Eulogy for Friend
Length: 1289 words (3.7 double-spaced pages)
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My name is Rick. I live in Carmel, California, a place also known as paradise. I work at the US Naval Postgraduate School, as chairman of one of the largest operations research departments in the country.
I completed my PhD degree in OR here at Georgia Tech, in 1975. John White (then new to Tech, now Chancellor of the University of Arkansas) gave me the kernel of an idea and, more importantly, he administered the one stiff kick in the rump that I needed to start my dissertation. From then on, I was nurtured and guided by Donovan Young.
The Don – don’t ask me why, but I remember graduate students referring to Professor Young as "the Don" – was in many ways the old fashioned, romantic ideal of a college professor. He was so smart, he was so energetic and entertaining, and he was incredibly attentive to students’ needs and interests. He cared about the currency and applicability of what he taught, preparing new notes for each class, devising extremely inventive homework and test problems, always dreaming up new applications. He cared not only about the students’ learning. He cared about them as people. He had passion and compassion.
Let me talk about his intellect. Does anyone remember having a childhood fantasy about spying on your elementary school teachers out of school? Usually, those fantasies involved some role reversal. I’ll confess to a fantasy I imagined as a 24-year-old graduate student. I dreamt that all the professors of Georgia Tech’s Industrial and Systems Engineering department were locked in a classroom taking a comprehensive exam. This exam covered every ISyE subject at a fundamental level, and each problem demanded clever insight and creativity. The rules of engagement were simple: closed-book, no time limit, you can’t leave till every question is answered correctly. Got the picture? Quite a scene.
Well, guess who left the room first?
Yes, I think Don was that smart. My image of the scene even includes the Don’s exit: can’t you picture that big bear of a man who somehow managed to move with lightness, his eyes sparkling, a big Texas grin on his face, and he’s whistling! Has there ever been another person on this planet who could whistle two tunes at a time, out of both sides of his mouth, harmoniously?
You have to admit Don’s physicality was impressive. And that voice! If a big Delta jet was flying over the old ISyE Building and Don was lecturing with the windows open, he would drown out the plane.
He knew how to use his voice so well, both loudly and softly. It was one of his best musical instruments.
Others will speak today about Don’s immense musical talent, so I’ll return briefly to the academic domain. Parenthetically, I should probably try to recover some good graces with my other brilliant professors – you know, the ones so rudely left sitting at the comprehensive exam.
I studied at Tech from 1972-75, known in the modern era as Year 13 to Year 10, B.N., before Nemhauser. My contemporaries included Luis Contreras (who also worked with Don), Bruce Schmeiser, Jim Evans, Bob Bulfin, Chan Park, Jeff Kennington, Warren Langley, Ron Rardin, Mark Karwan. Not a bad lot. But I have to admit that Georgia Tech ISyE did not yet enjoy the reputation it has today on one of the highest perches of the academic pantheon. Don was a generalist in era that was turning to specialists.
And, oh, what a generalist! Don’s vocabulary was amazing for a person in any field, let alone engineering. His most ruthless use of his vocabulary was in Scrabble. He was unbeatable at that game. His passion for knowledge extended far beyond ISyE. For a while, along with working as an engineering professor and a jazz artist, he was also a regular book reviewer for the Atlanta Constitution. He read and wrote about everything from science and the environment to South American literature (which he could read in the original Spanish). I remember when the celebrated Argentinean author Jorges Luis Borges wrote a letter to the editor praising Don’s perceptive observations and quibbling over a neologism.
Do you know how Don lost that gig? The Editor used to send him a big box of books every month. Don read them all, selected his favorites and wrote reviews on the best. The Editor complained that he only wrote good reviews. Why not pan a few bad books? Don replied that the purpose of book reviews should be to help people decide which books to read among the thousands of new titles appearing every year. Like a good operations researcher, he was optimally allocating his effort and the readers’ attention to the best books. Evidently, newspaper editors don’t think like operations researchers.
Like everyone here, the news put me in shock. Strangely, it also infused me with energy, as if some of Don’s vast store of energy had been released for the rest of us. I worked that night till 2 a.m., as Don often did. Much of that time I was productive, at other times just reflective. Unlike Don after a late night, I avoided the office early that morning. I went down to the beach and thought about him.
When Stephanie called to tell me the terrible news, she was surprised that I already knew. I had received email from some Army officers. Sadness had spread very quickly within the Army operations research community. Don was greatly appreciated in that world after he served as a visiting professor at West Point.
Hearing Stephanie’s voice reminded me of fond memories of Don’s family. Let me turn to them now. [His first wife] Carolyn typed my dissertation. I had many joyful visits to Don and Carolyn’s farm. I especially remember the fantastic meals we prepared together. We would go out and pick mounds of incredibly fresh and flavorful vegetables, and then prepare a lavish feast amidst lots of laughter and music. Don was, of course, the MC and sensualist-in-chief.
When Stephanie was a teenager, maybe because she was getting obstreperous or maybe just for a change of scenery, she came to visit us in Knoxville. Stephanie witnessed one of the most exciting moments of my life – the first steps ever taken by my oldest daughter. If you can believe it, Stephanie, that baby is now spending her junior year of college in Madrid.
It was an awesome honor that Don and Carolyn trusted us with their children. I see that Stephanie and Ginny are now mature mothers. I only wish they were out on the West Coast, so we could have a place to send obstreperous teenagers.
Well, Becky, you know how everyone here today wants to comfort you in your time of immeasurable sorrow. I will never forget the time Don introduced me to Becky. We had a wonderful dinner at their home. (Becky can even make Brussels sprouts taste good.) Don and Becky were so gracious as hosts, so inspirational as a loving couple.
Though that was the only time I ever spent with Don and Becky, I have heard him talk about her many times. He always referred to her as "Becky Blankenship." He loved everything about the woman, even the sound of her full name. He spoke her name often.
God has blessed us with a man of great passion and compassion, an incomparable bundle of energy, talent, creativity and intellect, a lover and a friend. We miss him.
Friends, I have a closing piece of advice. Save the money and make the time to go visit your friends. Go visit your friends! I have been away from Atlanta too long. God, I wish Don was here for this visit.