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Victor Serebriakoff; Built Mensa Into 100,000-Member Organization

January 07, 2000|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Victor Serebriakoff, who took a dwindling society of geniuses and built it into the 100,000-member Mensa International organization, died Jan. 1 in London. He was 87.

Serebriakoff was the father of American Mensa, which he helped launch in the early 1960s and which now has more than 45,000 members.

Often derided as an international society of eggheads, or worse--Christopher Hitchens, writing in Vanity Fair when the group turned 50 in 1997, called it "a dating service for dorks"--Mensa is devoted to identifying and fostering high intelligence, accepting as members those whose IQ ranks in the top 2% of society.

Serebriakoff did not found the group, but he shared the vision of its creators.

"He believed very, very firmly in this world society of intelligent people. He thought it would solve the problems of the world," said Abbie Salny, Mensa's supervisory psychologist, who knew Serebriakoff for more than 40 years.

Mensa was founded in England by Roland Berrill, an eccentric Australian barrister, and Lance Ware, a scientist and lawyer. They envisioned a panel of the intellectually gifted that would function as a think tank for governments and others.

But it operated more as a black-tie dinner club in London. When Serebriakoff joined it in 1949, Berrill had driven it to near extinction because of his habit of representing his own, often bizarre views, as those of Mensa. By 1954, only four people attended the group's annual dinner.

During this low point in the society's early history, Mensa secretary Joe Wilson suggested that the group give up its pretensions to being anything more than "just a group of friends who like to meet."

Serebriakoff said that seemed a shameful waste, which caused Wilson to suggest that Serebriakoff take over. He did, enthusiastically assuming the roles of secretary, chairman, editor and general factotum over the next several decades.

Serebriakoff started out life as an unlikely candidate for leader of a frankly elitist group. The son of a Russian emigre, he grew up in a London slum and left school when he was 15.

He seemed destined for a series of dead-end jobs, from wood machinist to general manual laborer, until he joined the British army, which gave him an intelligence test and found he was mentally gifted. The army assigned him to the education corps to train recruits, although his own formal education was lacking.

After the army, he joined a timber company, eventually rising to manager of a group of woodworking factories. He became a timber technologist, revolutionizing the industry with his invention of a machine for grading timber and by introducing the metric system to the trade. He later became chairman of a national timber standards commission and held several valuable sawmill-related patents.

In 1949, his wife, Mary, spotted an advertisement for a society seeking people of high intelligence. Serebriakoff took the entrance test and easily surpassed the group's only requirement for membership. He scored 161 on the Cattell intelligence test, so off the charts that he likened it to hitting the bell on a carnival strength meter: If the bell didn't stop the weight, there was no telling how much higher it would go.

As head of Mensa, he tightened admission procedures, introducing a supervised test as an entrance requirement. He also oversaw the revision of the constitution to prohibit the society from taking stands on issues, which would prevent the kind of membership fallout that occurred under founder Berrill.

When an American recruitment drive was launched, Reader's Digest ran a Mensa quiz. It produced 83 bags of mail from Americans who answered the brain-teasing questions, Salny recalled. American Mensa gained 18,000 new members.

Mensa accepts the results of about 200 standardized intelligence tests. Although a legion of eminent psychologists dispute the validity of such tests, Mensans believe they are the best means of discovering mental giftedness and tout the diversity of their membership--from welfare moms to millionaires, scientists to truck drivers--as proof of their effectiveness.

When Serebriakoff went on international recruitment tours, he frequently was asked to explain why the super-smart needed a club of their own.

Mensans, he told The Times' Jack Smith in 1965, join the group because they are made to feel like misfits. "They feel that other people think them odd or peculiar. They feel out of it. There is an anti-intellectual bias, you know. Intelligence is the only form of excellence that is not universally admired."

But Mensa fellowship was also "pleasantly humbling," offering forums for intellectual jousting that helped to counteract brainy folks' natural tendency toward "mental arrogance."

A short, red-bearded man with a cherubic face who enjoyed kite flying, Serebriakoff rejected the stereotypes of Mensans as geeks who wear mismatched socks. "That's a compensation myth," he said.

But he enjoyed making fun of his own shortcomings. Dave Remine, the chairman of Mensa International, recalled that Serebriakoff, who served as Mensa's honorary international president after his retirement in 1982, liked to tell a story about the time he took his car to a mechanic but was told to come back later when the shop was not so busy. To kill time, Serebriakoff took the car to the carwash. Only when the suds were flowing did he remember why he needed his car repaired: "The driver's side window," Remine said, "wouldn't go up."

Nonetheless, Serebriakoff was emphatic that superior intelligence brought distinct advantages. High-IQ people are "more competent, not just intellectually but in everything," he said, arguing that they tend to be taller, more athletic and earn more than the national average.

"I know it isn't fair," he said apologetically. "Sorry about that."

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