Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 5, A Long and Distinguished Career

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[This is the final post in our series celebrating the life of Dr. Kenneth Hedberg (1920-2019).]

Ken Hedberg participated actively in many professional organizations and received numerous fellowships and awards throughout his distinguished career. He was a member of the American Chemical Society, a fellow of the American Physical Society – for which he served terms as secretary-treasurer and vice-chairman – a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Chemical Physics.

Included in a long roster of decorations were the OSU Sigma Xi Research Award (1974), the OSU Alumni Distinguished Professor Award (1975), the International Dr. Barbara Mez-Starck Prize (2005) given for outstanding contributions in the field of experimental structural chemistry, and the OSU College of Science Lifetime Achievement in Science Award (2016).

His connections to Norway also resulted on numerous honoraries. In 1982 he was named a Norwegian Marshall Plan Fellow and he served as the Odd Hassel Memorial Lecturer at the University of Oslo in 1984. He was elected a foreign member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences in 1978, a member of the Royal Norwegian Society of Science and Letters in 1996, and in 1992 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Trondheim, Norway. He also enjoyed visiting professorships at the University of Texas at Austin and at the University of Reading, England.


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Scientifically, Hedberg is probably best known for being the first investigator to use gas-phase electron diffraction to determine the gas-phase structures of the fullerenes, C60, C70, and C60F48. But in addition to his contributions to research in physical chemistry and his expertise in the field of electron diffraction, Hedberg’s lasting impact can be measured, at least in part, by the genuine care and admiration that he engendered in his colleagues.

David Shoemaker, Ken’s former Caltech office-mate and later his department chair, nominated Hedberg for the OSU Alumni Distinguished Professor Award that he received in 1975. In his nomination letter, Shoemaker wrote that “Dr. Hedberg is a distinguished and dedicated teacher, among the finest in the department” and “certainly one of the outstanding researchers in this University and would be considered outstanding in any University I know of (and I was on the MIT faculty for 19 years).”

Shoemaker then described Hedberg’s scientific impact

Dr. Hedberg’s research specialty is determination of molecular structure by gas phase electron diffraction. In this field he has risen to the position of world leader, eclipsing all others in my judgement (and I am close to the field, being an x-ray diffractionist). This field had a heyday a quarter century ago, and many people said that there would be nothing left to work on in a short time. However, largely due to the ingenuity of Professor Hedberg, the field is still (or rather again) going strong.

Along with his own letter, Shoemaker also forwarded support notices penned by a collection of Hedberg’s former students. One wrote that “With all Ken has done for me it would be hard for me to name a person I think more highly of,” and recalled that “His enthusiasm in participating in experimental activities along with the students and a primary interest in developing a person as a scientist and member of society, not just a well-qualified technician, are traits of Ken’s that made his guidance most useful to me.”

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Another student wrote that “He was the most influential person in my undergraduate chemistry education” and “was able to communicate to the students according to the level of their background…Professor Hedberg was extremely fair and expected fairness and honesty from his students.” The student then added that “Although he had research assistants and post-doctoral fellows, he took the time himself to show and explain the experimental procedures to this undergraduate student. He cultivated independent and rational thinking throughout the progress of the research….He is a man of integrity, leadership and honesty. He is one of the best teachers I have ever had and one of the best persons I have known.”

Many years later, in 2010, another former student wrote to the OSU alumni magazine to comment on a profile that had been published in a recent issue. The student wrote

I was thrilled to read that Ken Hedberg is still with us and still carrying out his very important research. I took his chemistry class as an engineering freshman 50 years ago. In one lab session we had a nice conversation about cars…I remember the exchange after all these years because he was such a nice guy and so good to us poor confused undergraduates, always cracking gentle jokes during lecture and helping us in every way he could…OSU is blessed to have him, and I am blessed to have known him.


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A page from Ken Hedberg’s “visiting researcher scrapbook,” a sixty-three page volume that contains photos and inscriptions from all of the researchers who visited Corvallis to conduct work in the Hedberg electron diffraction laboratory.

A few years ago, Ken and Lise Hedberg entered into a retained life estate agreement with OSU, in which they effectively transferred ownership of their home to the university at the ends of their lives. Once sold, the proceeds will be used to create two new endowed scholarships and to add to the Ken and Lise Hedberg Endowed Student Fund for chemistry doctoral students. Giving back to OSU was important to Ken for many reasons, and the imperative to support undergraduate learning especially so because of Hedberg’s own student experience during the Depression. “As I look back over a very long career,” he noted, “I see that the good fortune I’ve enjoyed was kicked-started by scholarship aid; without it I don’t think any of this would have happened.”

Ken Hedberg’s career was defined by scientific excellence, but even more so by his collaborative spirit and his relationship with his wife Lise, who was his scientific partner as well as his life partner from the day they met until his death this year. Science, for Hedberg, was a social endeavor as well as an academic one, and his lab was a hotspot for visiting researchers from around the world as well as a safe space for generations of OSU chemistry students. With his passing the university has lost a true icon, but his impact will be felt for many years to come.

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 3, On Faculty at Oregon State

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Ken Hedberg, a colleague, and the Hedberg electron diffraction apparatus, 1960.

[Kenneth W. Hedberg (1920-2019) in memorium, part 3 of 5.]

Ken and Lise Hedberg, along with their three-month old son Erik, moved back to Corvallis in January 1956 during a heavy storm. As the couple approached their final destination, Hedberg remembers water reaching almost to the hubcaps of their car. When they finally did make it to Corvallis, the city was largely flooded for the next couple of days.

In a turn of events that fit well with the dreary weather, on Ken’s first day of work at Oregon State College he learned that, in addition to his supervisory responsibilities, he would also be teaching a graduate-level physical chemistry course. The class was scheduled to meet three hours a week and he had been given no time at all to prepare lecture notes. Hedberg ultimately made it through the term, during which he tracked the time that he had spent on teaching-related activities. Including office hours and lesson planning, and found that he averaged 56 hours per week just on his instructional work.

At the same time, Ken was also tasked with getting his research program running. The first step in doing so entailed designing and building an electron diffraction apparatus for which he had received a $30,000 grant. He made an arrangement with the Physics workshop on campus to have the machine constructed, overseeing the process from start to finish. The device took several years to complete, but it worked well and has been used to significant effect for more than fifty-five years. Indeed, Linus Pauling was one of many colleagues from around the world to run samples through the instrument.


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When it was built, Hedberg’s gas phase electron diffraction apparatus was state of the art, and during most of his career there were only two laboratories in the U.S. that could perform similar work. As time moved forward and other techniques were developed, gas phase electron diffraction fell out of view for many scientists, thus rendering Hedberg’s lab even more valuable for those who wished to employ the methodology in their advancement of basic science. As a result, Hedberg rarely encountered difficulty in acquiring grant support. His position as a hub for electron diffraction research also led to his making and maintaining a vast number of friendships with scientists across the globe.

The electron diffraction unit that Hedberg built utilizes a nozzle to release gas-phase samples in a stream that runs perpendicular to a vertical beam of electrons. The collision that ensues scatters the electron beam and results in a diffraction pattern that is subsequently recorded on a photographic plate fixed at the bottom of the device. These diffraction patterns are then analyzed to determine specific characteristics of the sample in question. It only takes a few minutes to run a sample, so lots of substances can be run in a day, but the analysis takes much longer — elucidating molecular structures from diffraction patterns is a complicated process.

Another hurdle that Hedberg sometimes faced was transforming particular substances into a gas phase in order to enable this type of analysis in the first place. One notable example was C60, which needs to be heated to 800°C to obtain any kind of vapor. Another instance was N2O4, which degrades to NO2 very rapidly as temperature and pressure increase. Nobody knew for sure if it was even possible to run gas phase electron diffraction analysis on these two substances but, in both instances, Hedberg and his team found a way to create the sample and collect the data.


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David and Clara Shoemaker analyzing diffractometer data, 1983

A few months after he had arrived back in Corvallis, Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on how he was settling in. He reported that, as expected, he and Lise both liked Oregon a lot, and that Erik was growing very fast and had learned a few Norwegian words. He also let Pauling know that his picture was on display in the Memorial Union, one in a series featuring distinguished alumni of the college.

Ken’s correspondence with old Caltech colleagues was certainly not limited to Pauling and, in one particular instance, Hedberg’s connections played a key role in shaping the Chemistry department at Oregon State. When the chair’s position in Chemistry opened up in the late 1960s, Hedberg encouraged his former Caltech office-mate, David Shoemaker, to consider the opportunity. Shoemaker was then on faculty at MIT but he had ties to the west and was open to the idea of returning to that side of the country. He and his wife, Clara Brink Shoemaker, were both distinguished crystallographers, and one of David’s conditions for coming to OSU was that Clara be offered a research position as well.

This condition presented a bit of a problem due to a Depression-era anti-nepotism law that prevented members of the same family from being employed in the same department, except under unusual circumstances. Ken and Lise Hedberg had been able to work together because OSU’s president, Robert MacVicar, good-naturedly regarded a husband-wife scientific team to be an “unusual circumstance.” He allowed the Shoemakers to use the same loophole with one stipulation: officially, Hedberg was to serve as Clara’s supervisor and Shoemaker as Lise’s. This arrangement stood as a running joke between the two couples for several years until the rules were ultimately relaxed.


Three years after he came back to Oregon State, Hedberg was moved into the physical chemistry division of the Chemistry department. With that change, Ken still taught general chemistry and took up new courses in physical chemistry, but was no longer responsible for supervising the department’s graduate teaching assistants. His teaching load remained heavy for a while as he prepared lecture notes for his new classes, but eventually he settled into a more manageable routine. When he finally achieved that balance, Oregon State revealed itself to be a very comfortable place. The Chemistry department was cohesive and friendly, dinner parties and holiday gatherings were common within the faculty, and the competitive divisiveness that often plagues academic units was refreshingly lacking.

Meanwhile, life continued to evolve for Lise as well. During their years together in Pasadena, the Hedbergs had worked as a team on a variety of electron diffraction projects. And although Lise wanted to continue her work at Oregon State, she was unable to for the first few years because she needed to care for young Erik. Their daughter, Anne Katherine – known as Katrina – was born a couple of years after the move to Corvallis, thus further extending Lise’s stay-at-home period.

At long last, when the kids were finally old enough to go to school, Lise would drop them off in the mornings, head over to the university to work in the lab, and then pick them up at the end of the school day. Later, when they were old enough to get to school on their own, she would watch them leave the house and then be home in time to meet them in the afternoons. According to Ken, it took a while for the Hedberg children to realize that their mother worked out of the home, because she was always there when they left and waiting when they got back.


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Wine tasting with Kolbjörn Hagen in 2008

In a 2011 oral history interview, Hedberg identified his proudest accomplishment as having overcome his humble beginnings to live a happy, successful life. In offering these reflections, he was quick to point out several moments where small twists of fortune made a dramatic impact on the trajectory of his life. Chief among these was his fateful late fellowship application that ultimately led to him going to Norway instead of Belgium. He mused that if he had submitted the first application on time, he would never have met Lise nor had any of the professional and personal affiliations in Norway that he enjoyed throughout his life.

Indeed, Norway was a critical component of Hedberg’s journey, both personal and scientific. Over the years, the Hedbergs returned to the country numerous times on sabbatical and research trips, and also to visit Lise’s family. The scientific work that they conducted during these visits ultimately led to numerous decorations for Ken. By the end of this life, he had received an honorary degree from the University of Trondheim – offered for “more than 40 years in collaboration with scientists from Japan, Germany, Norway, New Zealand, Great Britain, Hungary, Austria and China” – and been inducted into the Norwegian Academy of Sciences. One one occasion, Hedberg met the Norwegian king at a banquet and spent much of the evening talking with Crown Prince Harald.

Likewise, many of the students with whom he worked in the Oslo and Trondheim electron diffraction labs made their own visits to Corvallis to collaborate with Ken. One of these individuals, Kolbjörn Hagen, emerged as an especially important research colleague, as well as a dear friend.

Collaboration was a fundamental component of Hedberg’s approach to science, and throughout the years his most important scientific colleague was Lise, an expert computer programmer. While Ken took the lead in experimentation and analysis of diffraction patterns, it was Lise who wrote or tweaked many of the programs that the Hedbergs used in their work. In a letter that David Shoemaker wrote to OSU’s Dean of Science, he noted that the Hedberg lab contained a library of computer programs unmatched by any other lab of its kind, due to Lise’s expertise. Shoemaker also wrote that

…Professor Hedberg has more understanding of the nature of chemical bonding in molecules than any other person in the Chemistry Department or on the Oregon State University campus. Perhaps one can even include all of Oregon, except when Linus Pauling is visiting.

The Hedbergs’ son Erik was also handy with computers and often helped his parents manage their programs. The family published two papers together – one by Ken, Lise, and Erik, and one by Ken, Lise, and Katrina – and the authorship shorthand of “Hedberg, Hedberg and Hedberg” was a source of continuing delight for Ken.


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In 1983 Ken notified Shoemaker that, after twenty-seven years on faculty, he felt ready to retire, which he did officially in 1987. Hedberg’s primary motivation for this change was to free himself from his teaching burden, but he had no intention of stopping his research.

A few years into his so-called “retirement,” Hedberg wrote to Pauling to provide an update on his life. Amidst news about family, travel and tennis, he noted with glee the enjoyment that he was experiencing in being able to work 12-hour days in his lab. This remained the pattern of Hedberg’s life for another thirty years, a run of time marked by steady grant funding, continuing research, collaboration with faculty colleagues, supervision of graduate students, and mentorship of OSU undergraduates several decades his junior.

 

Remembering Ken Hedberg: Part 2, Caltech and Norway

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Ken Hedberg and others onstage at Caltech, performing in the celebration held for Linus Pauling on the occasion of his receipt of the Nobel Chemistry Prize, December 1954.

[A celebration of the life of Dr. Kenneth Hedberg, 1920-2019. This is part 2 of 5.]

Once enrolled as a graduate student at the California Institute of  Technology, Hedberg worked under Linus Pauling and a fellow doctoral candidate, C. Gardner Swain, on a study of the oxidation of leuco malachite green to form a dye called malachite green. The group published a paper on the subject at the conclusion of Swain’s tenure as a student. It was unusual for a PhD candidate rather than a professor to supervise another doctoral student, but Pauling suggested the arrangement because the only professor doing the kind of work that Hedberg was interested in at the time – chemical kinetics and mechanisms – had died the year before and not yet been replaced.

Hedberg’s laboratory experience with Shell Development Company prepared him well for his studies, and proved especially useful to Swain, who had actually logged fewer lab hours than had Hedberg by that point. Ken also quickly discovered that the facilities at Caltech were not on the same level as those outfitted at Shell, and he soon realized that a major piece of his job would be to build basic instruments, an impediment that slowed progress significantly but was a simple fact of life in Pasadena (and that later came in very handy once Hedberg returned to Corvallis).

After Swain left, Hedberg began to work with a young faculty member, Verner Schomaker, who had also studied under Pauling. Together, Hedberg and Schomaker launched an investigation of the structure of boron compounds, starting with diborane, which they determined to have a non-ethane-like structure.


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Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1948.

As one might expect, Hedberg came to know Pauling well and retained many fond memories of their interactions at Caltech. Later in life, he recalled that Pauling was friendly and generally well-liked but that he tended to maintain more formal relationships with his students and colleagues rather than embracing casual relationships. By Hedberg’s recollection, Pauling was always referred to as “Dr. Pauling,” even though most of his colleagues were on a first-name basis with one another. Pauling also rarely attended the frequent parties that were a mainstay for most others in the division.

Hedberg became trusted enough that he housesat for the Paulings several times and watched the Pauling children. He remembered in particular that Peter and Linda Pauling used to go around the chemistry department inviting everyone to come swim in the Pauling’s pool. The Pauling pool was a popular location, and was heavily used particularly when Dr. and Mrs. Pauling were out of town.

Pauling also sometimes let his childhood friend Lloyd Jeffress stay in the house if he was on holiday in the area while the Paulings were away. In one such instance, Pauling had asked Hedberg to stay at the house with the kids, and had also invited Jeffress to stay at the same time but had neglected to let Hedberg know. It took Ken three days to realize that Jeffress was also living in the house because their schedules were so different. Jeffress, on holiday, was waking up long after Hedberg had left the house in the morning, and was otherwise staying out late or staying in his room. With a laugh, Hedberg recalled waking up late at night two nights in a row thinking he heard someone splashing in the pool, but deciding not to investigate further once he had confirmed that the kids were in bed. He only realized Jeffress was there when he walked into the kitchen one day and saw a strange man making breakfast.

On another occasion, Hedberg was seated at his desk one Saturday morning when Pauling wandered into his office. Many of the Caltech graduate students were intimidated by Pauling, who often roamed the Gates and Crellin Laboratories in his slippers on Saturday mornings. In this instance Pauling sat down, put his feet up on Ken’s desk, and asked how things were going. Hedberg reported that all was well, and felt relieved when Pauling seemed about to leave without asking any probing questions.

Pauling then noticed a keychain on Hedberg’s desk, which he picked up and looked at. The keychain consisted of a device with an eyepiece and lens containing a small photograph which could only be viewed by looking into the eyepiece against a strong light. The image that one then saw was of a naked girl standing on a large rock in the middle of a mountain stream. Pauling peered through the eyepiece for a moment and uttered a response that Hedberg delighted in retelling. “Hmmm,” he said, “Basalt,” and then walked out of the office. Shocked, Hedberg had to look through the device himself to notice the rock.


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Otto Bastiansen

Hedberg had initially planned to spend an extra year on his studies at Caltech before writing his thesis so that he would be able to work under Dr. Richard Badger, a renowned spectroscopist. Pauling suggested instead that Hedberg finish his thesis and get his degree, after which point he would make sure that Hedberg received a fellowship to stay on an extra year under Badger. Verner Schomaker was in Denmark at that time, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, so Hedberg’s work was actually being overseen by Robert Corey. He finished his degree and took his examination, and then found out that he had indeed been awarded a Noyes Fellowship to work with Badger for a year, learning spectroscopy and continuing his electron diffraction work.

At the end of the Noyes Fellowship year, Hedberg was appointed a research fellow at Caltech and worked on Schomaker’s grant through the Office of Naval Research. During this time, he met many researchers from abroad who came to collaborate with Pauling, and eventually he decided that he wanted to gain some international experience himself. In short order, he put in a Fulbright application to study spectroscopy in Belgium but was denied because his application missed the deadline. From there, Otto Bastiansen, a Norwegian scientist who had come to Caltech to work with Pauling and became good friends with Hedberg, suggested that Ken submit a new application for the following year to spend time in Bastiansen’s electron diffraction lab in Oslo. Hedberg did so and, at Pauling’s urging, he also submitted a Guggenheim application for Norway. As Ken later recalled,

…Pauling walked into my office and said to me ‘Well, are you getting ready to go to Norway?’… I said ‘I didn’t know I was going.’ And he said ‘Well, the selection committee generally follows my recommendations.’ And then he turned and walked out. That was the total conversation we had on the issue.

Shortly thereafter, Hedberg was informed that he had been awarded both a Fulbright and a Guggenheim fellowship to study in Norway. Meanwhile, Hedberg’s wife, who had initially planned to accompany him, dissolved their marriage shortly before they were scheduled to depart, so Ken went to Norway alone and with a considerable amount of funding in hand. Bastiansen met him upon his arrival, helped him find an apartment, and set him up with some recordings and a lesson book to help him learn the language. Ken’s Norwegian friends later came to be amused by him reciting his lessons to them because the way he talked reminded them of the rector of the university.

Ken made a very positive impression on his scientific colleagues as well. In 1954, after Hedberg left Norway, Bastiansen wrote to Pauling that

It was very nice to have [Ken] here, and I should like to take the opportunity both on behalf of the institute and myself to emphasize how much we appreciated having him working at our laboratory. We are very grateful that you made it possible for him to come here and that you let him stay so long. There have been many foreigners at our institute during the last years, but no one has been of such a great value for our team as Ken… He is now really a kind of key man in electron diffraction.

 


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Ken and Lise Hedberg in 2018

Oslo was the setting for an important moment in Hedberg’s personal life as well. Once Ken had settled in, Bastiansen introduced Hedberg to his research assistant, Lise Smedvik. Her ability to speak English well, even though she had never been to an Anglophone country, immediately impressed Hedberg. Later he ran in to her by chance at a symphony and they went out for a snack together afterwards. More dates quickly followed.

In 1954, after a year in Norway, Hedberg’s fellowship was expired and he was obligated to return to the States. He and Lise had talked about getting married, but Hedberg had not felt ready because he was still reeling from the way his first marriage had ended. After arriving back in the U.S. he realized that he could not leave Lise behind, so he proposed to her. She accepted, and he returned to Norway that summer to be married. Their wedding took place in the Oslo City Hall and they remained together until Ken’s death earlier this year. Hedberg got along well with Lise’s family and remained deeply interested in Norwegian culture for the rest of his life. In time, he became fluent and literate in Norwegian and gave his lectures in Norwegian whenever he was invited to speak at a Norwegian university.

After they were married, Lise decided to move to the U.S. with her husband, but encountered difficulty in obtaining a visa. After weeks of waiting and not hearing back from the American embassy, Hedberg learned that they had not yet processed Lise’s application. He wrote a letter to his congressman complaining, but the congressman was dismissive and pointed out the embassy’s obligation to insure that this was not a marriage of convenience meant to get around U.S. immigration laws. Hedberg found out that the congressman was a conservative Republican and cited that experience as paramount in insuring his life-long allegiance to the Democratic party.

Once the couple finally obtained the necessary papers and moved back to the States, Lise almost immediately wanted to get right back on the plane and go home because she hated the smog that permeated the Los Angeles region at that time.


As it turned out, the Hedbergs stayed in Pasadena for more than five years, during which time Ken worked as a senior research fellow. One day a colleague in organic chemistry, Carl Niemann, stopped him in the hall to tell him that he had received a letter from an associate at Oregon State College regarding a position that had recently opened up in their Chemistry department. Niemann thought that Hedberg might be interested in this opportunity, on account of his Oregon State ties.

Back in 1952, prior to leaving for Norway, Hedberg had written to Pauling that he considered himself “a Californian in spirit” and expressed an interest in settling permanently in the state. But now things were different: Lise detested the southern California air pollution and she was also pregnant. The idea of raising a child in that environment was deeply off-putting, so Ken decided to explore the possibility of moving back to Oregon.

After investigating the OSC opportunity some more, Ken turned it down because he found out that the college was mostly looking for someone to supervise graduate teaching assistants and hold recitations for freshmen classes. It seemed unlikely to Hedberg that he would be able to get a good research program going in these circumstances, and he was not willing to give up his scholarly work.

Following Hedberg’s rebuff, OSC increased its salary offer in an effort to get him to come. But it was a conversation with Pauling that played a deciding role in Ken’s change of heart. Asked for his advice on the matter, Pauling admitted that “I think that Oregon State will not be a first class institution for research in my time and probably not in yours,” but he also offered that, “On the other hand that’s not really important… Lise will be very happy there, Oregon is a wonderful place to live… I think it might be worthwhile giving it a chance. I think you could make it go and you’d be very happy there.”

Thus encouraged, Hedberg decided to accept the position, and it turned out to be the right choice. Lise liked Oregon much better than dry, dusty California, because, as with Oslo, there were “trees in the forests and water in the rivers.” The couple made the move and so began a faculty career at Oregon State that lasted for sixty-three years.