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Obituary of the Day

March 16, 2014 Leave a comment

jackdaniels

The Cape Gazette, covering Delaware’s Cape Henlopen region, offered an unexpectedly delightful obituary last Tuesday of Walter George Bruhl, Jr. (Hat tip: Philip Gourevitch.) The start is unusual enough: “Walter George Bruhl Jr. of Newark and Dewey Beach is a dead person.” We soon learn that

he was surrounded by his loving wife of 57 years, Helene Sellers Bruhl, who will now be able to purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink.

Moreover,

Walt was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1935; a spinal disc in 1974; a large piece of his thyroid gland in 1988; and his prostate on March 27, 2000.

Alas,

there will be no viewing since his wife refuses to honor his request to have him standing in the corner of the room with a glass of Jack Daniels in his hand so he would appear natural to visitors.

Cremation will take place at the family’s convenience, and his ashes will be kept in an urn until they get tired of having it around.

Follow the obituary link at the start to get more details.

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Categories: Obituary

Lee Lorch

March 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Lee Lorch, mathematician and civil rights leader, has died. I don’t have much to add to what has been written elsewhere. The NYT has a lengthy obituary that I recommend. Some excerpts:

Lee Lorch, a soft-spoken mathematician whose leadership in the campaign to desegregate Stuyvesant Town, the gargantuan housing development on the east side of Manhattan, helped make housing discrimination illegal nationwide, died on Friday at a hospital in Toronto. He was 98.

His daughter, Alice Lorch Bartels, confirmed the death. Mr. Lorch had taught at York University in Toronto, and had lived in Toronto since 1968.

By helping to organize tenants in a newly-built housing complex — and then inviting a black family to live in his own apartment — Mr. Lorch played a crucial role in forcing the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which owned the development, to abandon its whites-only admissions policy. His campaign anticipated the sit-ins and other civil rights protests to come.

But Mr. Lorch’s lifelong agitation for racial equality, not just in New York but later in Tennessee and Arkansas, led him into a life of professional turmoil and, ultimately, exile.

[snip]

Mr. Lorch became vice chairman of a group of 12 tenants calling themselves the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town.

“When you got into Stuyvesant Town, there was a serious moral dilemma,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with William Kelly of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Video Project. “In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, people had seen the end results of racism.”

Some 1,800 tenants eventually joined the group. “Stuyvesant Town is a grand old town; but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one of its chants, wrote Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times in a book about Stuyvesant Town’s history. A group of 3,500 residents petitioned Mayor William O’Dwyer to help eliminate the “no Negroes allowed” policy, and supported anti-discrimination legislation before the City Council.

But Metropolitan Life held firm. And in early 1949, Mr. Lorch paid the price. Despite the backing of a majority of colleagues in his department, the appointments committee at City College blocked his promotion, effectively forcing him to leave.

[snip]

in September 1950, he accepted a new academic post, becoming one of two white professors at Fisk University, the historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. His wife, a longtime activist herself — she had led the Boston School Committee in its effort to stop women from being fired as teachers the moment they married, as she had been — returned to Stuyvesant Town, where the Teamsters union supplied protection for protesting tenants.

In January 1952, as tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and picketed outside City Hall and Metropolitan Life’s headquarters, the company compromised: Mr. Lorch and two other organizers would move out, but the Hendrixes got to stay.

Seven years later, only 47 blacks lived in Stuyvesant Town. But the frustration the campaign helped unleash culminated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.

At Fisk, Mr. Lorch taught three of the first blacks ever to receive doctorates in mathematics. But there, too, his activism, like his attempt to enroll his daughter in an all-black school and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist ties, got him in trouble. In 1955, he was again let go.

One of those three students at Fisk who received doctorates in math is Gloria Hewitt, who came to my own department here at the University of Washington to study algebra and went on to a distinguished career at the University of Montana.

I heard Lorch speak many years ago. I can’t remember where. Perhaps at an American Math Society meeting. That’s the extent of my contact with him. The video embedded above is a film by Rachel Deutsch, produced by Science for Peace,, which “explores his experiences with: social justice, civil rights, de-segregation, communism, housing, boxing, music, activism, love, memories, change.” I’ve watched part of it. I look forward to seeing it all.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Obituary of the Day

February 3, 2014 Leave a comment

colonel

Not being a regular reader of Greenwich Time, I had missed Leonard Smith’s obituary a week ago. But thanks to a retweet two days ago by New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, I got a second chance.

We don’t learn too much in the obit. After all,

Leonard Smith was a very private man. If you wanted to know his cause of death, he would have told you that it was none of your business. If you asked Penny, his beloved wife, she would tell you that he had cancer, but not to tell anyone.

But we do learn this about his military service.

He joined the Army Air Corps after his first term at M.I.T., and attained the rank of colonel, but only on the telephone when facilitating personnel discharges and equipment requisitions. He was discharged as a private.

And the ending offers a brief sketch of his character.

Leonard Smith hated pointless bureaucracy, thoughtless inefficiency and bad ideas born of good intentions. He loved his wife, admired and respected his children and liked just about every dog he ever met. He will be greatly missed by those he loved and those who loved him. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you cancel your subscription to The New York Times.

Leonard Smith would have thought that this obituary was about three paragraphs too long.

Colonel Smith, I wish I knew you.

Categories: Obituary

Paul Sally

January 5, 2014 Leave a comment

paulsally

[Sharat Ganapati, The Chicago Maroon]

University of Chicago mathematician Paul Sally died last Monday at the age of 80. I got to spend time with him during my year in the department a few decades ago and have since been immensely fond of him. Aside from being a superb research mathematician, he was an inspiring teacher, a leader in mathematics education at all levels, one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and a generous spirit.

From the university website:

Known for his contributions to the field of harmonic analysis and his passionate commitment to teaching, Prof. Paul J. Sally, Jr. built a legacy of love for mathematics at the University of Chicago for nearly 50 years. …

Sally taught at the University since 1965 and served as chairman of the mathematics department from 1977 to 1980. …

“Paul had a fierce belief in mathematics and in people,” wrote Professor Shmuel Weinberger, chair of mathematics, in a note to faculty. “I will miss him deeply.”

Sally’s impact in the classroom was legendary. He produced 19 PhD students and was director of Undergraduate Studies in the Mathematics Department for decades. He pioneered outreach programs in mathematics for elementary and secondary teachers and students. From 1983 to 1987, Sally served as the first director of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project, home of the nation’s most widely used university-developed mathematics curriculum. In 1992, he founded Seminars for Elementary Specialists and Mathematics Educators (SESAME), a first-of-its-kind program for elementary school teachers from Chicago Public Schools.

Diane Herrmann, the co-director of Undergraduate Studies in Mathematics and a Senior Lecturer, described Sally as “a force of nature.” Herrmann worked with Sally as a teacher, mentor and then as a colleague for the past 30 years.

“He was passionately interested in mathematical education at all levels,” said Herrmann, who with Sally co-founded the Young Scholars Program, a groundbreaking enrichment program for mathematically talented seventh through 12th graders.

One student who benefitted from the Young Scholars Program starting in seventh grade was Maryanthe Malliaris, who is now an assistant professor in UChicago’s department of mathematics. She recalled the experience as “exhilarating” and “decisive for my future in mathematics.”

“He had an incredible psychological astuteness, and a forceful clarity,” Malliaris wrote in an email. “He devoted a great deal of his time to creating possibilities for others. He concerned himself with the field as a whole. He would be there on Saturdays, on evenings, in the summer. His door was always open. He would show by example what it is to be a great human being.”

David Vogan, AB, SM, ’74, another former student of Sally’s, went on to be a Professor of Mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the American Mathematical Society.

“What distinguished Paul Sally was not only his passion for mathematics, but also his love and care for everyone studying mathematics,” Vogan said. “He had an appreciation for all the different levels of mathematics. He was a remarkable individual who seemed to have an unlimited supply of energy.” …

“He overcame tremendous obstacles to provide education and outreach at the University, in the city of Chicago and nationally” said Robert Fefferman, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics. “He lost both legs and lost his eyesight to childhood diabetes and it did not stop him at all.”

A Boston native, Paul was a high school basketball star. From a Boston Globe 2007 article:

Sally has, by all accounts, had an unconventional journey to the upper pinnacles of the mathematical world. His early numerical life was built around 2’s and 3’s on the basketball court – he starred at Boston College High School – and it wasn’t until he was nearly 30 that he found his step in the mathematics.

“I was very late by the standards of this field,” he says. “Mathematicians are supposed to do their best work at 21. When I was that age, I was still dribbling a basketball down Dorchester Avenue.”

After graduating from BC, Sally ambled around town, driving a red cab in Brookline, loading furniture in Downtown Crossing, teaching at BC High, playing hoops in “every gym in the city,” until, in 1957, he claims he sneaked in the door with the first class of graduate students at Brandeis University. That’s where he met his wife, Judy Sally, who recently retired as a math professor at Northwestern University – “When you’re at Brandeis, and you meet an Irish lass named Judith Flanagan Donovan, it’s all over,” he says. After finishing his doctorate, he made his way to the University of Chicago. He was awarded tenure in 1969, and has been there ever since.

Though he’s technically a research mathematician – he’s done important work in reductive groups, an algebraic concept – Sally’s passion has always been standing at the blackboard. He loves his students and, by all accounts, they adore him.

“He’s unique because he’s this big powerful man, but his hallmark is that he nurtures people,” said Phil Kutzko, a math professor at the University of Iowa … . “The jokes are funny, but the reason his students and colleagues love him is that he’s been there for people.”

While his health has repeatedly betrayed him – the macular degeneration in his right eye is now so bad that he’s legally blind – Sally, whose accent retains a strong trace of Roslindale, says he has no plans of slowing down.

“I’ll keep teaching as long as I can find the blackboard,” he says.

One more quote, from a 2009 interview of Paul (PS) by Supriya Sinhababu (SS) in the university student newspaper:

PS: Six-three, 200, is the best you could be, let me tell you. Well I can’t say that—when I was a senior in college, I was about six-three, 185, and since then I’ve sort of put it on. A lot of it’s muscle. No, I don’t want to be anything but six-three. Now the other side of that is, I don’t want to be five-eight. This really angers five-eight people when I say that, but I don’t want to be five-eight! I’ve been six-three my whole life. As a matter of fact, when I had my second leg cut off, my surgeon and prosthetist got together and said, “Look, Paul, if we lower your center of gravity, you’ll have much more balance.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” They really thought they were going to shorten my height by about five or six inches. When you learn to exist and address the world at a certain height—and six-three is a very nice height to address the world from—you want to stay there.

About an hour after our conversation, I went back to Paul Sally’s office to ask him a final question.

SS: You told me that you’re 95-percent blind. I imagine this requires you to do an enormous amount of math in your head.

PS: I do.

SS: How do you do that?

PS: I’m one powerful son of a bitch.

That he was.

Categories: Math, Obituary

Bea

November 17, 2013 1 comment

bea

My mother-in-law Bea died Friday afternoon. She had not been well for many months. Nonetheless, the decline at the end was rapid and unexpected, with word Tuesday that she was not eating and death 72 hours later. Gail called me at my office in mid-afternoon Friday to say she was going out to be with Bea. We agreed that I could wait until the end of the afternoon. I didn’t get there in time, and neither did Gail.

Bea did not have an easy life. In her final years, she was beset by Alzheimer’s and then a fall and broken hip from which she never regained mobility. Which is especially sad given how much she enjoyed getting around. She didn’t drive, but she was determinedly independent in her use of the Seattle bus system. I’ll never forget Thanksgiving dinner of 1986, when she went toe to toe with another experienced rider, a brilliant colleague of mine, and held her own in bus mastery.

At her first Alzheimer’s home, before the fall, she would frequently head out the door and around the fenced-in open air area surrounding the facility. The only problem was that it consisted of four identical spokes off a central reception area and she didn’t always return to the correct spoke. Right bedroom location, wrong wing. Oh well.

Bea was a fearless cook. We can put aside the question of how successful the results were, though I always seemed willing to eat them. She’d cook day and night (her eating schedule being a bit unpredictable), and no one could out-bake her. Some details might get overlooked, like shutting off the cooktop burners, but no matter. And anyway, thankfully, Jessica lived with her in the last years before she moved to the home, so someone was paying attention when those burners were left on.

No one spread the church news better than Bea. She’d call for Gail, I’d answer, and she’d plunge right in with the latest death, along with the scheduled service at the neighborhood funeral home, Wiggins. That I had no idea who she was talking about, that I knew no one at the church besides the family, that I didn’t go to the church (or any other) never mattered. Nor did I know Wiggins, but I eventually caught on to his identity.

It’s only fitting that she, too, is now passing through Wiggins. I would say I’ll miss her, but that Bea disappeared some time back. I’ve been missing her for years.

Categories: Family, Obituary

Bill Mazer

October 27, 2013 Leave a comment

billmazer

[From the Daily News]

Bill Mazer died on Wednesday. When I saw the obituary online in the NYT, I was transported back to my days as a passionate fan of New York sporting teams, and to one of the great sports conversationalists. I’m not a listener of talk radio, but I suddenly remembered that I was once, thanks to Bill, a pioneer who deserved a wider platform for his intelligence.

From the NYT:

Bill Mazer, who was a voice and face of sports coverage in New York for decades, pioneering sports-talk radio and becoming a television fixture while earning the nickname the Amazin’ for his encyclopedic recall of sports facts and figures, died on Wednesday in Danbury, Conn. He was 92. …

When Mr. Mazer retired in 2009, he had spent more than 60 years in broadcasting — 20 of them as a nightly sports anchor and the host of the weekend roundup “Sports Extra” on WNEW-TV, Channel 5. Before then he had been a host of sports-talk radio when the very idea of the format was new.

He ranged beyond sports occasionally in radio interview programs with figures from all walks of life, but sports was his passion and had been since he was growing up in Brooklyn.

For a time, though, while attending a yeshiva, he envisioned becoming a rabbi.

But he also played punchball and made Ebbets Field his second home. Sports won out. As he put it long afterward, unearthing the memory of a Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher of the 1930s with a terrific fastball and a musical name: “I was paying more attention to Van Lingle Mungo than I was to Moses.”

Mr. Mazer had been covering sports at radio and TV stations in Buffalo for 16 years when he was hired by WNBC-AM in March 1964. It was unveiling an innovative talk format.

“Here, Go Nag WNBC!” the station said in a March 1964 advertisement. “Listen to the Newest Sound in New York — your own voice and your neighbor’s — on WNBC Radio, 660 on the dial.”

The station invited listeners to pick up their phones and “talk sports with Bill Mazer from 4:30-6 p.m.”

Mr. Mazer held down the sports call-in spot while others, including Brad Crandall, Long John Nebel and Big Wilson, fielded calls on just about anything else.

[snip]

He was born Morris Mazer on Nov. 2, 1920, in what is now Izyaslav, Ukraine, and moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was an infant. His father worked in a kosher poultry market. His mother took the boy and his friends to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers and occasionally to the Polo Grounds to see the Giants. But his father, like many new immigrants, regarded sports as a time-wasting frivolity.

As Mr. Mazer related it in “Bill Mazer’s Amazin’ Baseball Book” (1990), written with Stan and Shirley Fischler, “When I brought my baseball talk back home, my father invariably reacted as if I were discussing the manufacture of plutonium.”

And from Neil Best in Newsday:

Bill Mazer often lamented that he did not make it bigger, never quite breaking through as a nationally known figure rather than primarily as a New York-area sports broadcaster.

But he missed the point. Amazin’, who died Wednesday two weeks shy of turning 93, was the right guy at the right time in the right place, becoming in his own very New York way an important figure in sports media history.

Mazer was born in Ukraine but grew up in Depression-era New York, rooting for the Dodgers — especially pitcher Van Lingle Mungo — before settling after World War II in Buffalo, a job he landed through a guy he met in the South Pacific named Marty Glickman.

Sixteen years later, he was back where he belonged, on WNBC, where in 1964 he began a talk show — perhaps not the very first to host a sports call-in program but the first to use his kibitzing skills to popularize and perfect the art.

Naturally, Mazer claimed to be the very first, as would any self-respecting New York character with a healthy self-promotional streak,

[snip]

Mazer’s legacy lacks the historical weight of his contemporary Glickman, a world-class athlete turned influential announcer who mentored a long list of broadcasting stars and who, by the way, preceded Mazer in talking sports on the radio.

But no matter. Mazer helped make and keep sports fun and connected in particular with a generation of teenage boys now turned men in their 60s with fond memories of calling WNBC on late afternoons and having their opinions taken seriously.

I never called in, but I was part of that generation.

Categories: Obituary, Sports

Abraham Nemeth

October 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Nemeth-and-Ashleah

[National Federation of the Blind]

Mathematician and Braille pioneer Abraham Nemeth died last Wednesday. From tomorrow’s NYT obit:

Abraham Nemeth, whose frustrations in pursuing an academic career in math prompted him to develop the Nemeth Code, a form of Braille that drastically improved the ability of visually impaired people to study complex mathematics, died on Wednesday at his home in Southfield, Mich. He was 94.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his niece Dianne Bekritsky.

Blind since he was an infant, Dr. Nemeth grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the grandson of a kosher butcher. He was a bright child who taught himself to play the piano using Braille music books and was increasingly drawn to what he later called “the beauty of mathematics.”

Yet as his math skills increased, he found that Braille could take him only so far. It was too easy to confuse letters and numbers in certain situations and too cumbersome to constantly clarify. The more complicated math became, the more limited Braille became.

“There was no way of doing square roots, partial differentials, et cetera,” said Joyce Hull, who worked with Dr. Nemeth for many years, refining and writing manuals for his code. “That’s one of the reasons they said, ‘No, blind people can’t do math.’ ”

Dr. Nemeth knew that they could. Even as college advisers steered him in other directions — he earned his master’s in psychology from Columbia in 1942 — he began tinkering with the six-dot cell that is the foundation of Braille. By the late 1940s, while working in the shipping department of the American Foundation for the Blind (and playing piano in Brooklyn bars to make extra money), he had come up with a customized Braille code for math; he made symbols for the basics of addition and subtraction but also for the complexities of differential calculus. He even made a Braille slide rule.

He began informally sharing his new symbols with others, and the code quickly caught on. In 1950, he presented it to the American Joint Uniform Braille Committee. By the mid-1950s, the Nemeth Code had been adopted by national groups and incorporated into textbooks, providing him with a new career. In 1955, he was hired by the University of Detroit to teach math — to sighted students, using a chalkboard.

[snip]

Dr. Nemeth received his doctorate in mathematics from Wayne State University in Detroit. He began studying computer science in the 1960s and later started the university’s computer science program. He retired in 1985. For two years he served as the chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

Throughout his life, he dedicated much of his spare time to creating Braille versions of Jewish texts, including helping to proofread a Braille Hebrew Bible in the 1950s. He also helped develop MathSpeak, a method for communicating math orally.

Dr. Cary Supalo, a professor at Illinois State University who is blind and works to make science and science laboratories accessible to the blind, said Dr. Nemeth was revered among educators focused on the blind.

And from a National Federation of the Blind news release:

Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “Dr. Nemeth had a great mind and a wonderful sense of humor. His invention of the Braille code that bears his name has enabled many blind people to learn, work, and excel in scientific, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and his tireless Braille advocacy work undoubtedly changed countless lives. He will be sorely missed and his contributions will be valued by generations to come.”

The news release also links to a 1991 interview with Nemeth, from which I’ve taken the photo above.

Categories: Math, Obituary