictation. The bulk of my work will require that you take
dictation. What do you propose to do?”
There I sat at the table that had suddenly turned, trying to justify my qualifications.
- Ellie Lwin