Paul Fischer: A Man of Many Bow ties



If you’ve never had a chemistry class with professor Paul Fischer, you may still recognize him by his colorful assortment of (as of now 60) bow ties, all of which he brought to show me today before our interview.

Tell me about the bow ties that you chose for today.

Well, first of all, this blue and white [No. 3] one is the first bow tie I ever purchased. I started wearing bow ties when I taught chemistry as a Visiting Professor at St. Olaf College in 1999. At first I wore a black clip-on, but I soon realized after that first day that I wanted a real bow tie I could tie. So I went to a store, looked through all the bow ties, and I picked this as my very first. This is actually the first bow tie that I ever tied by myself. When I bought it, they gave me a free brochure on how to tie the knot, but the process was actually quite challenging for me. It was very hard to look at the instructions in words and be able to tie it at the mirror. I actually had to get a “knot tutorial” from a librarian I knew who wears bow ties.

Did you ever wear bow ties when you were younger?

It’s an interesting story. I never did wear them growing up, but I always saw these pictures of my paternal grandfather. He died before I was born, but I’ve heard a lot about him over the years. He was a farmer, but he was also a musician. When he’d go on the road with his group, he’d wear a bow tie in concert. So in most of the pictures that I have of him, he’s on the stage, and he’s always wearing a bow tie. It was always a black bow tie. And with this in mind, I just kind of got it in my head that when I started teaching it’d be fun to wear one as a professor.

Have you always been a formal dresser?

I would say so. Even in high school I was that way. I didn’t wear a tie, but I was always kind of dressed up. I guess I’ve always thought that you’re putting yourself in a frame of mind when you get dressed. So, for me, part of being a professional is having a professional appearance. It sets a mental tone when I come in to work. There’s also a long tradition of bow ties being worn by college faculty. There are certain professions where bow ties are more commonly used. For example, pediatricians traditionally wear them because they don’t want infants to be pulling on the tie. And, actually, for chemistry faculty it’s really great because if I’m working at a laboratory bench and there’s a bunsen burner flame or a chemical reaction happening in a beaker, nothing’s hanging there. A bow tie is not going to get submerged into a solution on the table or be flopping around near a flame.

What’s the most memorable comment about your bow tie?

It was probably this one woman who was elderly. I think her husband had recently passed away, and he must have worn bow ties quite often. I had never seen this woman before, but I ran into her while wearing a bow tie and she commented on how it reminded her of her husband, who she missed quite a bit. And she actually asked if she could touch the bowtie. So she approached me just to touch it, and she actually was crying like it was a very intense memory for her of her husband. And I actually gave her a hug. It was a neat experience to have with her. It was clear that she barely saw anybody else wear them.

So, do you want to tell me about your second bow tie?

Sure. I guess I can talk about this one [picks up a “clown” bow tie]. So over the years I’ve had people who’ve made bow ties for me, and that’s really kind of special. I have a friend who is involved in a theater company in Oakland, California. Every once in while they have remnants of costumes that they’re just going to throw away. When I was on sabbatical, my last sabbatical was in Berkeley, she took measurements of my neck. So, when she finds a remnant that she thinks will be good as a bow tie, she’ll make one for me. And so, maybe every year I’ll get a package in my mailbox and when it’s from her, I know it’s going to be a bow tie. This is one of those, and there are four others that she has made for me over the years. I think this one came from a clown costume. She’s so good, it’s hard to tell it apart from a professional bow tie.

Have you ever thought about making your own bow tie?

No. I never have. I don’t have any of those skills. I have thought about this though: when you go to a store and look for ties, 90 percent of them will be the long ties. So within the long ties, you see much more variety in the patterns. I’ve often wondered how difficult it would be to modify one of those long ties into a bow tie. Although, I think I have enough bow ties now. I used to buy them quite often, but now I’ll only buy them once or twice a year. There were some years when I’d buy ten in one year. And now I only buy them when I find a very specific pattern that I’m drawn to. It used to be more like an impulse purchase. I wanted to build up my collection and get as many different colors and patterns. Now I’m much more discriminating, so the pace has slowed down.

If you had a chemistry bow tie what would you want on it?

I’d like to have a chemical molecule, as a model. Maybe a model of methane. Like a ball and stick structure. That would maybe be my dream tie. I’ve never even see a long tie with that pattern. It would be neat because if you were really knowledgeable about chemistry you could identify the molecule. The long ties that I’ve seen that are chemical in nature will usually have squares with different element symbols. That’s okay, but it would be fun if it were more artistic. Maybe someday [laughs].

If I see one, I’ll let you know.

Sounds good, sounds good. This one [picks up tartan bow tie – No. 4], there’s not much to say about it—it’s the Macalester tartan that I bought when I got my job here. I’ll wear it sometimes for graduation, opening convocation, and events like that. This tie is very standard and readily available. I think this one [the blue and yellow bow tie – No. 1] is my favorite, just because it’s so easy to tie. As you get more into wearing bow ties, you realize that can make lots of fine adjustments once you’ve tied it. This one is very responsive because of the smooth silk, which I like. Also, because it’s so smooth you can make the knot in the middle very tight and small. With some ties of thicker material, you just can’t go very small with the knot. With this extremely smooth material, there’s a variety of ways to wear the bow tie – it will look a little different every time. Most people won’t notice, but it’s nice to have that kind of control over the knot when the silk is very smooth. This is a novelty enjoyed by hard core bow tie owners.

This one here [picks up TGIF bow tie — No. 2] was a gift. They didn’t make it themselves, but they hired someone to make it from some company in Massachusetts that makes custom bow ties. This is someone who knew that I typically wear bow ties on Friday. So the TGIF is really a fun thing. I’ll try to wear it at least once a semester on a Friday. This one is hard to tie because you have to prepare the knot so the word is oriented correctly. It takes me longer to tie the knot in the morning, but it’s one of my favorites because it was a gift, and it is the only one of its kind on the planet.

Do you ever wear long ties?

Nope. The last time I wore a long tie was on the day of my undergraduate college graduation. So it was June of 1993. I only have one long tie. It’s red. I couldn’t even tie it now.

What do you think of clip-on bow ties?

So, a clip-on bow tie… I would say those get you partial credit [laughs]. Whenever I watch the Oscars, I look at the bow ties, and I can tell right away who’s wearing a clip-on and who tied it themselves. There are some people I see who always tie it themselves, like Sean Connery. There are some celebrities who do wear clip-ons. They definitely get some merit for wanting to wear a bow tie, but full credit goes to those who tie it themselves.