Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Remembrance Wednesday

Stephan Hawking has announced that he's stepping down as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge; his successor will be named next week. Nothing ominous behind the announcement: the university requires professors to give up their posts by age 67. It keeps a flow of fresh perspectives and ideas flowing through the senior ranks of the Colleges, I expect. I never saw Hawking during my year at the University: he didn't give any lectures and I wasn't lucky enough to run into him around town or at his Gate at Gonville and Caius College.
I've also recently learned that two other men passed away earlier this year, both influential as I was starting out.
Alexander Heard was 92 years old: he was the Chancellor at Vanderbilt while I was an undergraduate there. He was a consummate gentleman, always gracious with his time and full of encouragement for students. In my Freshman year, I was assigned to a same-sex residence floor, one of the few left in the Quadrangle. Boys being boys, it wasn't long until we wanted girls. Under the banner "Free the Fourth", the men of Dyer Hall (4th floor) petitioned for a vote, which was initially granted, but then taken back. I was part of the delegation dispatched to the Chancellors office to find out why and to negotiate an alternative.
I remember the reasonableness of it all: we were invited into a paneled office with a polished wood table: Dr Heard had gotten the University Attorney and Dean to meet with the four of us. They listened to our side, explained theirs, and we discussed it for a half hour when I'm sure they had more pressing concerns. It was the first time that I had been treated as a member of the adult community, included in the serious conversations at the big table. We lost (several parents had complained about the vote), but it was a real lesson in diplomacy and problem solving.
Years later I met him at a dinner, where he held his wine glass by the stem during the toast in a way that I spent days learning to emulate, and again at a reception where I parked guest cars at his home and he made a point of coming out to thank us and to talk with each of us. On every occasion, his style and warmth really stood out, when I expected someone brusque and aloof.
Erwin Roy John was a neuroscientist directing the brain research laboratory at New York University: a totally original thinker and insightful mentor. Our company accountant discovered him while I was working for Cadwell Laboratories, and suggested that we might be interested in his quantitative methods for EEG interpretation. For the next three years I led the team that qualified his findings for our use and developed products based on his techniques. He believed we could do quantitative psychiatry, not just peripheral neurology, and, he, his colleague Leslie (later his wife and another good friend), and I worked together almost daily.
He taught me so much about asking questions and not being afraid to propose original answers, about negotiation and partnership, and taking time to laugh and eat well. He had assembled a strange but brilliant group in the lab (I was convinced that the mathematics drove them mad), and we struggled to get things working properly to replicate their clinic's findings. But it made me a lifelong believer in open innovation, in the value of creative talent, and in being comfortable with academics even though I was in industry.
Lots of fun times to remember fondly as well.  Late dinners in New York City; our shipping box being taken by a homeless person and set up as shelter across from the UN; a week diagnosing patients together for a vendor run-off at Charter Medical; the morals clause.  In the lastt, case, we nrenewed Roy's contract with the standard clause that it could be terminated "for cause".  Roy wanted speciffics.  We took a list from a 1920's business book: Immoderate use of alcohol, contracting a vennereal disease, etc.  The indignant protests echoed for a week.
The generation ahead of me is starting to withdraw, retire and pass on. A layer of valued and inspirational mentors left Medtronic this year, and the founding core of both ISCE and the ERC have started to disappear. I always feel bad when talented and generous folks leave, and these two meant a lot to me.

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