The First UROP Grant Recipients
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George "Steve" Wall '88
Major: English
Job title: Lead Summit Optics Technician, W.M. Keck Observatory, Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Hometown: Hilo, Hawaii

Steve Wall '88
George "Steve" Wall '88 and monkey.

What have you been doing since graduation, and what are you doing now?

Unlike most of my friends, I graduated in December of '88 because I had taken an earlier semester off to save money for tuition. This dumped me into the job market at a bad time: winter in New England. I spent a few months at a temp job, scrubbing discoloration off foreign-made running shoes at the Nike warehouse in Greenland, NH beneath a banner that read "JUST DO IT!" It was a dull job, but I worked alongside another temp hire who told me he spent most of the year working in the Merchant Marines, travelling around the world and buying automatic weapons and explosives for resale to militia groups in the U.S. I didn't believe him, but on our lunch break one day he showed me the trunk of his car, which was full of automatic weapons and explosives. No, I'm not making this up. He scared the hell out of me.

Spring came and I ditched shoe-scrubbing to drive an ice cream truck around the Seacoast area with my friend John, another recent UNH alum. A sad truth about this line of work is that one could actually witness housewives come to blows over whose child was first in line when the truck pulled up. People can be brutal. But then sometimes our route would take us through the UNH campus on Friday and Saturday nights, where inebriated students would try to buy ice cream with warm cans of Bud Lite. Of course, there isn't much money to be made as a mobile vendor of frozen novelties, but John managed to save enough to travel to Spain to retrieve his girlfriend, a beautiful woman named Angeles whom he had met during a semester abroad in Granada. I, on the other hand, used my money to rent a van and move to Providence, where I was to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in 1990.

Although I had majored in English while at UNH, I also took many art classes, focusing primarily on sculpture. These sculpture classes were taught by a brilliant guy named James Charleton, a native New Zealander on some sort of temporary loan to the university. James fostered my artistic efforts and encouraged me to apply to the MFA program at RISD, where I was accepted without an undergraduate art degree based solely on the merit of my portfolio (which was pretty cool, given that it doesn't happen very often).

It was also James who had earlier suggested that I apply to the newly inaugurated Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program during my senior year at UNH, and upon being awarded a grant I was invited, along with the other recipients, to pose for the cover of the Alumni Magazine. We were each encouraged to bring tools and props related to our proposed research to the photo shoot. Given that my work was in the field of mixed media large-scale installations, I had no tools per se, so I showed up with a chainsaw, which I thought would seem pretty butch and might end up impressing any attractive girls who happened to be there. But in the end I felt like kind of a dork because I had never actually used a chainsaw before and I was worried that someone might ask me to demonstrate my prowess with the thing on camera. Still, it was the money from that grant that funded the work that eventually got me into RISD—I bought plaster, paint, old furniture, mannequin parts, lighting equipment, even a dilapidated rowboat. The sad thing is that sometime after I went to grad school James's contract with UNH ran out and he was forced to return to New Zealand.

Steve Wall '88
Steve Wall on the beach.

Jump forward to the conclusion of my MFA two years later and I was now ready to begin my career as a Starving Artist. My plan was to apply my English degree from UNH to my work as a fiction writer, while simultaneously using all available kitchen floor space to expand upon the sculpture work I had been doing at RISD. This plan also involved the consumption of massive amounts frozen tater tots, cheap beer and instant coffee, as well as a series of requisite low-paying, menial day jobs to support my art habit—chief among these being a stint as the manager of an infamous Portsmouth coffeehouse called the Elvis Room (which eventually closed down after one of the owners was stabbed by a customer) and almost 10 years as a stagehand at the Portsmouth Music Hall (where a friend once told me that I could make "literally hundreds of dollars with a career in theater").

All told, this period of my life lasted more than 15 years. There were many short stories written, and some even published. I showed and, on occasion, sold my artwork. I even had a few spoken work gigs in front of a live jazz band that resulted in my inclusion on a CD: Beat Nights at the Electric Cave. I loved every minute of it, even if I couldn't afford a car or proper furniture. But as middle age crept up on me I began to think about settling down, maybe even getting a dog. In 2004 I met a beautiful woman named Melissa, who, unlike any of my previous girlfriends, had a remarkable tolerance for my vertiginous mood swings and lack of long term goals, and we got married in Vermont (why Vermont? I honestly don't remember). In the spirit of adventure we sold all our possessions and moved to the Island of Hawaii to start a new life. Melissa is now days away from graduating from the University of Hawaii at Hilo with a degree in nursing, and I am currently the Lead Summit Optics Technician at the W.M. Keck Observatory, the most powerful optical telescopes in the world, located on top of Mauna Kea, a 14,000-foot mountain in the middle of the Pacific. I still have no idea how I ended up with this job, but Melissa and I own a house, we have a dog and two cats, and our garden is full of avocados, pineapples, papayas, bananas, citrus and ginger. I have also travelled to Belize, Honduras, Australia, England, Indonesia and this winter I hope to go to Thailand. Life is pretty good.

In closing, I would just like to say that about 11 years ago my father, who shared the same name as me, passed away, and through some confusion of postal notification the Alumni Magazine took his death to be my own and included me in the alumni obituary column. I hope the preceding history will clear that up. Aloha!

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