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How I Met Jesus at Caltech

In September of 1963, I became a freshman at Caltech. My interest was in physics. I already had a “scientific hypothesis”— that Christianity was for second rate intellects. As a teenager, I already knew several Christians. None of them were science literate in my view.  

During my sophomore year, something happened which would require that I change my “hypothesis.” Early each week, undergrads would receive a set of approximately six physics problems to work on. We were free to work together with other students. It was “open book, open everything.” I enjoyed the challenge and often was able to help my fellow Page House classmates solve some of the hardest problems. Finally, a problem came up, which after several hours, I was unable to crack. Likewise, for my Page friends. The suggestion was made that I visit a classmate, Vern Poythress, who resided in Ricketts House— just across the “olive walk.” I felt uncomfortable with the idea.

After a day or so, I built up the courage and ventured into “enemy territory” and knocked on Vern’s door— hoping he would be out. To my disappointment, he was not out. He invited me in. I told him that I was visiting in hopes that he had solved the physics problem which we both had been given. He said that he had not yet started. I showed him the problem— in hopes that he would get started so that perhaps in a day or two, we could again get together. After looking at the problem for a minute or so, Vern changed the subject. He asked me about my interests and shared a few words about his love for math (his major). Then, out of the blue, Vern asked me if I had heard the “claims of Jesus Christ.” Where before, I felt some level of discomfort, I now felt a high level of discomfort. I was moving toward the door.  

Before I could get out, Vern spoke up. He said something like, “I have been thinking about the physics problem.” He then wrote an equation and said, “I think this may be the answer; you may want to check the algebra.” It was in fact the answer; the algebra and everything else were all correct. I now knew that this guy was a religious phony. He must have solved the problem earlier and was trying to impress me. But what if he really had solved the problem during the brief moments of our talking? I decided to check it out— science demanded that I do so.

I already knew math professor Dr. Tom Apostle, and I knew that Vern was also in contact with him. I was able to schedule a brief meeting with Dr. Apostle whereupon I outlined the physics problem which Vern claimed to have solved in his head while talking with me. I said to the professor something like “You know Vern. Do you think it is possible that Vern could have solved a problem like this without pencil and paper?” I was expecting to hear— “Wally, this is Caltech; you were pranked. You were set up.” Instead, after looking over the problem, Dr. Apostle put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Vern solves problems which are far more difficult than this one.” Yikes! With little to say, I slipped out of the office. I realized that I would have to revise my hypothesis about Christians being second rate intellects. A week or two later, one of my Page House friends invited me to church (Lake Avenue Congregational Church). Before the Vern incident, I would have declined. Things were different now and I accepted. Thanks to Pastor Ray Ortlund, I now did hear the claims of Jesus. I decided to follow Jesus. I now had direction.