The gift of curiosity

Dr. Howard Attebery’s love of microbiology will live on in the students at the Charter School.

From left, Paul Karasik, Marshall Davidson, science teacher Jane Paquet, Mark Attebery, Cynthia Riggs Attebery, Lucy Thompson, Luke Attebery, Paige Blinn, Jennifer Attebery and Sophia Attebery (seated). —Lynn Christoffers

Students at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School will reap the benefits of a significant donation to their new Vernon Jordan Science Center: a trinocular microscope, donated by the family of microbiologist Howard Attebery, who died Feb. 1 this year at the age of 94.

Dr. Attebery was married to West Tisbury author Cynthia Riggs, and their extraordinary romance was chronicled far and wide. They met in 1950 while working in a laboratory studying plankton in San Diego. Cynthia was 18 and Howie, 28. They wrote notes to each other in code on paper towels from the lab. Sixty-two years later, Howie mailed those notes to Cynthia, along with a new note in the same code that read, “I never stopped loving you.” Howie moved to the Vineyard, and he and Cynthia had a Buddhist commitment ceremony and married at

the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury in 2013.

Howie’s career spanned decades and included dentistry, teaching, and research. He was a bacteriologist, entomologist, and a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral scholar at UCLA. He was learning and studying up until the very end of his life, his son Mark Attebery said.

“All of his life he’d take on a subject and become immersed in it, and then go on to something else,” Mark said at the dedication of the microscope at the Charter School on Friday. “He had a perpetual curiosity about the world, which he kept well into his 90s.”

Jane Paquet, science teacher at the Charter School, led the demonstration of the three-lens microscope, and said, “You can see the value of this as a teaching tool; everyone can see what I’m seeing.” The microscope can connect to a computer, which then projects the image onto a large screen in the classroom.

Ms. Paquet prepared slides to show the students who gathered in the science room, along with Ms. Riggs-Attebery, Mark Attebery, his wife Jennifer, and Howie’s grandchildren, Luke and Sophia. While she was busy with the slides, the Charter School’s former development director, Paul Karasik, asked Ms. Paquet what lessons she might teach using the new microscope. “Biology, biology, biology,” she answered.

Ms. Paquet said she could set up chemical experiments, and the students would be able to watch crystal growth. She seemed most excited about showing her students micrometeorites: “The micrometeorites stick to magnets, and now we can look at them.” Ms. Paquet explained that the microscopic parts of meteorites fall steadily to the earth when it rains. Students can put a magnet in a baggie, put the baggie in a bucket of rainwater, and collect samples. “They’re really beautiful,” she said.

The students will also continue to collect data on the Island’s ponds, something Howie was working on at the time of his death. His research was also donated to the school.

“His data won’t be lost,” Ms. Paquet said. “It’s really wonderful for the family to do this. They’re giving us the gift of curiosity, and kids love microscopes.”