ORacle

Saul Gass: Model of a life well lived

By Doug Samuelson

Alan was clearly upset, his friend Tony realized, as soon as he answered Alan’s phone call. With little by way of preliminaries, Alan asked, ‘Did you hear that Saul Gass passed away last Sunday?’ ”
“Another giant of the profession has fallen,” Tony affirmed. “You knew him pretty well, didn’t you?”

“Not as well as I’d have liked,” Alan replied. “I worked some with him on local chapter business, which is how I first got to know him. I wrote several articles for Springer’s “Encyclopedia of Operations Research and Management Science” that he edited, first two editions with Carl Harris, then a third edition with a new team just recently. Too bad he never got to see the new one published, but at least he saw it in print … and I’ll bet he read all of it. And that series of profiles of famous OR/MS analysts he just did a few years ago, with Arjang Assad, is another huge contribution, and maybe no one else could have done it.

“You see,” Alan continued, “there’s this column called ‘The ORacle,’ but the real oracle was Saul. He knew just about everyone in the profession, it seemed, and more of the history than anyone else. And on technical topics, he seemed to know a little about everything, too, and if he didn’t know a topic well, he almost certainly knew who did know.”

“This profession certainly doesn’t seem to be moving toward having people with that kind of breadth,” Tony acknowledged. “He was a rare resource.”

“And how,” Alan agreed. “Some years ago, I was working for a local consulting company on a loan risk/subsidy project. I suggested a Markov chain approach to assess the likely behavior of the subject population as they progressed through life. The head of the company wanted everything peer reviewed, so he had a couple of junior econometricians review my draft. They hated it, mostly because they had no idea what a Markov chain model was. I growled, ‘If you’re going to have my work peer reviewed, find a peer, won’t you please? Don’t you know any O.R. analysts besides me?’

“Well,” Alan went on, “it turned out he had heard of at least one other O.R. analyst. He sent the draft to Saul. I wondered about this. Saul was a great authority on linear programming, had been one of George Dantzig’s first graduate students at Berkeley, wrote one of the classic books on LP, lots of work on other optimization methods, and a lot of great work on project and program management. He’d managed a big piece of Project Mercury, the first U.S. man-in-space effort, for IBM. Did you know that?

“But Markov chains? Those aren’t so widely known. Curious, I did a Science Citation Index search and found a few very nice papers he’d written in the 1970s, using Markov chain models to analyze a very similar problem to ours as part of a military manpower study. Fortunately, he liked what I’d done. If he hadn’t, I don’t think I’d have had much chance in an argument.”

“Sounds like a nice endorsement you got,” Tony remarked.

“The best,” Alan concurred. “My critics wouldn’t have had much chance in an argument once he said it looked OK.”

“Do you think he was just being nice?” Tony inquired. “What was he like in person?”

“Down-to-earth, warm, friendly and amazingly energetic,” Alan said. “No way he’d have praised inferior work, but he’d have been considerate about it. And I don’t think anyone could even count the people he helped in some way or other. I know he referred a special issue editor to me early in my career, when he thought I had something the editor might want – and he was right!

“As for the energy level,” Alan added, “Saul organized and ran – and, more impressively, usually ran in – the 5K race at the national meetings for years and years, even into his eighties. In 1991, somehow there was a mistake and the race was advertised as the ‘Saul Gass Memorial 5K Race.’ Gave a lot of us quite a shock! I think Saul was just about the only one who found it amusing. ‘Not just yet, folks!’ he laughed.

“He was active all the way,’ Alan continued. “At the national meeting in Austin in 2010, he asked me to hold his wife Trudy’s purse so they could dance at the party at the end of the general reception. I thought they meant one or two dances. Oops! After about 40 minutes, I had to track them down and ask them to take a rest or find someone else to guard the purse so that I could get a chance out there. And remember the guy was 85 at this point! Our profession is all about models, right? Think of Saul as a model of a life well lived. I can’t come close to matching his professional contributions, but I hope I can last as long, do as well, and enjoy it all as much!”

Doug Samuelson (samuelsondoug@yahoo.com) is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc. in Annandale, Va., and a senior decision scientist with Great-Circle Technologies, Inc., in Chantilly, Va.