In Memoriam — Seth Bonder (1932-2011)

Tribute to an exemplary O.R. analyst, researcher, entrepreneur, educator, advocate and benefactor.

By Stephen Pollock

Seth Bonder

Seth Bonder

Seth Bonder, 79, a respected, admired and valuable member of the operations research community, died in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Oct. 29. Seth served many roles: an exemplary analyst, an innovative applied researcher, an entrepreneur, an educator, a critical advocate of the O.R. profession, a generous mentor, a philanthropist and, above all, a true friend to many of us.

From 1965 through 1972, as a professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Michigan, Seth developed the capabilities and processes required of O.R. analysts and then created unique ways to teach and mentor them. He applied these ideas for more than 32 years while serving as CEO of Vector Research, Inc. (VRI), a firm he founded in 1972 at the urging of the Army’s assistant vice chief of staff and that eventually grew to employ more than 400 professionals in Michigan, Texas and Washington, D.C. As a practicing O.R. analyst, he and his colleagues at VRI developed a variety of novel mathematical models to represent military operations and – most important to him – used them to inform decision-making about national security issues at the highest levels.

From 1995 through 2004, Seth also led VRI in a successful effort to use O.R. approaches to address the increasingly critical problems inherent in contemporary healthcare delivery systems and financial enterprises in the public and private sector.

Throughout his professional career Seth maintained his connections with academia by serving as an adjunct professor at Michigan – something of which he was exceedingly proud (except for exactly one day during football season.)

During his long career, Seth served as president of the Operations Research Society of America (1978-1979) and vice president of the International Federation of Operations Research Societies (1985-1989). He was a founding Fellow of INFORMS and received both its President’s Award for service to society and the Kimball Award for distinguished service to the society and to the profession of O.R. In 1999, he received the INFORMS Military Applications Society’s Steinhardt Memorial Prize for outstanding contributions to the practical application of O.R. techniques and to the solution of military problems. He was the INFORMS Omega Rho Distinguished Lecturer in 2004.

Seth was a member of the Military Operations Research Society (MORS) Board of Directors, its vice president (1968-1969) and president (1969-1970). He received the 1971 MORS Rist Prize for the best-implemented study presented at a MORS Symposium. He was a Fellow of MORS and was awarded its 1986 Vance R. Wanner Memorial Award for distinguished service to the profession.

His service as president of both ORSA and MORS resulted in each of these societies greatly improving their financial positions accompanied by new and clearly defined strategies for the future. In these roles he forged strong professional and personal relationships with Wilbur Payne, Saul Gass, Jack Borsting, Reiner Huber, Al Blumstein, Steve Pollock and Bill Pierskalla, among others.

Seth was elected to membership in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2000 and served in 2006-2008 as the chair of its Industrial, Manufacturing and Operational Systems Engineering Section. In that forum, and at other venues, he campaigned for the O.R. profession, advertising its successes, noting its shortcomings and being an overt (and often demanding) champion of meaningful change. He was active in studies and programs of both the NAE and the Institute of Medicine, bringing to bear his experience and unique perspectives to problems in both defense and healthcare. He served on the National Academies Board on Army Science and Technology and on the Army Science Board where he and David Maddox insisted that recommendations be supported by thorough analysis. Most recently, he was an analysis consultant for the Joint IED Defeat Organization.

Seth generously endowed fellowships at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan and served on the advisory boards that have oversight of their administration. He also established and funded two INFORMS scholarships to recognize and support Ph.D. students working on applied O.R. in military applications and in health services. By 2011, a total of 20 individuals had received “Bonder” scholarships in their respective fields.

One critical influence behind Seth’s unique and far-reaching contributions to O.R. can be explained by his insistence in addressing real problems using application-driven theoretical developments. In the national security domain, his close personal friendships with the ultimate decision makers – in particular, Generals William E. Depuy, Maxwell Taylor, David Maddox, Max Thurman, Glenn Kent, Glenn Otis, Wesley Clark, Jack Merritt, Shy Meyer, Jasper Welch and John Foss and civilians Jack Borsting, Larry Delaney and Wilbur Payne – reinforced this concern. Moreover, what began as provider-client interactions evolved into close professional and personal relationships based on mutual appreciation and respect for excellence and intellectual depth. Indeed, his interactions with Thurman led him (and VRI) to become deeply involved in the analysis of healthcare issues.

Seth’s role as a mentor was an equally valuable and appreciated influence. Thom Hodgson and Marlin Thomas – two of Seth’s students at Michigan in the early 1970s – became life-long friends and collaborators. Robert Farrell, until his early death, was Seth’s alter ego at VRI. Peter Cherry, also a student at Michigan, worked with Seth at VRI and followed him on the Army Science Board and membership in the NAE. George Miller carried on Seth’s initiatives in healthcare research and applications. The result was the creation of what can reasonably called a virtual “Bonder School” of Operations Research, composed of his students and collaborators, all of whom became his close friends.

In 2001, VRI was acquired by ERIM (the former Willow Run Laboratory), and the merged entity was renamed the Altarum Institute. While serving on Altarum’s board of directors, Seth did not reduce his commitment to O.R. service to the profession and community. He founded The Bonder Group and continued to contribute to INFORMS and MORS, to lead and participate in studies sponsored by the National Academies, to serve on a variety of academic and healthcare boards and to provide consultant services to the Department of Defense up until his untimely death.

INFORMS President Rina Schneur, recipient Lauren Cipriano, Mrs. Merrill Bonder and Prize Committee Chair Gino Lim (l-r).

Seth Bonder received both the President’s Award and the Kimball Medal from INFORMS for his service to the Society and the profession.

Seth Bonder’s “back story” was both instructive and inspirational. He was born in the Bronx, N.Y., in 1932. His parents had emigrated from Russia and worked in the garment district. By his own admission, Seth took little interest in education during his youth. (Interestingly, Seth and Colin Powell attended the same public high school, a connection he was proud to point out after their career paths crossed some 40 years later.) Seth did not do well academically, and instead became an accomplished pool, billiards and basketball player in the South Bronx streets. Skill in the last led him to enroll in the City College of New York, whose basketball team had just won both the NCAA and NIT titles, but he left CCNY as an innocent victim of the 1951 point-shaving scandal involving previous players.

After dropping out of college he drove a truck in New York before enlisting in the Air Force. He took advantage of a program that addressed the shortage of pilots during the Korean War by allowing enlisted men to apply for flying school. He enlisted, received a commission and his wings and served in the Air Force from 1952 thought 1956. During his service it became clear that a college degree would be necessary if he were to have a meaningful Air Force career, so he left the Air Force and entered the University of Maryland in 1957. After a rocky start, he excelled academically and showed his entrepreneurial leanings by starting a freshman tutoring service, creating and participating in a flying club and driving a taxicab at night in the District of Columbia and Prince Georges County, Md.

Upon obtaining a degree in mechanical engineering from Maryland in 1960, and a short (and unsatisfying) stint in industry, he enrolled in the graduate program at the Ohio State University as their first systems fellow. His mentor, Dan Howland, introduced him to the military O.R. area via a research program tasked with determining requirements for new armored systems. Seth identified two unresolved problem areas within the program that he referred to as “interesting”: determining the feasibility of the requirements (could a system be built?) and the operational effectiveness of the system (was the resulting system of any value?). Seth wrote a proposal to study these questions and subsequently landed – as a graduate student (!) – a contract to run a multi-year research program in which he was responsible for the work product of both faculty and graduate students. He earned his Ph.D. in industrial engineering (operations research) from Ohio State in 1965, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the last decade of his life, after leaving behind the pressures of running a multi-million dollar enterprise, Seth found many ways to relax and enjoy his life with his lovely and wise companion and wife-to-be Merrill. He found time to appreciate foreign travel (not necessarily associated with visiting a military base or installation). He developed an appreciation for fine food and wines (strongly abetted by David Maddox) and devoted his legendary focus and undiluted passion for excellence into a well-designed program for physical fitness for himself and those around him. His early skills at the pool tables had not deserted him, as he was ready to show any gullible doubter. He was an equally fierce competitor on the tennis court (his son Eric competed in tennis at the collegiate level for Ohio State, and his daughter Lisa was a highly ranked professional.)

More recently he took up golf, and he used his second home in Longboat Key, Fla., as the base from which he could apply his newfound attention to enjoying life with the same intensity and attention he had previously dedicated to his professional work.

Seth Bonder leaves behind his wife Merrill, two children, Lisa and Eric, four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and hundreds of deeply saddened and appreciative friends and colleagues.

Stephen Pollock, a past president of ORSA, was a friend of Seth Bonder’s for more than 40 years, and his academic colleague and collaborator on a variety of analytical projects.


This article is based on material provided by Michael Garrambone and with the help of Larry Seiford, Al Blumstein, Saul Gass, Bill Pierskalla and Jack Borsting.