Glassblower to leave UI after 34 years


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Two men entered a small, cramped office on the ground floor of the Chemistry Building, looking helpless.

“We broke some stuff,” said one of the men, peering into his box of glass.

They stood near the entrance of the office amid a carefully cluttered mix of boxes, machinery, and books. They were trying to avoid scattered pieces of glass.

“Well, good,” said Peter Hatch, standing in the middle of the room with a grin stretched across his face. “You came to the right place.”

The 70-year-old glassblower for the Chemistry Department repairs broken glassware used in University of Iowa science experiments. But at the end of this semester, after 34 years at the university, he’ll close the door to that cramped office for good.

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Hatch wore work boots, a white T-shirt loosely tucked into navy blue boot-cut slacks, and tinted wayfarer glasses. The ensemble made him look like a rebel from the 1950s. But the garb is practical for a glassblower.

His framed glasses protect from flames’ sodium carbonate when spindling glass around an intense fire. His clothes are loose and made of cotton so as to not ignite.

“I’m pretty much injury-free,” Hatch said. “Had a cut a couple of years ago, but nothing too serious. You develop respect for heat and the sharpness of glass.”

So after almost a half-century of fixing dozens of boxes of broken beakers and flasks, he can look back at his UI tenure with satisfaction.

“Some come in with a sad face and go out with a smiling face,” he said. “Not many jobs have that instant feedback.”

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Hatch is one of fewer than 500 glassblowers in the country and one of only a handful in Iowa. As a member of the American Scientific Glassblowers Association, Hatch and his skill set are uncommon luxuries for the UI.

“He’s able to fit the needs of everyone,” said Garett Lee, a graduate student studying electrochemistry. “From organic chemists all the way to us.”

Not only can he do repairs for a fraction of a company’s cost, Hatch can look at drawings or blueprints and communicate with students and faculty directly.

Martin Minelli, a chemistry professor at Grinnell College, says he often makes the hour trip to Iowa City.

“Instant service,” Minelli said. “Let me tell you.”

Lee praised the service, too.

“You bring in an idea, throw it back and forth, and he comes up with a solution,” Lee said.

Hatch’s glassblowing process includes heating up glass to its annealing temperature — the point at which glass softens to a plastic-like quality— and molding it almost like cake makers make sugar decorations.

Glassblowing was a skill unfamiliar to Hatch 45 years ago when he was just looking for a way to support his wife, Lois, and later their three boys.

Once he retires, Hatch said he likely won’t have the opportunity to continue glassblowing because he never brings his work home, including any of his equipment.

But Hatch’s mastery may not all be lost. If presented the opportunity, he said, he might help train his replacement next fall.

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