I have no idea how to write this post, so apologies in advance for its potential rambling nature. On Thursday morning I learned that a mentor, an advisor, a friend of mine had died. I was in Toronto at a conference on food insecurity when I got the news from several friends through email and text. And it gutted me. And as I sat in the auditorium no longer hearing the words of the plenary speakers, I buried my head in my hands and did my best to hold myself together.
It was in 1996 that I first met Dr. Pal Fischer, a kindly figure who would often be seen shuffling around campus in his grey trench coat and ushanka hat1, hands clasped behind his back with his pipe placed deliberately and securely in his mouth. While he would often take these walks to clear his head and to think about mathematics, he never failed to take notice of the people around him, smiling and waving, or stopping to chat. Pal was one of the kindest, gentlest people I have ever met. He was a man who loved learning, not just about mathematics, but about music and philosophy and history, and most importantly about the lives of the people around him. He deeply, genuinely cared about people, and I can say without a doubt that the world was a better place because he was in it.
When I sat in his Differential Equations II class for the first time, he began with a very simple introduction: Hello, my name is Pal. It’s a very friendly name. At the time I didn’t realize how incredibly lucky I was to be sitting in his class, nor how incredibly apt the assessment of his name. But Pal was an incredibly patient teacher and for whatever reason, he seemed to take an interest in me. I’m sure I must have tested his patience often, as I would oft find myself walking into his class late (along with two of my friends). And regardless of how late we were, he never got mad, he never raised his voice, he never showed any displeasure at all. He simply smiled in his incredibly kind and almost grandfatherly way, said hello as we found our seats, and then gave us a short recap on what we’d missed. And with every step of his recap, he would ask us Is it clear?
Is it clear? I can still hear him asking this as if he were standing in front of me now describing an initial value problem, or discussing topological conjugates, or walking me through the steps of some elaborate proof. Is it clear? Pal didn’t want us just to understand the mathematics, he wanted us to delight in them, he wanted us to experience the same joy that he experienced whenever he dove into its beautifully intricate world. And when he saw that we understood, that we had followed his guidance to a place of understanding, you could see this incredible twinkle in his eye. He lived for these moments. And his entire body would beam with pride, not because he had led us to new found knowledge, but because we had made the journey.
As I approached the end of my undergraduate degree, I decided last minute to do a Master’s. Sitting in Pal’s Topics in Mathematics class, a friend asked what I was going to do with myself after I graduated. I’m going to do my Master’s. This was the first time I had spoken my plans aloud to anyone. Who with? my friend asked. With Pal, I hope. This was, of course, the first that Pal had heard of this. I’m not sure how other professors would have responded to being put on the spot like that, but Pal simply looked at me and smiled, as if he had known all along that this was coming. And honestly, I believe he did. Pal had this incredible ability of knowing his students. He took the time to get to know us, not just in class, but out. He wanted to know about our families, about our hobbies, about the other courses we were in. And because of this, he had this ability of knowing things about us before we had even recognized them in ourselves.
Some of my most treasured memories involve Pal. From days when he and I would sit in his office giggling about something because we were overtired and math just seemed funny, to the days when we’d talk for hours about life and the decisions I had before me, or the times he was able to magically pull the exact forms we needed from the immense pile of papers on his desk, Pal was always able to put a smile on my face. He was always there to provide a supportive ear and sage advice when I needed it, but equally available to give me a gentle kick in the ass when I deserved it. He challenged me. He guided me. He opened up a world of mathematics to me like no other person. And he showed me the true makings of an exceptional academic.
Last year when I received the University of Guelph Faculty Association’s Distinguished Professor Award for Excellence in Teaching, I sent the following to Pal and several other professors who had in some way or another affected me.
After the ceremony I sat in my office thinking about the eve, and how I’ve found myself in this position. I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have had the fortune to have had you all as professors at some point in my academic career. For some of you that means numerous undergraduate classes, for some a handful of graduate classes, for some it was your example and mentoring throughout the years, and for a few of you – a combination of all three.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that I’ve had such amazing role models. Each and every one of you have provided me with so much more than a degree (or 3) in math and stats. You’ve taught me what an excellent professor should and can be. You’ve taught me how important teaching is, and you have given me countless examples of how to be a good teacher. More than that, you’ve taught me how to be a better version of myself. This award wouldn’t have been possible if not for your support, your guidance, your passion for teaching, and your incredible example. I honestly can’t thank you enough.
While I know that not all academics treat teaching as a noble cause, it makes me smile that I’ve spent my entire university career (both as a student and now as faculty) surrounded by the likes of you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
And as I sit here today reflecting on the man who taught me so much more than math, I can say with certainty that what is clear is that I was so fortunate, so god damned lucky to have shared in the life of Dr. Pal Fischer. Thank you, my friend, for everything you’ve done for me. If I can manage to live half the life that you have, I will consider myself to have lived a life of purpose.
RIP Pal. I will miss you.
1 At least, I think that’s the name of the hat.