Colorado College Bulletin

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Cloudman John Day Knows

By Anne Christensen

Photo by John DayPictured right:  Trade winds moving up-slope caused these cloud-poodles on the north side of Oahu to join together within an hour to become a shower-generating cumulonimbus.

Like a modern-day Horace Greeley urging his readers to “Go west!” John Day ’35 exhorts others to “Look up! Look up and see!” Since he retired from teaching physics and meteorology at Linfield College in Oregon, Day’s attention has shifted from the science of cloud formations to the beauty they contain, and now he wants to share his appreciation. 

“Sky watching is the greatest free show in earth,” says Day. “Clouds are so beautiful, so fascinating. If we can turn on young people to cloud observing, we will have done them a big favor, raising their consciousness level from simply observing clouds for the purpose of identification to appreciating them more deeply.” 

Day didn’t always have his gaze fixed on the skies. As a youth growing up in Colorado Springs, Day pursued a variety of outdoor sports and practiced piano under the firm hand of his mother, who also encouraged him to look beyond his athletic abilities to his intellectual and spiritual inclinations. 

“Part of my quest for a long time has been to reconcile my religious life and my scientific life. When I have my physics hat on, I study the how-come of the rainbow, which I can explain using geometric optics. But there’s a part of the rainbow that I can’t explain, and that’s its utter radiance and beauty. That’s when I visit the artistic and religious components of my being. If I think of God as the author of beauty, then clouds are a manifestation of the Great Author’s work. 

“When I look at clouds with the left hemisphere of my brain, I’m puzzling the causation of the structure of the cloud. But when I turn on the right hemisphere, I’m into the ah-ha mode — I’m standing back and marveling at the infinite variety of the forms that appear in the sky. I’m trying to give young people an ah-ha! experience with clouds.” 

Day was drawn to Colorado College by practical considerations — he graduated from high school during the Depression. Knowing he’d have to live at home, he applied to what was then the only college in Colorado Springs. He majored in physics for equally pragmatic reasons. “I had done well in science and math in high school, and that seemed the logical thing to continue with. But I was a mediocre physics student, because I had interests that were more compelling to me, like basketball and music.”

Sea fog rolls over the Golden Gate Bridge, photo by John DayThese two compelling interests would eventually collide. His sophomore classwork became more demanding, and his hours of practicing and playing piano with Johnny Metzler’s dance band at the Broadmoor and Antlers hotels conflicted with his basketball training hours; eventually he had to choose. “Very reluctantly, I gave up basketball, because music paid for my tuition,” says Day. 

Day graduated in 1936 with no specific plans for a future in physics, but two kismet events brought a sense of destiny to his life. A recruiter for the Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, Calif., came yearly to CC looking for graduates to fill its pilot and aircraft-mechanic courses. With financial help from the Hibbard family (of Colorado Springs department-store fame), Day signed up. 

One of his last gigs with the Metzler band was a one-piano setup in Pueblo. While the other pianist took his turns, Day watched the dancers, noticing one bright, pretty girl who’d attended CC for a year. On campus, Mary Hyatt had moved in a different social circle, but that night in Pueblo, waiting for his turn at the piano, Day asked her to dance. 

By the end of the evening, they were sitting in a stairwell, exchanging lists of what they wanted in their future spouses, finding unexpected compatibility. “I had to go to California for Boeing in two weeks,” recalls Day. “We agreed to write, and she’s a really good letter-writer.” (They married in Shove Chapel in 1937 and now have five children, 13 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren.) 

When Day reported to Boeing in Oakland, his physics background made him a natural for a new curriculum in airline meteorology. “That was the beginning of my fascination with meteorology,” says Day. “I was led there initially not by artistic interests, but scientific.” 

A Boeing friend who also hailed from CC, Marion “Speed” Deutsch ’33, indirectly connected Day to Pan Am, which hired him initially as a part-time airport guide and later as a full-time meteorologist. “It was an exciting time in aviation,” says Day. Pan Am was exploring the possibilities for commercial flights to Asia and Australia, and the Days spent a decade posted to assignments around the world: Honolulu, New Zealand, Australia, the Phillippines, and Japan. 

When Pan Am was absorbed into the Navy during World War II, Day became an “instant lieutenant JG” as a meteorologist forecasting weather for flight operations. After the war, he and Mary returned to the U.S. to raise a family. 

Thanks to the G.I. Bill, veterans were flocking to educational institutions, which found themselves short of teachers. Day found an opening in the physics department at Oregon State University, where he taught engineering physics and, with two colleagues, formed a meteorology department. He also earned his Ph.D. in cloud physics and wrote the first of three meteorology textbooks. 

“I’m not an illustrious scientist or a brilliant mathematician,” says Day. “If I’d not had such diverse interests, I’d have become a better scientist.” But his desire to address a wide range of subjects, including the interface of religion and science, led him back to the more familiar and comfortable environment of the liberal arts community. After a couple years at the University of Redlands in southern California, Day went to Linfield College to teach a variety of physics courses, including meteorology. Day remained at Linfield for the rest of his career, leaving only twice: once in the 1960s for post-doc work in London, and again in 1971 for a sabbatical studying the origin of clouds at the British Meteorological Office. 

Like many private colleges, Linfield ran into difficulties in the early 1970s. Enrollment dropped; the college was in dire financial straits. Day read about a new program at Redlands for nurses who needed baccalaureate degrees to advance professionally but couldn’t stop working to return to college. ‘No reason it shouldn’t work in Oregon,’ thought Day. 

In 1973, the college offered its first off-campus degree program, which Day headed for five years, until he retired. The college’s tuition income rose substantially, as did the number of graduates. “Linfield was the first in this region to adopt a new paradigm of taking its academic offering out to people who can’t come to the campus,” says Day. When Day retired in 1978, he went back to teaching Linfield’s meteorology course, which he still does each winter semester. 

Now in his 24th year of post-retirement teaching, Day will turn 89 this spring. He’s gotten into the artistic aspect of cloud-watching, taking more than 1000 photographic images. Many of Day’s images appear on his web site,, developed by his daughter. Recent visitors have checked in from Brazil, Peru, Japan, Singapore, and Belgium, and Day’s photos are soon to appear in a Dutch magazine and a Welsh textbook. “It’s always interesting to see what’s coming down the pike,” says Day. 

Day remains close to Linfield College, and not only in the classroom. As professor emeritus, he was invited to give the mid-year commencement address in December 2000. Afterward, Linfield’s president Vivian Bull described him as an innovative thinker who had the energy to implement those innovations to the betterment of the college. She inducted him as the third member of the Tall Oaks Society, which recognizes those who have made extraordinary contributions to Linfield College. 

The award, named after an especially stately tree in the middle of the college’s oak grove, symbolizes Linfield’s sturdiness and long life. Although Day says it was a complete surprise, the award seems a particularly appropriate tribute for a man whose vision and outreach helped reinvent and preserve the college, and whose own sturdiness and long life allow him to continue to contribute to liberal arts education.

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