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In Memoriam: Robert Eugene Donald Woolsey (1936-2015)

A pillar of the profession and a relentless advocate for practical applications, Gene Woolsey’s remarkable teaching and consulting legacy lives on through his students and colleagues.

By Gysbert Wessels

Gene Woolsey

Robert Eugene Donald Woolsey – Dr. Gene Woolsey as he was known – was a leading figure in what I think of as the second generation of the management science/operations research profession. He will be remembered as one of the great masters together with the founders of the profession.Gene was born on Oct. 31, 1936, in Leander, Texas, a small town near Austin and the University of Texas-Austin where Gene earned three degrees  – a bachelor’s, a master’s (mathematics) and a Ph.D. (mechanical engineering).

Gene started his career as an Air Force intelligence officer and went on to work for Control Data Corporation and in the weapons program at Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Corporation. He was introduced to operations research and management science (OR/MS) in the late 1960s while at Sandia. Not only did he encompass the breadth of O.R., he became an expert in integer programming, geometric programming and the practical application of OR/MS.

Gene joined the Colorado School of Mines in 1969 and remained on the faculty until he passed away on March 16 as emeritus professor of economics and business and of mathematical and computer sciences.

Gene also held appointments at the following universities:

  • U.S. Military Academy, West Point
  • School of Engineering, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, adjunct professor
  • Department of Industrial Engineering, Instituto Technologico de Monterrey, Mexico, adjunct professor
  • Applied Mathematics Department, The University of Waterloo, Canada, visiting appointment
  • School of Business, Universidad Anahuac, Mexico, visiting appointment
Gene Woolsey

During his college days at the University of Texas, Woolsey earned three degrees.

An active member of the OR/MS community, Gene was widely known as an outspoken advocate for the practical application of OR/MS to real-world situations. Omega Rho awarded him honorary membership in 1981. In 1986-87, Gene served as president of The Institute of Management Sciences (TIMS), which merged with the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) to form INFORMS in 1995. In 1999, Gene was awarded the INFORMS Prize for the Teaching of OR/MS Practice, and he was inducted as an INFORMS Fellow in 2002. Gene was also a Fellow of the Decision Sciences Institute.

The Canadian Operational Research Society awarded him the first annual Harold Larnder Prize in 1986 for international distinction in operations research.

Pro Bono Work

Gene conducted extensive pro bono work for various organizations, particularly military organizations, the following of which formally recognized him for his O.R. work on their behalf:

  • Israeli Air Force: Logistics Badge (Honorary)
  • United States Department of the Army:
       Commander’s Award for Public Service
       Outstanding Civilian Service Medal
       Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service [1]
Woolsey receives the Commander’s Award for Public Service from  the U.S. Army, 1991.

Woolsey receives the Commander’s Award for Public Service from the U.S. Army, 1991.

Throughout his career, Gene served as the editor of many journals, including Interfaces, the Production and Inventory Management Journal, The Journal of Operations Management, Transactions of the Institute of Industrial Engineers and the Colorado School of Mines Quarterly of Science and Engineering. He was associate editor of ORiON, the Journal of the Operational Research Society of South Africa.

A skilled and prolific writer, Gene’s portfolio of papers included more than a hundred published articles along with eight books. His “Fifth Column” articles in Interfaces contain many lessons on the practice of OR/MS, written with his well-known humor and wit. Gene was a sought-after speaker that conveyed important lessons in an entertaining and unforgettable way.

I first met Gene in the early 1980s in South Africa where he gave one of his spellbinding presentations to the Operational Research Society of South Africa. He invited me to study in his program at the Colorado School of Mines, and I had the privilege to be his student from fall 1985 to spring 1989, except for the year he spent his sabbatical teaching at the U.S. Military Academy.

Woolsey’s OR/MS Guild

Gene’s approach to teaching O.R. was unique. All his students sat in his office with him, an open plan without any partitions. As the number of students increased, he had a classroom converted into his office. He taught us not only in classes and by sharing real-life incidents, but just sitting in his office with him exposed us to his dealing with clients, university politics, editing journals, TIMS and ORSA politics, etc.

Gene encouraged teamwork among his graduate students to prepare them for real life. Although the students he attracted were by nature competitive, he did not fuel the cutthroat competitive atmosphere one sometimes encounters among graduate students. The value of being able to work as part of a team in an open plan environment became clear as we left school and joined organizations outside the academic world.

What generated real excitement in his office were the calls for consulting work. Gene carefully explained to the prospective client that they had two choices: They could get him for an outrageous fee and first-class subsistence and travel, or they could get a graduate student and him for no fee and first-class subsistence and travel on condition that the graduate student could use the project for a thesis or dissertation. During the time I spent with him, no client chose the first option. Some projects involved a whole team of students.

When I studied with him he taught four graduate courses: a general OR/MS course (a core requirement); a course in geometric programming; an advanced integer programming course that covered not only the theory, but how to actually solve a large MIP problem before the end of time; and a course he named “Industrial Psychology.”

Industrial Psychology was renowned on campus as a very tough course, but popular opinion among students was that if you took only one course from Professor Woolsey, this was it. The course had an extensive reading list of about 30 important works, including “The Principles of Scientific Management” by Frederick Winslow Taylor (1911), Maslow’s “Motivation and Personality” (1954), and Machiavelli”s “The Prince” (1532), to name a few. Part of the class was a pop quiz (did you really read the work?) and a discussion of the human or political part of problems. The fun part was to read (usually disparaging) comments in “modern” books or articles about the classic works, and then to realize that the commentator never read the original.

Gene Woolsey

Gene enjoyed good food … and liked his wine on the sweet side.

After about 30 minutes of this, we spent more than three hours presenting the week’s case study. The case study solutions had to address both the technical (OR/MS) and the human side of the problems. The class was always oversubscribed and started with 50 students (the School’s limit on class size), but was so intense that within a few weeks the class size dropped to about 15. Later, Gene explained to me that he did not want to turn anybody away, so he allowed the students to self-select who stayed on the course by increasing pressure until about 15 remained after the last day to drop classes without penalty. After that, the class managed to fit into its three-hour timeslot.

The class had a dress code: a suit or equivalent attire suitable for presenting a project to the CEO of an organization or a three-star general (or higher). To emphasize the importance of presenting your work professionally, each spelling or grammatical error dropped your assignment mark by one letter grade. It really drove the lesson home when you saw an “A” on your paper scratched out and replaced with a “C” because of two spelling errors. We learned that spell-checkers have severe limitations. Part of the fun was the occasional curveball he’d throw at us. For example, the projector suddenly had a light bulb that needed replacement, or all the power was cut off during the presentation. We learned that you never showed up for an important presentation without a back-up plan, and a back-up for the back-up plan. This was undoubtedly the best course in practical consulting I ever had.

Gene was proud of the fact that he never accepted any government money or grants. The very idea horrified him. He believed that he and his students, in a state university, had a mission to serve the public. He always stated that his principal aim was to graduate the entrepreneurs of tomorrow so the socialists have someone to tax.

Halloween Tradition

Gene’s birthday, Oct. 31, fell on Halloween. In honor of the occasion, Gene and his lovely wife Ronita held an annual open house, and all students and friends, past and present, had a standing invitation to attend. According to tradition, Gene and Ronita, would always serve pumpkin pie and pumpkin ice cream (both homemade). Towards midnight, Gene and Ronita would open the piano and distribute roneoed (it was the 1980s) copies of pumpkin carols. Gene and Ronita were very musical.

Gene Woolsey

Having fun was important to Gene, including the occasional curveball he tossed at students.

Gene had a very strong sense of ethics. His rule for gifts was one example: No gifts from any student – not at his birthday party or any other occasion. If you wanted to bring something to the party, it had to be consumable, and it had to be completely consumed by the guests at the party.

What struck me on a personal level was the way Gene and Ronita cared for his students. The first time I arrived in the United States, they fetched us at the airport and had us as houseguests for two weeks while we found accommodations. He lived modestly in the same house in Golden, Colo., until he moved to a care facility. He loved and was proud of his wife (Ronita and Gene were married on Sept. 17, 1958) and children Wysandria and Darrell. Many of his students maintained contact with him, and he could always update you on how they were doing.

Making a Difference

An important principal for Gene was that OR/MS work had to make a difference – a measurable difference. He made it the practice at Interfaces during his time as editor that the organization should certify the difference the OR/MS work made to the bottom line. He also drilled into us that we should measure the impact of our work. Before we start a project, we should know what we want to improve and how to measure it. If the expected net improvement (improvement less project cost) is not large enough, do not start. My experience over the years proved this axiom was extremely important.

Graduates from Gene’s program that improved the bottom line of an organization by more than $1 million in a single year, certified by a letter from the CEO or CFO, received a diamond stickpin from Gene. He kept score over the years of the bottom line impact of his students. His last count (2010) stands at $1,078,697,145. Three of Gene’s students are Franz Edelman Laureates – one finalist (class of 1985) and two winners (class of 1996 and class of 2000).

What is not well known is that Gene encouraged theoretical work that made O.R. techniques more useful to solve practical problems. Many of the thesis and dissertations by his students advanced the theory of geometric programming, and then showed through practical application how it was useful.

Together through the years: Gene and Ronita were married in 1958.
Gene and Ronita Woolsey
Gene and Ronita Woolsey
   

Gene was very interested in history and geography. He visited many countries and always learned a few phrases of the language of the country he was visiting. He had a particular interest in South Africa, which he and Ronita visited a number of times. He surprised many people by speaking Afrikaans. I also remember one year when he was invited as plenary speaker at a conference of the South African Institute of Industrial Engineers. He asked me to translate his presentation in Afrikaans. He departed with two decks of slides, one in English and one in Afrikaans, and used two projectors and two screens. Imagine the surprise to see a world-renowned American professor deliver a bilingual presentation in South Africa. He could also speak Icelandic. Gene learned some Japanese and impressed a major Japanese bank to the extent that they always sent one of their employees to study with him.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Having fun doing OR/MS was important to Gene. He certainly had fun and taught us to have fun as well. He was not a big party person, but enjoyed good food, especially authentic Tex-Mex. He liked his wine on the sweet side. He particularly enjoyed Nederburg Edelkeur, a Botrytis (“noble rot”) wine, and Van der Hum, a tangerine liqueur.

Gene liked football, and it was tradition for him to watch at least one Mines’ game per season on a cold winter’s day. The Colorado School of Mines was a small school not known for its athletics. Gene explained that this was compensated for by the fact that the Mines football team’s combined IQ exceeded its combined weight (in pounds). The team made some magnificent and complex plays, many times only to run into a solid wall of flesh. It was also important to note that Mines could legally sell alcohol on campus (apparently something to do with the School’s founding in 1874 preceding the State of Colorado in 1876). Watching Mines football in freezing temperatures with Gene and a group of his students was much more fun that one would expect.

Gene had many profound quotes or sayings. He was especially fond of, “A manager would rather live with a problem he cannot solve than accept a solution he does not understand.” One of my favorites (as I remember it) is “Every complex problem has a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong solution.”

Some others:

  • “A manager does not want, and will not pay for, an optimum solution. He wants to be better off now, as quickly and as cheaply as possible.”
  • “It is important to remember that accountants only get promoted when they kill things.”
  • “The People-System Theorem: Any system requiring actions not consistent with human nature will never operate up to expectations (if at all).”
  • “If you think you can learn as much by watching as you can by doing, then sir, I can only assume you are a virgin.”
  • “The only way to be sure that you never strike out is simply to make sure you never come to bat.”

Thinking and Questioning

Gene created a unique and very successful program at the Colorado School of Mines. It was one of eight, later one of six, programs approved by the U.S. Army for active officers that wanted to pursue graduate studies in the field of operations research. He challenged the profession with his letter to the editor of Operations Research in 1972, “Operations Research and Management Science Today, or, Does an Education in Checkers Prepare One for a Lifetime of Chess?” [2]. He proceeded to demonstrate for more than 30 years after that letter that what he proposed for an education in OR/MS could be successfully implemented. The program is described in “On the Proper Training of Future Management” [3] and  “On the Proper Training of Future Management II” [4]. Gene graduated approximately 200 students with master’s degrees and 47 students with doctorates.

Gene was a teacher and mentor. He thought for himself and taught his students to think. This meant questioning, consulting the original sources, considering the facts and drawing your own conclusions. He made a huge contribution to operations research and management science. He will be missed by his family, friends and students.

Gysbert Wessels (wessels.gys@gmail.com) is a management consultant who enjoys solving real-world OR/MS problems. He joined Gene Woolsey’s “OR/MS Guild” at the Colorado School of Mines as a student in 1985 and left in 1989 when he received his Ph.D. Later, while at Deloitte, he led the civilian consultants that were part of the South African National Defense Force team that won the INFORMS 1996 Franz Edelman Award. He is based in Blacksburg, Va.

References

  1. The Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service is the highest honorary award that the Secretary of the Army may grant to a private citizen (http://cpol.army.mil/library/permiss/5465.html).
  2. Robert E. D. Woolsey, 1972, “Operations Research and Management Science Today, or, Does an Education in Checkers Prepare One for a Lifetime of Chess?” Operations Research, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 729-737.
  3. Robert E. D. Woolsey, 1981, The Fifth Column, “On the Proper Training of Future Management,” Interfaces, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 11-17.
  4. Robert E. D. Woolsey, Ruth A. Maurer, 1995, The Fifth Column, “On the Proper Training of Future Management II,” Interfaces, Vol.  25, No. 2, pp. 74-80.