Behind the Brick

Mike Blue, 72, Amicus

“Amicus” is the Latin word for friend, one of the key attributes brick-donor David Hiscoe (NC State Class of 1971, 1975) wanted to honor about his close friend Mike Blue (Class of 1972). “Mike was incredibly smart, the sort of physics-genius smart that you find in a lot of NC State technology students. He was also driven by a strong sense of fair play and kindness.” But most of all, he was just a good friend to a very large group of people. Says Hiscoe: “He once gave me his sleeping bag in Linville Gorge when mine got wet; he was just an incredibly decent, thoughtful guy.”  Reaching into his wallet and taking out a worn picture displaying four young friends from July of 1972, Hiscoe recounted his quintessential tale of collegiate growth and friendship as if it occurred yesterday.

Hiscoe, a liberal arts student (and now the communications director for the NCSU Libraries), encountered Blue, a physics major, in a senior-level English class. “We met in Sydney Knowles’ famous twentieth-century American lit class; I was fascinated by this guy. He smoked a pipe calmly, like he was twenty years older than the rest of us—and at a time when everybody was trying to look like a cowboy he carried himself with a distinctly intellectual air.” Hiscoe continued, “he would open up the liberal arts students to knowledge that was then way outside what most of us had been exposed to, such as black holes or Einstein’s theories of time and space.  And he did it in a way that got our attention and that we could understand. Even when we were both in our late teens, I was already beginning to see him as the perfect NC State community member, the technologist who drew his circle much wider than just the mysterious world of science.”

Hiscoe recalled a time when Blue completely changed the direction of a class session by relating some difficult literary material to physics. “We were stumbling around pretty unsuccessfully talking about Gertrude Stein, a modernist writer who doesn’t follow usual straightforward narratives (she’s most famous for declaring that ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’); Mike explained to the class that how she looked at the world was pretty much how a contemporary physicist saw it—the world we see is not the quantifiable world the scientist sees. Way before her time, Stein was trying to capture that abstract concept in words.” It was then Hiscoe decided Blue was an interesting guy and they started hiking together and hanging out.

Part of what Hiscoe admired about Blue was his unusual sense of balance and maturity and his ability to forge friendships in unlikely places.  “It was the late sixties and many students across the campus held a lot of anger about what was happening in Vietnam,” Hiscoe recalled. “People our age were dying. We had lost high school friends. Students who weren’t mad about the war were mad about those who were. In hindsight, Mike was always the reasonable one in that regard. He challenged us to stay positive and brought with him a levelheadedness, humor, and a calmness to that uncertain time.” Blue’s best friends in college included a sheetrock installer, a future English professor, an NCSU baseball player, a Buddhist who would spend most of his life renouncing material things, and the son of a Southern preacher, quite a variety.

Of course, many friendships in college are based on the adventure of breaking away from family and the familiar. From early on in their friendship, that search for adventure, usually in an outdoor setting, became important glue for Hiscoe and Blue. After graduation, Mike bought a 1948 Dodge and drove his core group of friends across the country. It didn’t matter that Hiscoe and one other friend had less than ten dollars between them—Mike quickly stepped in and picked up the tab. It was meant to be a literary and hiking trip ending with a month of mountain climbing in Alaska. Hiscoe fondly recalled, “we went to Mark Twain’s house, we went to bars that Jack Kerouac frequented, and we hiked through the Grand Canyon. We were really crushed that we couldn’t make it to Elvis’s mansion in Memphis, though.” It was the archetypal coming of age road trip. Unfortunately, the group only made it to San Francisco before they ran out of gas money, leaving the adventurers stranded. A year later, as Hiscoe geared up to hike the 2100 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), Mike famously quipped “you’ll get hurt out there without me,” took some time off from his job, and accompanied Hiscoe through the 100 Mile Wilderness, the part of the trail in Maine many consider the most daunting part of the hike.

Taking any job they could find during the recession of the 1970’s, Hiscoe and Blue worked in construction together and then parted ways. Mike moved to the southwest where he worked on water issues for the Department of Agriculture. Hiscoe recalls the tough economic times and Mike’s unusual career path this way, “Mike represented the best of what NC State teaches: he was trained as a good physicist, and that’s what he wanted his career to be. But when life took him in a totally different direction based on what society needed at the time, he had the solid educational base that allowed him to succeed in a totally different field. And he did so with a decency and respect for others that are engendered here. Water issues out west are still very contentious, dividing communities and easily breaking friendships.  By all accounts, Mike’s success in his career was attributable to his levelheadedness and ability to see both sides of a situation.”

In late 2008, Hiscoe learned of Blue’s early death. “Here is a friend who was less than sixty years old; the last thing I was expecting was a heart attack. It was very sobering.” Hiscoe recounted, “It makes you think about the big things, about the worth of the people who shaped your life, about what lasting things people leave behind when they pass through a formative place like NC State.” Hiscoe continued, “Mike really expanded my intellectual horizons. When we were young, he had seen more and was much more intellectual than I was. And he was a great friend. The brick placed at the symbolic center of the University he loved is the perfect way to remember these traits.”

by Jason Smith