Love, Uncles, and Etymology

May 26 22:44 2005 Dr. Bradley Hennenfent Print This Article

Thwack! . . . Thwack! . . . Thwack! Steven Arthur Mills slapped the marble desk in front of Roseville High School’s science class with a yardstick. All eyes suddenly fastened on him. He sensed that we were getting bored with learning, and he wasn’t about to let that happen.

Black-framed glasses highlighted my uncle’s hearty face. Wispy white hair topped his head. He was mild-mannered and excessively polite,Guest Posting but when teaching, he was a wild-eyed scientist, a natural showman, who taught in dramatic fashion with experiments, explosions, and flair.

It was a thrill to be in his class. We watched in awe when Uncle Steve dropped potassium in a glass of water. It ignited and skipped in circles over the water’s surface. We sculpted glass with Bunsen burners. He taught us chemical equations by blowing up hydrogen – poof! And everything was always done under conditions of extreme safety. We saw the fascinating sides of physics with pendulums, levers, and lenses.

But Steven Arthur Mills didn’t limit his teaching to the classroom. Some of my earliest memories from childhood are of my Uncle Steve teaching me new things at family gatherings. Uncle Steve was the answer man.

“Why is ice hard?”

“Why is toilet bowl cleaner poisonous?”

“Why does ammonia smell so strong?”

His answers were always patient, logical, and scientific, and as a kid, I asked a million questions, because he talked to me like I was an adult. Uncle Steve would pull out a slide rule (this was the 1960s, before calculators were common) and help me do math problems in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner. We had these “conferences” at every family activity. Once, before arriving at a family event, my dad pulled me aside and said, “Don’t bother Uncle Steve the whole time. Other people want to talk to him too.” I was shocked and hurt. To be cut off from Uncle Steve was a crisis.

I found Uncle Steve and pulled on his pant’s leg. “Can I ask you lots of questions?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said. “I don’t know much, but I’ll tell you what I know,” he said humbly.

Thank God! I felt like an important person when I was around Uncle Steve. Uncle Steve would bring my brothers, my sister, and our cousins, all sorts of educational toys.

“What are you doing, giving a little kid that age a radio kit,” I once heard one of the adults ask him, thinking such toys were too advanced for our years.

But Uncle Steve was right. His gifts inspired us to do things beyond all expectations. Once one kid built something difficult, like soldering a walkie-talkie together, everyone tried to do the same. He never challenged us to master difficult things; he simply let curiosity take its course. He let us discover how great learning can be.

By the time I got to high school we whipped through Newton and Einstein. Uncle Steve gave everyone the Periodic Table of the Elements and showed us tricks about how to use it. I loved science and math, because Uncle Steve introduced us to concepts and experiments that intrigued us. Importantly, my class left high school prepared for college.

While I was away in medical school, Uncle Steve was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was given estrogen therapy and died suddenly from a heart attack at age 73. We had agreed for several years that he would attend my graduation and he missed it, by only three months.

His death was devastating for me. I might never have gone to medical school if not for his influence. The worst blow was that I came realize his treatment for prostate cancer had probably killed him. He was given estrogen for his prostate cancer, and today we know that estrogen in the high doses given back then often causes heart attacks, and my Uncle Steve suffered a sudden, massive one.

Years passed and four of my five siblings got married giving me a brother-in-law and three new sisters-in-law. Seemingly overnight, my older brothers fathered five children, and my sister bore five, for a total of ten youngsters with ten new personalities.

Being an uncle to five girls and five boys was something I was unprepared for because I was single. Did I have a role to play in the lives of my nieces and nephews? Suddenly, I had questions without answers and didn’t know how to behave. It’s difficult to call on the telephone. Who has the time during internship and residency? And it’s so hard to call at the right time to a family with little kids who are napping or going to bed early.

To my surprise, I discovered a way to reach out to my nieces and nephews. I often received free promotional knick-knacks at work whether I wanted them or not. When given a free gadget, I promptly shipped it to niece or nephew. I sent them pens, penlights, magnets, popping buttons, cheap watches, postcards, and other thingamabobs. Because the closest kids lived over 200 miles away from me, the mail was often the only way for me to make my existence known to them.

What excited responses I got! Several times I received calls from children giggling with delight and thanking me for the gifts that I sent them. Several times I got a call from an amazed brother, or my sister, who couldn’t believe how much fun one of the children was having with a flashlight or some other object. Mailing stuff reminded me of how Uncle Steve always gave us science toys when I was a kid. Their reactions meant a lot to me, but I came up with other ideas too.

In fact, as time went by, my favorite duty became teaching vocabulary.

“Uncle Brad, you’re sesquipedalian!” Laurel shouted into the phone one day when we talked. My six-year-old niece had stumped me with that word. I was totally surprised by it. I marveled at how fast blonde-haired Laurel, the oldest of the children, was learning.

“It means you like to use big words,” she informed me.

“Oh,” I replied, smiling.

Big words are my hobby. I started trying to expand my vocabulary after being hit by a drunk driver. After being unconscious, I felt mentally cloudy and learning new words was part of my rehabilitation. I unabashedly used newly learned words around my family. I always made sure that I had some big words ready when I was visiting my nieces or nephews.

One summer the entire family was visiting grandma and grandpa’s house. All the children were there, and I was ready for my performance.

“Unbelievable,” I cried out, “There’s a rampike in the yard!” I like to make a big, dramatic, production out of everything educational like my Uncle Steve used to do. “Look, there it is—the rampike—right outside our window!”

“Oh no, here we go again, Uncle Brad,” Laurel said, rolling her eyes.

“What’s a rampike?” asked Andrew.

“A rampike?” Nathan repeated.

“Isn’t it incredible?” I said dramatically. Like my Uncle Steve before me, I have no intention of being boring while teaching something. I kept staring out the window for a moment pointing with my finger.

I checked my young audience, and even shy Douglas from Altanta, only three years old, and still unfamiliar with his cousins, was looking out the window. Everyone old enough to respond to my hijinks had done so. All the little faces wore attentive expressions.

“A rampike is a dead tree, especially one that has been burned,” I told everyone. “Your dad taught me that word,” I told Douglas in my sensational educational tone as I pointed outside. “See where the lightning hit and burned the tree, leaving it without leaves and scarred. So, a rampike is a dead tree. This particular one was killed by lightning,” I emphasized.

“A rampike,” Laurel said.

“A rampike,” Douglas said.

“Rampike!” Andrew screamed.

One by one they enunciated the alien word. They had gotten it. They had learned a new word. I could see their self-esteem growing because they had learned something that only adults knew!

Later, I was playing with Laurel. We were searching for big words in a book when her younger brother Nathan came by, looking a little left out, sparking a memory from my own childhood. My family was large and as a kid I sometimes felt lost in the crowd at family events, until I discovered my Uncle Steve.

And another thought from my mother about raising six kids rang in my head: You multiply your love; you don’t divide it.

“Okay Nathan,” I said, eager to include him in our game. “You can find some big words in this book too.”

“Uncle Brad,” he giggled.

“Come on, find one,” I encouraged him.

“But I can’t even read yet, I’m only four,” he said cheerfully. He was right of course. So I picked up the book, and we started learning to read. He was “tickled pink” to see what big words were. This incident would lead to other adventures.

On March 21, 1992, I was best man at my youngest brother Steve’s wedding. My brother was named after our Uncle Steve. Before he passed away, my Uncle Steve used to photograph all our family weddings. He had been enthusiastic about taking pictures, and everyone enjoyed his photographs immensely. Now the trend was for weddings to be videotaped.

“Nathan,” I said, “when the video cameraman comes over here, say, ‘This sure is obfuscatory.’”

“What?” he pondered.

“Ob-fus-ca-tor-y,” I carefully enunciated.

“What’s that mean?” he blurted.

“It means it’s confusing,” I said with enough gleam in my eye so that he knew that I meant to have some fun.

The man with the video camera headed our way and Nathan nervously anticipated the moment.

“And what do you think, young man?” he said to Nathan, as he focused the camera on him.

“It’s all obfuscatory to me!” he shouted. “That means it sure is confusing!”

The cameraman was startled and delighted. He had just captured one of those unexpectedly hilarious moments on tape. The incident reminded me of how my Uncle Steve would get his whole class excited about learning by doing something dramatic.

Once the phenomenon of big words started, it steamrolled and quickly came right back at me.

“You’re being avuncular,” my sister Nancy said.

“What’s avuncular?” I asked.

“It means acting like an uncle,” she said.

“This is going to get out of control,” I said.

“Yeah, but it’s fun,” she said.

A few months later, my Aunt Lucille and my Aunt Katherine were over for a birthday party. “You’re just nonchalant about all this fuss, aren’t you, Nathan?” my Aunt Lucille said to him.

I seized this opportunity. After all, Nathan’s Great Aunt Katherine was there, and it was her husband, my Uncle Steve, who had really gotten me interested in learning as a child. I took Nathan aside and told him, “Tell her you’re insouciant, not nonchalant.” We rehearsed the word a time or two and Nathan ran back to Great Aunt Lucille at the dining table.

“I’m insouciant!”

“What’s that mean?” she questioned.

Nathan ran back to me for the meaning and then back to the table. “It means I’m happy and carefree,” he shouted. Then Nathan smiled, drew one leg up in the air, curled his arms toward his small chest, broke into hysterics of laughter, and his cheeks turned beet red. The adults guffawed from his unique contortion of joy.

When I looked around, I saw a smile on Aunt Katherine’s face. Her husband, my Uncle Steve, was responsible for the joy on her face.

One day when most of the family was home, Andrew, now a clear-eyed six-year old who was stretching up in height, said, “Uncle Brad, let’s talk about important science stuff now!” When I heard this, tears rimmed my eyes. I had said the exact same words to my Uncle Steve when I was a child.

My thoughts went skyward and rested on heaven. I had come full circle since my Uncle Steve entered my life. He was a teacher and had inspired me to learn important science stuff when I was a kid. I badgered him with questions, and he never let me down. I mattered when I was around him, and learning was fun.

My Uncle Steve had prepared me for much more than science and math. He had taught me how to be an uncle. His life had answered the one question that I had never thought to ask him when he was alive.

- by Bradley Hennenfent, M.D., author of the new book: “Surviving Prostate Cancer Without Surgery.”

"Surviving Prostate Cancer Without Surgery" can be found in fine bookstores everywhere. Biblio Distribution (800-462-6420) and Roseville Books/Rayve Productions (888-492-2665) distribute the book. It’s $19.95, a trade paperback, 334 pages, 34 chapters, ISBN Number: 0-9717454-1-2, and was published January 15, 2005. Twenty-seven illustrations and cartoons are included within the book, which also includes an extensive index.


Copyright © 2005 Roseville Books.

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About Article Author

Dr. Bradley Hennenfent
Dr. Bradley Hennenfent

Dr. Bradley Hennenfent is the author of the bold new book “Surviving Prostate Cancer Without Surgery.” He also authored “The Prostatitis Syndromes” and maintains web sites at and for those who love big words:

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