Remembrances of Gene Woolsey

Icon of O.R.

Gene Woolsey

Dr. Robert E.D. (Gene) Woolsey, who passed away March 16, was a one-of-a-kind legend of the worldwide operations research community. A dynamic professor, practitioner and consultant, Woolsey’s larger-than-life persona captivated any room he entered, be it a classroom, a barroom or a conference ballroom. Once inside, Woolsey made it clear to one and all that he “didn’t suffer fools gladly” (I believe that was on his official bio), and he took great delight in putting such fools in their place. Woolsey proudly used words such as “pompous,” “bombastic” and “reactionary” to describe himself, so we can only imagine the choice words the fools he didn’t suffer used to describe the good professor.

Yet, behind all the bluster was a dedicated, inspirational teacher, colleague, mentor and friend to a countless number of grateful people. Like everyone who ever met Woolsey, these people (myself included) will never forget him. What follows are a few of their recollections of a remarkable man.

– Peter Horner, editor, OR/MS Today
Editor’s note: Barry List, director of communications at INFORMS, helped collect many of these recollections through the INFORMS website.

As a graduate student in the early 1980s, I joined ORSA and TIMS and started my lifelong subscription to the journal Interfaces. I immediately noticed articles written by a guy named Gene Woolsey. It was impossible not to notice Gene’s articles. To say that they stood out is an understatement. Always provocative, entertaining and with a wonderful lesson about the practice of O.R., Gene’s articles were the first thing I read whenever Interfaces arrived in the mail.

Fast-forward a few years and as a young assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, I was assigned a course called “Case Studies in Management Science.” Rather than use cases, I decided to follow in Gene’s footsteps and try to get real problems from real companies for the class. At that time we had a departmental newsletter, so I put out a call to companies with the title, “Gene Woolsey Does It, Why Can’t We?” Unbeknownst to me, our dean at that time, Len Arnoff, sent a copy to Gene. It was returned to me a few weeks later with a hand-written message scrawled across the top: “Camm – I was amused and flattered by this. Call me and I’ll tell you how to really do it!”

Thus started a long relationship with Gene. He had a tremendous impact on how I teach. He taught me, among other things, to always focus on problem-solving, that solving problems required creativity and an acute ability to listen and observe, and that we need to teach students not just techniques, but the process of choosing the right technique for solving the problem at hand.

Gene would occasionally attend INFORMS meetings in a safari outfit, saying that he was there to hunt those who were solving irrelevant problems and/or, as he would say, “those who were letting the math get in the way of common sense.”

Gene was a bit rough on speakers at times. I recall one INFORMS standing-room-only session with Gene in the back of the room in his fatigues. The speaker ended his talk with something like, “… and so we decided to [fill in the blank] because we all felt good about it.” Gene politely raised his hand and was recognized for a question. He belted out: “Because you felt good about it?!?” and then proceeded to list several other things that would make you feel good. The audience let out a collective gasp, and up front the speaker melted like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz.

The O.R. world became a lot less colorful with Gene’s passing. I miss Gene, his unrelenting focus on practice and the sense of confidence he brought to the profession. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Gene’s contributions, I suggest you read his works. A quick search of Interfaces using INFORMS online listed 81 articles. You will not be bored.

Jeff Camm, Joseph S. Stern Professor of Business Analytics, University of Cincinnati
Dr. Woolsey was my master’s advisor, and one day in the spring of 1990 we were discussing my master’s thesis. I don't remember what the point of contention was, but he firmly stated, “Mader, that is bullsh*t!” He suddenly yanked off his glasses, grabbed a blue marker and wrote “BULL” on the inside of one lens and “SH*T” on the inside of the other. He then put his glasses on, and we finished our discussion with him looking through his “BULLSH*T” lenses. The funny part was that when I got up to leave, he grabbed his handkerchief to clean off his classes and remarked, “Oh sh*t, permanent ink.”

I will miss the good doc.

Douglas Mader, SigmaPro Incorporated, Fort Collins, Colo.
Four times I nominated Gene Woolsey for the INFORMS Expository Writing Award, but unsuccessfully, at least if you define success as having your nominee chosen for the award. This is the kind of prize that recognizes a lifetime of achievement, so arguably the unchosen nominees have not lost but have only had the possibility of selection put off to a later year. In Gene’s case, however, we now know that the opportunity for further awards is closed.

If you’re not sure why Gene Woolsey should be remembered for his writing, consider these examples:

  • “One of the things I have learned well from many real-world modeling engagements is that finding the supposedly ‘optimal’ solution is often not nearly as important as putting the solution values into a form that the client is accustomed to seeing.”
  • “A manager would rather live with a problem he cannot solve than accept a solution he cannot understand.”

Notwithstanding his accomplishments as editor-in-chief of Interfaces and director of the uniquely practice-oriented MS/OR program at the Colorado School of Mines – and the several notable awards that he received for these activities – Gene should perhaps best be remembered for his ability to bring essentials of O.R. practice to life through creative writing.

Robert Fourer, professor emeritus, Northwestern University
It was my privilege to introduce Gene to the British O.R. community. I had been attending INFORMS’ meetings (ORSA/TIMS meetings as they were then) for a few years, when I was asked to chair the OR Society conference in 1984, which was to be held in my own university, Lancaster. I had listened to several presentations by Gene, and fully supported his message that O.R. was an applied subject, and that its application required practitioners to get fully involved in the problem they were investigating. I was also aware that some (many?) senior members of ORSA and TIMS did not appreciate his bombastic style. Whether they appreciated the message or not wasn't entirely clear, but they certainly did not appreciate the medium.

Accordingly, I invited Gene to be a plenary speaker at the OR Society conference. We got very good value for money. In addition to his plenary talk, “How to take over your corporation for fun and profit in your spare time,” he was scheduled to give two other talks on “The guild system of management education” and “Developing appropriate technology in O.R. for the Third World.” We even got a fourth talk out of him when someone let us know they wouldn’t be able to deliver their paper.

Three years later, the ORSA/TIMS meeting was held in Denver, and I was lucky enough to be among the selected few invited to a party at Gene’s home in Golden. It was Halloween, and I spent one of the most unusual evenings of my life at the party. Gene did not suffer fools gladly, but I’m pleased that he made at least one exception to that rule.

Gene will be greatly missed by all those who share his view about O.R. His message is important and needs to be constantly emphasized. But no one will be able to do that quite like Gene.

Graham Rand, senior lecturer, Lancaster University, U.K.
I remember Gene describing his criterion for a suitable academic location as being the most reactionary institution that he could find. He emphasized the importance of implementable results from his students’ projects for real businesses. I also recall his describing a balance between publication and reward for projects, silence being golden. He was a great speaker and great company.

Ian Mitchell, O.R. manager and principal analyst, BIS-Department for Business Innovation and Skills, Salisbury Wiltshire

I first met Gene many years ago when we were both giving invited lectures at the Australian Society for Operations Research (ASOR). I greatly enjoyed the ingenious way he used a simple artifact he had constructed to demonstrate a problem’s solution, which made the underlying mathematics irrelevant to the client. Genius, I thought, but too bad about the pompous, arrogant manner of his delivery.

Later, at the entertainment arranged by ASOR, I found myself next to him as we were moving through the transparent tunnel under an aquarium, surrounded on all sides by sea creatures, and I asked him why he acted so pompously. I don't remember his reply, but I vividly recall his quiet, warm demeanor, so very different from that of the lecturer. We had a lovely conversation, and I left feeling that the “pompous ass” was an act, not the real Gene.

Lawrence Phillips, emeritus professor of Decision Sciences, London School of Economics & Political Science
Provocative? Irrepressible? Bad boy of operations research? Yes. Dr. Woolsey was a role model for me as a young Air Force officer eager to apply my O.R. degree. When I found my niche and bought his book of real-life O.R. applications, I continued to look up to him as a leader in our field – a practical and exemplary consultant.

Mary Grace Crissey, Analytic Focus, LLC, San Antonio, Texas
The very first time I presented at an ORSA conference as a fresh assistant professor in the mid- to late-1980s, Gene was in the audience, and I was terrified because I’d been warned about him. Luckily, he was quite nice to me. (However, he did rip apart another of the speakers in my session, a fairly well-known guy).

My best memory of Gene was the 25th anniversary symposium on geometric programming that he hosted in Golden, Colo., in 1992. It was easily the best meeting I have ever attended; there were only about 20 to 25 of us, and we all kind of knew each other. Gene and his wife hosted an amazing dinner at his home for all of us.

He was one of the most colorful people I have met, extremely well-read and had very strong views, especially on political and economic issues. But despite the bombast and the opinionated persona (and a penchant for incredibly foul language), he was a warm guy underneath.

Jayant Rajgopal, University of Pittsburgh
Gene was no plaster saint, but he was a lot of fun. My longest association with him was at the Colorado meeting of INFORMS where we hung out after the fatuous “is mp moribund?” session. Gene asked me what I was doing. I replied, “Sucking off the great government teat” (I was at Stanford at the time), which of course didn't go well with him, but we spent the rest of the evening with him playing the piano (sort of) and me singing (even more sort of). A good time had by all. He always emphasized making money, but I remember him at a TIMS meeting in Houston asking for a cheaper room. His usual shtick of asking for a first-class air ticket must not have worked.

John Tomlin, consultant (retired), Sunnyvale, Calif.
Gene was my dissertation adviser. All of these poetic descriptions ring true to his nature and amazing contributions to this field, so I will add something very different. Gene attended my graduation party after I completed my Ph.D. He spent his time with my then 2-year-old daughter, just playing like a gentle grandfather. We will miss him deeply.  

Carol Carlson, director, Gates Corporation, Englewood, Colo.
I was a member of a class at the University Of New Mexico a great many years ago, taught by F. Parker Fowler (see Gene’s recollection: Our assignment was to present to the class an example of a system. Gene described a system of sounds and remarked that silence was in the set of sounds as the null set is a subset of every set. I wondered what kind of mind went in that direction, but it was clearly revealed over Gene’s long and successful career, one that was hardly characterized by silence as he badgered the profession to give greater attention to the applications side of O.R.

As a side note, “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel came out about the same time as Gene’s proclamation, surely independent events.

James Morris, professor of business, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dr. Woolsey was by far the best professor I have ever had. He shaped the direction of my professional career and was a true inspiration to me. He brought O.R. to life with his lectures and stories (as well as the characters he played in them). He always had time for his students and supported us in any way that he could. He was a great man and will be deeply missed.

Chad Canfield, principal, Accenture, Wellington, Colo.
In spite of his famous hard-nosed attitude, Gene took a real interest in people. I first met Gene at the Canadian OR Society (CORS) conference held in Waterloo in 1975. I was a young guy and had not yet done any graduate work in O.R. Gene attended a talk I gave on an LP model for planning woodlands operations done for a local company in Nova Scotia. Later, during his conference talk, he was kind enough to say some encouraging things about my talk, noting, as usual for him, that the work had been used and identified some real savings for the company.

For quite a few years, Gene showed up regularly at CORS and had quite a strong influence in motivating CORS toward real practice. Gene’s constant dedication to useful O.R. has served to inspire many of us over the years. He will be missed.

Eldon Gunn, professor, Industrial Engineering, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
I met Gene in 1968 at SMU, my first position after grad school. Ron Gue introduced us, thinking there would be sparks, as we both had a reputation of strong opinions. That did not happen. Instead, we became friends and had many interesting interactions over the decades. O.R. was better with Gene in it, giving us “Fifth Column” advice. I thought of him as the Don Rickles of O.R.

Harvey Greenberg, professor emeritus, University of Colorado-Denver

I was enjoying my position as a research assistant professor in the Operations Research Department at the Naval Postgraduate School when my Ph.D. adviser, Candi Yano, decided it was time for me to apply for a tenure-track position. “There’s an opening at the Colorado School of Mines,” she offered, knowing that I would only entertain locations favorable for a distance runner. “Gene Woolsey is there. He is eccentric; you would fit right in.”

During my campus interview, my meeting with Gene consisted not of the usual 30-minute dialog in an office. Rather, he offered, “Let me show you Colorado.” How he planned to do that in 30 minutes, I do not know, but we whizzed through the canyon while I took in the sights.

Gene’s love for his job was apparent. Gene set the tone for applied operations research many decades ago, before advanced hardware and elegant software. He was an entertainer, a storyteller and a practitioner. Most importantly, he always put the students first.

Alexandra M. Newman, director, Operations Research with Engineering Ph.D. Program, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Colorado School of Mines
I first met Gene Woolsey when he was the featured speaker at the annual banquet of the Washington, D.C., chapter in 1984. He was rude, crude, abrasive, pompous, funny, provocative and mostly spot-on right.

I can't say that he inspired the “ORacle” column, but when it did come about and the new editor asked whether the column might have the “legs” to go another year or two, Gene’s enormously successful run of “The Fifth Column,” which had been going for about 15 years at that point, gave me some added confidence to say, “Maybe.”

I didn't get to spend much time with Gene until the 1990s. The Titan turned out to be fairly congenial when he wasn't hurling thunderbolts at pontifical purveyors of solutions in search of real applications.

As often happens with the truly great, underneath his bluster and ferocity was a rather modest man. When, in 1999, he was honored with the INFORMS Prize for Outstanding Teaching of OR Practice, he confided to me, “I thought I’d alienated too many people to get that.” I confided, in turn, “You have, but they weren’t on the committee this year.  Lucky break, for you and for the whole profession. Your never getting it would have been an embarrassment to INFORMS.”

I deeply regret that I got out to Golden to visit him only once, in 2004. We tried to hatch plans to take over the O.R. curriculum, nationwide, or at least to expand his legacy at the School of Mines. But then his health started to decline, and there were grandchildren to enjoy, and so it goes. But Gene is survived by hundreds of successful practitioners he trained and, in most cases, helped to find good jobs; more than a billion dollars of substantiated, real benefits he and his disciples generated for clients and sponsors; and a profession, a nation and a world that are richer for having had him as part of them.

Doug Samuelson, senior operations research analyst, Group W, Triangle, Va.