Cal Poly Pomona physics student Oddie Byers could be called a Renaissance man.
His favorite classes are the ones that involve computers and electronics. He could do without quantum mechanics, but a deep passion for airplanes makes most physics courses absolute heaven.
However, his interests span wider than the acceleration of gravity or electromagnetics. He’s also fascinated with the conventions and canon of the English language, and is a self-professed Internet junkie. If you mention something you’re interested in – art history, for example – he will listen, ask questions and share his own insights.
“As a youngster, I was taught just to put your nose to the grindstone,” he says. “Work hard and you can do anything.”
Byers is also experiencing another kind of renaissance. While the typical college student is between 18 and 22 and doesn’t know much of the world outside of the campus, Byers is 72, has decades of experience in the computer and electronics industry, and has lived across the country.
Working through adversity, Byers pursued higher education and has succeeded. He’s on track to graduate next year.
An Early Love of Physics
His love for physics and education is rooted in his childhood. As the youngest of several much-older siblings, Byers spent his childhood in the 1940s mostly alone in the barnyard of the family farm in rural Oklahoma – where he developed his fascination with airplanes. Byers also remembers being anything but lonely. He took joy in pulling apart his toys to see how they worked.
“Trying to figure out what was inside, what made them go, just drove me,” Byers recalls. “Some of the people who gave me those toys were very upset with me, but I just always wanted to know what made things work.”
Byers also recalls an elementary school teacher who encouraged her students to read everything in sight.
“I was a prolific reader when I was young,” he says. “[President Barack] Obama made a speech that was quite profound. He said, ‘If you’ve made it in life, it’s not just because of you. Somewhere along the line you had a good teacher or mentor.’ I distinctly remember my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Curtis. She told the students, ‘You must read.’ And it wasn’t a matter of having money. She said, ‘Read soup labels. Read cereal boxes. You must read.’ ”
When his father returned from World War II duty, the family moved to Missouri but immediately fractured. Byers eventually followed his father to Ohio, graduating high school – where he took physics classes – and joining the Air Force as a way to get closer to the airplanes that fascinated him so much as a youngster.
“When I was exiting the Air Force in the early 1960s, everyone was starting to buzz about the computers,” Byers says. “So I went to work in the computer industry as a computer technician. I was working for Honeywell in St. Louis, Missouri, and I woke up one day and said, ‘I don’t want to work in St. Louis. I want to go to California. I’ve never been to California.’ So I came out to California, and I’ve been here ever since.”
After about 10 years of hopping from company to company, Byers decided to start his own computer repair business in Tustin. But a series of bad business decisions forced him to eventually close his doors.
“I was trying to bootstrap my own computer repair company with no capital,” he says. “But the true business model at the time, and some people have told me it was written in magazines, was, ‘Do not pay your vendors too quickly. Keep your vendors’ capital in your hands and have it working for you as long as you can.’ And it was impossible for me to function under that environment.”
A New Beginning
Byers decided to move forward. Roused by memories of an uncle who had encouraged his interest in airplanes, he enrolled in and finished the aviation program at Long Beach City College. He then decided to look into physics programs at local universities.
“I asked a counselor, ‘Next to UCLA, what’s the best physics program in Southern California?’ ” he says. “They said, ‘Cal Poly Pomona.’ I had never heard of Cal Poly Pomona.”
Coming to Cal Poly Pomona in 2011, Byers was initially disinterested in general-education requirements and ready to overdose on physics classes. But in taking a political science class with Professor Renford Reese, he quickly realized why the classes were important.
“I think that class brought me to the position that as a human being, I have a vested interest in the proper and complete development of every human being on planet Earth, not just myself,” he says.
“For the first time, I gained respect for the university mindset. I suddenly came to the realization that all knowledge is good. The university concept of broadening you is real. You’re not supposed to be one-dimensional. I’d never given that any credence before. You shouldn’t be adverse to any aspect of learning. The idea of making you a broader person is quite valid.”
In his own discipline, Byers appreciates the inclusivity of the physics department and the faculty’s interest in cultivating students.
“Even when you’re not taking a class with them, you walk up to the office and knock on the door and ask them a question, they will take time out to answer your question,” he says. “Some of them even seem to go out of their way to give you understanding. Pretty much any professor in the physics department will answer your question and try to put you on the straight and narrow. I think the whole department is good about that.”
But for Byers, the most important part of being a student is understanding and mastering the concepts — not cramming to get a good grade. The persistence to do it in his own way and get it right is what he calls “intestinal fortitude.”
“I do not take a lot of classes because I am not what I consider to be a good student anymore,” he says. “I will not work hard to get a good grade. But I will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out a concept so that I truly understand it. Because of my work history and experience, I know the importance of real understanding to be productive in the work environment, and to me, that’s more important than grades. Mastery of the knowledge is much more important.”
His advisor, physics chair Steven McCauley, admires his attitude and perspective.
“He’s never let anything stop him — he just keeps moving forward,” he says. “He never complains, and he’s never asked for special treatment. He’s a really wonderful person to have around the department.”
McCauley respects Byers’ decision to come to college much later in life than most people.
“I admire his courage,” McCauley says. “He’s really breaking the mold when you think of a physics major. I’m very impressed with what he’s doing.”
Physics lecturer Stephen Smith was Byers’ partner for an advanced physics lab in electromagnetics several years ago. He says that Byers’ knowledge of the equipment and the theory made understanding the material so much easier.
“It was amazing to work with him,” Smith says. “It added a whole new dimension to the lab. I learned as much from him as I did from the professor.”
Byers’ unorthodox approach to his education isn’t for everyone. But he wants students to remember that life is bigger than just collecting a paycheck.
“People who are good at things – I’m not saying always, happenstance is part of it – rise above the crowd. Even if no one else is making money, that doesn’t mean you won’t. But once again, making money is not your primary motivation. If this is what drives you, do it. Do it because this is what you are. If it pays off, it’s serendipity. If it doesn’t, it’s still a labor of love.”