Fear and Groping in Boulder

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Freshman Disorientation
One day in June 1995, Sarah, a 34-year-old graduate student, stepped out of the confidential confines of CU's Ombuds Office, carrying with her a gnawing sense of unease. Her confrontation with the ghosts of her past had not gone at all the way she expected.

The Ombuds Office assists students, faculty and staff in informally resolving disputes. Sarah (who asked that her real name not be published) had used the process to arrange a meeting with Rustem Igor Gamow, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, mediated by ombudsman Tom Seebok. She wanted an apology from Gamow for something that had happened almost thirteen years earlier, and she got it. But something else said in that room had unsettled her, and she was beginning to wonder whether she'd really achieved her goal.

A biologist by training and a former dancer in the National Ballet, Gamow had one of the best-known names on campus. His father, physicist George Gamow, had been one of the principal proponents of the "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe and a pioneer in DNA research; a science award and a building at CU, Gamow Tower, are dedicated to his memory. The younger Gamow had earned three degrees at CU and joined his father on the faculty in 1968, shortly before George's death.

In the decades since, Igor Gamow had carved a niche for himself in Boulder as a flamboyant, unorthodox figure who rode a motorcycle by day and an Arabian stallion named Pegasus at night. He supervised off-campus programs in Nepal, taught courses in "creative technology" and "animal locomotion," and frequently collaborated with students on his ceaseless stream of inventions, which included a running shoe, a pressurized snorkel and the Gamow Bag, a contraption for treating high-altitude sickness. His Biological Altitude Testing laboratory, known as the BAT Lab, was festooned with Batman and Star Trek memorabilia, as well as other artifacts reflecting his eclectic interests in horses, mountain climbing, poetry and Eastern philosophy.

Sarah had come to know Gamow in the fall of 1982, when she was a 21-year-old junior and treasurer of CU's chemical-engineering student society. Gamow was the faculty advisor to the group and talked with her one-on-one on several occasions. Although the professor sometimes made "vaguely suggestive comments," Sarah later wrote, "I wrote such things off as misinterpretations on my part, or transient weirdness on his part." Gamow, after all, was more than twice her age, married, and a college professor--the kind of person she "automatically trusted."

According to Sarah, one cold November night Gamow offered her a ride home--not by steed or chopper but by pickup truck. But instead of taking her home, she says, he drove her to Chautauqua Park and began to embrace and fondle her. Sarah characterizes the incident as an assault, one she didn't resist because she was "frozen with fear." The encounter ended only when she managed to blurt out, "This is really wrong"--at which time Gamow ceased his advances and took her home.

That night, she adds, changed the entire course of her academic career. Her GPA plummeted, and she changed her major just to avoid Gamow. "Academically, it had an effect until I finished my degree," she says now. "I was scared to go into the engineering center, and I was taking classes there five days a week. I didn't think I could trust any of the professors."

Gamow recalls the incident differently, saying that the ride occurred during daylight and that he didn't own a pickup truck at the time. He says he and Sarah were good friends before and after the incident (Sarah disputes this). He also says his overture consisted of nothing more than a "strong hug."

"There was a romantic component, but not as described," he insists. "And that, certainly, I should have avoided. It's an embarrassment to me."

Sarah didn't tell anyone about the incident for years. Even after she returned to CU as a graduate student in biology, she says, she still feared Gamow. So last summer she contacted the Ombuds Office and asked Seebok to arrange a meeting, her first contact with her former advisor in more than a decade.

Ombuds gatherings are supposed to be confidential, and no one took notes at Sarah's meeting. Sarah says she read a letter she'd written to Gamow recounting the experience and the pain it had caused her. "Gamow apologized for what happened," she wrote in a memorandum about the meeting, composed six months later. "He claimed that was the only time he has ever become sexual with a student. He claimed that the day I was assaulted was an aberration, a single sorry incident in his life."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast