Alumni Spotlight: John Costello '89

The Flaming Final

Throughout my time at Webb, there were many things my classmates and I tried in order to achieve good, or just passing, grades.  None of these things involved studying more; that would have been absurd.  One of the more memorable things we tried was the infamous “Abe Lincoln Study Candle”. 

Full disclosure: Abe Lincoln Study Candles (ALSC’s) were not my idea.  They were concocted by my roommates, Will Healy and Carl Benson.  The reasoning behind ALSC’s was fairly simple: Abe Lincoln was a brilliant man.  Abe Lincoln passed his exams.  Abe Lincoln studied by candlelight.  Ergo, we too should study by candlelight to achieve similar success.

Looking back now, a person entering our classroom at night to see the lights turned down and ALSC’s burning on desks at which students were poring over texts (that probably haven’t been opened since) must have thought that he or she had been transported back in time a hundred years.  (But for the thousands of dollars of stereo equipment in our otherwise austere classroom, that is.)

While I had not initially embraced the ALSC, as the semester wore on it was clear that I would need a bit more help — otherworldly if necessary — in Marine Engineering XXIV?  Or was it XXV?  I can’t remember now.  The 40 or so Marine Engineering courses we must have taken all blend together into one big Stephen King-or-H.P. Lovecraft-like horror in my shattered mind.  There are some things that I cannot — and will not! — remember.

Anyway, I took up use of the ALSC with a vengeance and, I reasoned, if the candles were good for studying then they would be better during the upcoming Marine Engineering mid-term.  I entered the classroom on the day of the exam with one large ALSC and a match, sure that I would slide by with a passing grade.  Professor Rowen had announced that he was passing back our boiler projects, ungraded, for reference while taking the test.  Now, while I had not distinguished myself on any Marine Engineering projects up to that point (and I certainly didn’t distinguish myself on Marine Engineering projects thereafter) I can put my hand on my heart and tell you that that particular Boiler Project, which I had spent twenty hours creating, was perfect.  It was the pinnacle of boiler design and most likely would have revolutionized boiler designs for years to come.  It was, in short, THE boiler design for the twenty-second century.

Silence descended upon the room as we began the exam.  I won’t bore you with exam-taking details with which you are all intimately familiar, or how Professor Rowen’s rudimentary exam failed to even scratch the surface of the complex and brilliant design described in my document.  What I will tell you is that midway through the exam I was paging through to find some arcane detail of boiler lore when I felt a blast of heat on my face.  I snapped my head up to see that at least half of my project was on fire!  I had thoughtlessly flipped the pages over onto the top of the candle and thus once again proved the physical reality that paper burns at Fahrenheit 451  — as Ray Bradbury noted in his novel of the same name.

Cursing, I fumbled the paper off the desk and stomped on it to put the flames out.  Echoing in my head were the words “Fail Exam Fail Exam…”

Silence again descended as I stood amidst the smoke, little pieces of singed paper fluttering down around me.  In mute panic I looked up at my classmates, who were all staring at me with jaws agape. I remember seeing an angry look on Brett Branco’s face because I had had the nerve to disturb him.  Angry?  At ME?!

Do you remember the old joke: “She/he is so ugly, it looks like someone set his/her face on fire and put it out with a hatchet?”  Well, my 20-hour Boiler Project looked like someone had set it on fire and then put it out with a hatchet!  (Oh…and.. did I mention that the Boiler Project was ungraded?)

I took my roommates with me to tell Professor Rowen what had happened.

 “Yes, sir.  I accidentally lit my ungraded Boiler Project on fire, and that’s why I can’t turn it back in.” 

He just stared at me. 

I remember at graduation my mother running into the Professor and saying: “Well, he made it!” to which he responded: “I’ll never know how.”  Neither do I, but perhaps Abe Lincoln took pity on me.  Anyway, think about the technology that was lost to the boiler industry.