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An Academic Memorial.

23 September 2014

Yesterday I attended the memorial service of Mort Friedman, a Vice Dean and Professor at Columbia. He served that university for 56 years. He died suddenly a few months ago, but at advanced age. He was universally beloved, and prodigiously accomplished. A professor whose contributions, even measured against other long-time Ivy League professors, is impressive. He was lauded highly, as a man and as an inspiration to others, by those who knew and loved him, who studied with and under him.

Dean Friedman was the acolyte and colleague of my own great-uncle, Raymond Mindlin, a professor at Columbia for many years in the same department. His passing represents one of the last threads to a generation of my own family which is gone now. It was sad to see him pass, but it is difficult to mourn too deeply for a man who lived a life that nearly anyone would envy. The words of praise, yesterday, were equally split between synonyms of “brilliant”, and of “beloved”.

Dean Friedman was important to my own career. Wisely counseling me once to stop being an idiot, recognize that great writers actually write, they don’t just drink and smoke, and finish my doctorate. He put it more gently than that, but the message was true and clear. I followed his advice, and a good thing of it, too.

The memorial has me thinking this morning of my own career now. I am a very minor academic. I will always be a minor academic. Google Scholar informs me of a new citation to my work this morning! That’s 36 now. But some of those are from my own papers. I have many friends of course with hundreds and thousands. Some many thousands. But I have a niche field and I have made the choice to publish in journals where my work may not be high profile to the people likely to cite my work. I am carving out a very small, very specialized arena for myself. It may not be the best plan.

When my time comes, my professional achievements are not likely to be the first thing to fall from the lips of those remembering me. And yes, that makes me sad some. Prior to my drinking days, I was regarded as a bright light by those who considered my potential to influence the course of systems engineering. I gave up a lot in order to drink the way I did. Probably. Maybe I was never that good to begin with.

Now, I hope to have a different legacy. Yes, I hope my academic contributions are well-regarded. But I am not deluded about their actual impact. No, instead I hope that people will think I was useful. That I helped people. That I contributed something to those needing help with alcoholism and other addictions. That I continued to grow throughout my life. That when I was wrong I admitted it and tried to rectify my errors. That I learned from failure as from success.

I’ll miss Morty. He did right by generations of students. By generations of junior colleagues. A legacy to aspire to. A life to admire. An example to emulate. And it is important, I think, to have a few unreachable goals. People to chase that I know I can never catch. I want to be driven to do more my whole life. Because my natural inclination is to do nothing. To rest. To wait. To slide. I need impossible hurdles to leap. Or I will never strive at all.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Syd permalink
    15 October 2014 21:25

    I think that you will be surprised at what your legacy will be–both professionally and as a person.

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