Rotterdam, N.Y. — Dr. Vincent J. Schaefer, ''the father of rainmakers'' and one of the world's leading atmospheric scientists, did not take the conventional academic route to eminence.
Until he founded the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Albany in 1961, which he directed as its leading professor for 15 years, he had never set foot inside a college or university - except as a distinguished lecturer or to receive some honorary degree.
Dr. Schaefer never aspired to become a self-instructed scientist. He had hoped to go to college to become a forester.
''But we had a large family,'' he told the Monitor in an interview at his home in rural Rotterdam. ''Being the eldest of the family, with our parents in poor health, it was necessary for me to go to work to bring in enough money to keep us in food.'' After only two years in high school, he left to become an apprentice at General Electric in nearby Schenectady.
Four years later he had mastered the machinist trade and was making experimental models for scientists at GE's Research Laboratory.
That unorthodox beginning launched him on a career as a highly inventive natural scientist. In 1946 Dr. Schaefer discovered the first feasible method of seeding clouds.
What is his secret of success?
* Work on your own.
* Learn by doing.
* Seek out worthwhile people and make them your friends.
* Read books.
* Take advantage of every good opportunity to learn something.
* Remember that mature people enjoy helping young people who are trying to find themselves and realize their potential.
Dr. Schaefer insists that anyone with the desire could do what he has done. ''You have to have a sense of wonder,'' he says, ''and be aware of everything that goes on. You have to develop what I call 'intelligent eyes' - be intrigued with the world and everything in it.''
''A book is a distillation of a person's ideas,'' said Dr. Schaefer, a voracious reader. ''If you have a book, you have an open door to the area of knowledge the author is interested in. It is a tremendous resource to take advantage of.''
While not denigrating formal education, he thinks that ''an awful lot of time there is wasted. It's too bad we haven't learned how to get young people excited about the world around them and to take advantage of some of the best years of their lives to do constructive things as well as having a good time.''
His travels on scientific projects have taken him and his family around the globe. His book, ''A Field Guide to the Atmosphere,'' written with John A. Day (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981), is the culmination of 26 years of skywatching. And he counts among his friends many of the world's most distinguished scientists.
A boyhood interest in collecting rocks and arrowheads in this geologically and historically rich region introduced him to the first of his long list of ''worthwhile people.''
Two farmers, both self-educated men, stirred in young Vince an admiration for their knowledge of local history, where Indian lore mingles with tales of early Dutch settlers.
From them the boy got his first taste of the ideal university: a student on one end of a pine log and a learned man on the other.
In retrospect he gives much credit to the Lone Scouts of America, an organization for farm boys who were too isolated to be active in Boy Scout troops. They took all their tests by correspondence. ''It gave you a sense of independence because you were on your own honor,'' Dr. Schaefer said.
Eventually, with three other boys, he formed the Lone Scout Mohawk Tribe. The boys published a little magazine on archaeology which attracted the attention of the New York State Department of Archaeology. Through the head of the research laboratory, Schaefer eventually met the state archaeologist, Dr. Arthur Parker, who invited the 17-year-old to join him on a month-long archaeological field trip.
Schaefer refers to his experience at General Electric as ''Langmuir University.'' Under the tutelage of the late Dr. Irving Langmuir, for whom he was building test models, Schaefer's natural talents came to flower. In a short time he was conducting his own experiments in the GE lab.
In time, Dr. Schaefer himself became a learned teacher on the far end of the log.
During the 1960s, the American Meteorological Society in Boston asked him to create an educational program to attract more young people into atmospheric science. He patterned an eight-week summer program at the Loomis School in Windsor, Conn., on his experience as a Lone Scout.
One boy's project was to test the air quality of the atmosphere in northern Arizona. He arrived in Flagstaff with a cardboard tube and two lenses. With Dr. Schaefer's help he met the head of the astronomical observatory there. ''This young fellow was given the use of a beautiful telescope, which he used every night at the observatory.''
Dr. Schaefer cited this incident to illustrate his point that ''older people just love to help young people who are searching to find out what they are good for. But so few young people make the effort to find them, or realize that searching them out is something they should do, that there's no competition.''
As a spinoff from the good results gained by his unorthodox approach to learning, Dr. Schaefer was invited to join the faculty of SUNY (then called New York's State College for Teachers) as a distinguished lecturer. Later he was asked to form the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at the university.
His experience on both ends of the learning log made him conclude that true education is forwarded by youngsters being thrust on their own to learn by doing.He is convinced this fosters curiosity, motivation, and initiative that enables them to discover their capabilities.
Since 1976 Dr. Schaefer has been retired - nominally. But he remains in demand as a consultant in fields ranging from natural science to archaeology.