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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Maurice Eftink

The latest interview in the Ole Miss Retirees features Maurice Eftink. The organization’s mission is to enable the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Dr. Eftink has had a noteworthy career in higher education, having come from a modest farming community in southeast Missouri. He is well published and well respected by his students and his colleagues. Read about his growing up in a family of nine children and how his first college chemistry class decided his career.   

Brown: Tell us about the town/city where you grew up. What is a special memory of that community?  

Eftink: I grew up on a farm, near the small town of Portageville, Missouri. My advice to everyone is to find yourself a set of fabulous parents, a large loving family, and a small farm on which to grow up. Throw in some farm animals, a big vegetable garden, a tire swing, a tree house, a nearby river, and a barn filled with hay. 

Portageville was a small farming town in the delta of southeast Missouri, where a large percentage of folk were Dutch Catholics. So, life revolved around the church, with its parochial grade school, and various tasks associated with a farm and livestock. 4-H was big, as were various church events. I raised pigs (yes pigs) for 4-H, had a pony and spent most of the weekends riding my bicycle with farm boy friends, trying to meet up for a pick-up baseball game or to go fishing or shoot at things with our BB guns.

Brown: Please talk about your childhood. What is your earliest memory?

Eftink: My parents started from scratch and built a family and a successful farm. Eight of us children received college degrees, including some graduate degrees. But I have memories of a very spartan early family life, with no in-door plumbing and certainly no air conditioning.  Our black and white TV picked up two local channels, if we turned the antenna pole just right with a pipe wrench.

But it was a childhood surrounded by family, both immediate and extended.  We lived just down the country road from my grandmother and aunt, who taught me the proper way to layer bacon, tomato slices and lettuce in a sandwich. Though we might have been a mile or so away from other houses, our bicycles were chariots, and we were connected by a party line phone. In the winters, several families would gather together at one home to butcher a hog for pork chops, sausage, and bacon for the year.

And I recall throwing a fit once and saying that I was not coming in the house until I got my way about something. Mom and dad just patiently let me sit on the back stoop until I snuck inside. Grace. There was grace said at every meal and we always ate together, even as the family grew to eleven of us. On the several occasions when mom was at the hospital delivering a younger sibling, our dad would make his specialty…stone soup.

Brown: Tell us about your parents, siblings, and any crazy aunts and uncles.  

Eftink: My parents were a gift. My brothers and sisters were okay then and have gotten better with age! I was essentially the oldest of nine sibs. My older brother is severely mentally handicapped and was cared for by mom and dad, in the home, his entire life.

Mom and dad were and are religious and hard working. When there were special needs (like a need for rain for the crops) we would say the rosary together. After he retired from farming, Dad would attend daily mass, until his health failed, and he passed away about eight years ago. Mom, now in her 90’s, continues to be a treasure and cares for my older brother.

We had one uncle who lived 50 yards down the road and might have fallen into the crazy category. We kids would love to pester him and his pack of dogs. He would make one pot of coffee for the entire week, on a wood burning stove. Seemed like all he ate was tomatoes and eggs. My sibs and I will probably have to explain our pestering of Uncle Tony to St. Peter.

Dad, Mom, wife Susie, son JJ, and Maurice
 Big loving family

Brown: Where did you go to school? 

Eftink: I attended the Catholic grade school in Portageville and then the local public high school. I graduated in 1969, which was near the height of the Vietnam War and young men/boys had to decide whether to enlist in the military or National Guard or seek a college deferment. I was pretty sharp as a student, so I went to college, being the first in my family to become college educated. After one year at a nearby college, I went to the University of Missouri in Columbia, where I completed a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and then continued on to complete a PhD in Biochemistry.

Brown: What were you really into when you were a kid?

Eftink: I was a pretty clean cut and well-behaved kid. With my parent’s strong religious tradition and work ethic, it was pretty much instilled in us to stay within boundaries, to do our chores, do well in school, etc. But for fun I liked to ride my bike over the countryside, play pick up baseball, a little fishing. I was a big St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and listened to their games on summer nights, tuning into KMOX and listening to Jack Buck and Harry Carey. I loved keeping up with baseball statistics. I dreamed of being the Cardinals’ next shortstop, until they traded for Ozzie Smith, then I knew that the dream was blown.

While I liked sports, I was never all that good. Kinda small. Believe it or not I played offensive and defensive lineman on my high school team, at a weight of about 145 pounds. Small, but fearless! 

In high school I liked to play chess and started a chess club. I did science fair projects and liked to take electronic things apart to see how they worked. I once built an electrophoresis apparatus on my mom’s kitchen counter, working on a science fair project for weeks.

Brown: How did you respond when asked what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Eftink: Growing up on a farm as an older child in a large family, the ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ question was whether to stay around farming or to go to college. Being a less than brawny, but more brainy, young guy, I went the college route, trusting that some of my younger bothers would be there to help dad in the fields!

I entered college undecided as to a major. But in my first college chemistry course I had an instructor who fascinated me with his energy and demonstrations. On the first day of class, he stood on top of a table, mixed two solutions together, and began pulling out of the mixture a long stringy substance…nylon. From my small-town background, this seemed like magic. I then did well in my first chemistry courses and just kept taking science and chemistry courses.

Brown: What was your very first job, perhaps as a teen? What were your responsibilities and what was your pay?

Eftink: My first paying job outside the family farm was working as a stock boy for a local grocery store, Noffel’s Big Star. Sacking groceries, stocking the shelves, mopping floors. I can’t remember the pay. I would go home smelling like celery.

Brown: Talk about your high school experience.

Eftink: When I first entered Portageville High School I had moved over from the Catholic parochial grade school, so I did not know many of my high school classmates, who had gone through the public-school route. My first years were spent then getting to know folks. I remember running for a class office as a sophomore and junior, and not winning. But by the time I was a senior I was elected class president, was a starter on the football team (we were conference co-champs, in spite of having such a small starting left guard and defensive nose guard), was editor of the newspaper, ranked in the top three of my class, had a lead role in a school play, and was dating the cutest girl in the junior class!  So, I had a pretty good high school career and hated to see it end.

Brown: What was college life like for you?

Eftink: In college I really enjoyed my major. I did summer internships my junior and senior years, doing research in a chemistry lab. Socially, I lived in dorms for two years and then shared an apartment with friends. I hung with the science/engineering crowd of students, for the most part, and did not do the fraternity scene. It may be difficult for Ole Miss folks to understand, but back in the early 70’s, the Greek scene was not so popular at some of the larger universities. And during these college years I continued to date my high school sweetheart. Susie and I married during my senior year, and I entered graduate school as an early admit.  

I guess we were on a fast track through life, but, honestly, the times were such that you could not dally. The Vietnam War was winding down, but inflation was out the roof and each year delayed in earning an income meant a delay in buying a house, starting a family, etc.  So, I was determined to complete a graduate degree ASAP and find a paying job.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss story began? Who hired you, what was the interview process like and how long did you work at Ole Miss?

Eftink: After spending two years as a post-doc at the University of Virginia, I interviewed for an Assistant Professor of Chemistry position at Ole Miss in the spring of 1978. Dr. Andrew Stefani was chair of the department at that time. Chemistry had just moved from what was called the Old Chemistry Building (now Brevard) to newly-built Coulter Hall.  Chuck Hussey and I were hired that year in hopes of hiring “young turks” who could be productive in research in this new building.

What I recall about the interview process was that my luggage was lost by the airlines, and I had to spend three days in the same set of clothes. And they still offered me the job!

I then did the “regular faculty” thing (teaching and research), as I moved up to Associate and then Full Professor. I really enjoyed working with graduate students and the creative nature of research and publishing. After about 20 years, I moved into central administration as Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School. I retired in December 2015. If my math is right, that was 37 years of employment. And I enjoyed each year and each level of employment.

Brown: You served in several positions. What were some of your responsibilities?

Eftink: As a regular faculty member, I taught the upper level and graduate level courses in biochemistry, my specific area.  I really liked teaching biochem, Chem 471-473. I was pretty tough in these courses.  The students were taking these courses before going to medical school and I wanted them to be prepared.  I was happy to hear from several of my students that after taking my biochem courses that they found their first year in medical school to be easier than expected.

At one point I also became interested in our first-year chemistry course, since this is the gateway for entering freshmen going into so many science fields. I started teaching Chem 105/106 (freshmen chemistry), and I continue to do this even after being retired.

But I also have enjoyed working with graduate students. When I moved into central administration, I was happy to add the Graduate Deanship to my duties. In 1997 I had been asked by Carolyn Staton, then Associate Provost, if I would consider taking a second associate provost position that they were creating. Carolyn and I had been friends and had been on a couple of committees together. We also were needing a new chair for the Chemistry Department. My longtime friend Chuck Hussey and I went to a bar and ordered a pitcher of beer and did our discerning. One of us would become associate provost and the other chair of the Chemistry Department. I think I drew the longer straw, as I took the Lyceum position.

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As Chemistry professor and Dean of the Graduate School

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Eftink: About all I knew about the University was that it was an hour below Memphis (and I grew up a couple of hours north of Memphis), so that it would be near my hometown. Actually, when I took the faculty position in 1978, I thought that I would only stay a couple of years. But I found that I could be successful in research here and I found my chair, colleagues, and the central administration to be very supportive of research. My wife and I also fell in love with Oxford and found it to be a great place to raise a family.

Brown: Talk about your late wife Susan. How did you all meet?

Eftink: Bonnie, this question is difficult for me, but here goes.

First, I need to say that I usually called my deceased wife Susie. As I explain below, this is important because I have a new Susan in my life.

My first wife, Susie, and I were high school sweethearts. She was a cutie. We continued to date in college at the University of Missouri and tied the knot when I entered graduate school there.  While I was a hard-driving scientist, Susie had a softer side and was a people person. She became a social worker, founded a hospice here in Oxford, and became a faculty member in the Social Work Department. I am sure that she had a more profound effect on students than I did. She had a special gift for counseling people and had some type of radar for detecting when a person just needed to talk. But Susie also had a number of frailties and health problems. She died in her sleep somewhat unexpectedly in the spring of 2019. 
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One of Susie’s professional expertises was on death and dying. In fact, she had a course with that name. After her death, I experienced the full force of mourning that she talked about in her course. 

Eventually I surfaced, and the dear Lord nudged me to invite for coffee a lady who had been part of a bible/book study group at the church I was attending in Garner, North Carolina. This lady, Susan McGrail (yes, a second Susan) and I have become very close, finding that we have an unbelievable number of things in common, including enjoying hiking and 60’s music and our taste in food and our religious views. One of her daughters attended Ole Miss, we both have sons who live in Chattanooga and daughters who live near Raleigh, North Carolina. We are still pinching ourselves to make sure we are not dreaming, while we are planning on joining forces formally in a few months.  

Though I experienced great sadness in the loss of Susie, I have been blessed with my new partner.

Brown: Please tell us about your children and grandchildren.

Eftink: I have three kids and two grandkids. Love them all. Jacob is here in Oxford and works in the stockroom of the Chemistry Department, having a master’s degree in chemistry.  Our daughter, Anna, is a social worker/counselor in Garner, North Carolina. She and her husband, Patrick, have our two grandkids. JJ, whom Susie and I adopted from Thailand, works in athletic fundraising for the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. He was married this past summer to Erin.

Two grandkids are Emilea (11) and Bryson (9). So much fun.

Brown: What skill would you like to master?

Eftink: Playing the clarinet.

Brown: What were some of the turning points in your life?

Eftink: Hard to say when or if my life turned. In retrospect, it all played out fairly linearly. Maybe our adoption of JJ was a turning point of sorts, since it was a decision to have a third child. But the most difficult event in my life was the death of Susie in 2019. And now a door has been opened with my relationship with Susan McGrail.

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Brown: What’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken and why was it the best?

Eftink: Susie, and I had great vacations in Rome and Paris and Hawaii. Loved seeing the Louvre and Museum d’Orsay in Paris, and the Vatican in Rome. Susan McGrail and I are rapidly making some memories as well, but have had less time or opportunity (e.g., COVID) to do a big vacation as yet. But we are planning!

Brown: Tell us what makes you smile.  

Eftink:  My grandkids. Smiling faces.

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Brown: It is said that we learn something every day.  What is something new that you’ve learned recently.

Eftink: I’ve learned that I enjoy hiking, tubing, and kayaking.

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Brown: What habit do you have now that you wish you started much earlier?

Eftink: Eating at least one red meat-less dinner each week.

Brown: What life lesson would you like to pass along?

Eftink: If I can share one important lesson I have learned over the course of my life it is the importance of humility and tolerance.

Brown: What has been your routine since retirement?  Do you have any hobbies?

Eftink:  The first routine I adopted after retirement was not to wear a tie or hard shoes, and to wear tennis shoes, jeans, shorts, and T-shirts. I took up painting (acrylics and watercolors) after retirement and more recently I enjoy hiking with Susan.

Brown: What remains on your bucket list?

Eftink:  My bucket list includes traveling again to Europe (e.g., a cruise, Paris, Rome, Venice, Greece), to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos, to see the Boston Pops and a couple of Broadway plays, and to revisit some favorite places, like New Orleans, Savannah, and Charleston.  

Brown: How do you want to be remembered?

Eftink: I’d like to be remembered as being a family man, as being balanced, as being thoughtful and tolerant, and as caring for my fellow humans.

Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. For questions or comments, email her at bbrown@olemiss.edu.

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