Thursday, January 05, 2006

Paul Swarztrauber:

Remembering Joe ... by Paul Swarztrauber 12-28-05

Joe and I shared an office in the very early days of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).This would have been about 40 years ago when NCAR was in temporary offices at the corner of Marine and 30th Streets. He would have been in his early twenties and about 5 years younger than I. We hit it off immediately.

This was in our pre-degree days and we were programming on state-of-the-art computers. Joe was creative and would devise computer solutions that would only later appear in the literature. He was simply too busy to publish or perhaps more accurately, unaware that his work was publishable. I recall him describing a technique that was later known as the box sort.

It was Joe's ingenious work that caught the eye of the well known mathematician Heinz Kreiss who mentored Joe all the way through his PhD at Uppsala University. Joe then obtained a position at Stanford but nevertheless maintained his connection to NCAR for many years, primarily as a highly contributing member of the Computing Advisory Panel.

Throughout our careers, Joe and I would often attend the same meetings and usually meet at least for a dinner. I looked forward to those dinners. We lost touch in the later years.

Returning to the early years at NCAR; I was very fascinated by the stories he would tell. I remember the following three:

As a youth, he and some friends would regularly overturn an outhouse that was near the train tracks. The farmer was understandably upset by this and supposedly solved his problem by building a brick outhouse. However Joe and his friends were evidently quite determined. They wrapped a cable around the "house" and leveled it by hooking it to a passing freight train.

Joe was an accomplished technical climber. He and a friend climbed the Golden Gate Bridge one night. Following their descent they were immediately confronted by the authorities. This was puzzling to Joe until it was explained that someone had seen their legs dangling in front of the huge light that they were sitting on the top of the tower.
Joe was required to keep the authorities advised of his location and did so by mailing postcards with pictures of famous bridges.

Joe and a friend were doing a technical climb in Boulder Canyon when his partner accidentally dislodged a boulder the size of a "refrigerator". The partner died in the accident but Joe was spared because the boulder severed the rope that connected them.

Joe was unique among men I have known. He had enormous grit and seemed almost oblivious to adversity in the sense it would not defeat or even slow him. He was able to get to the heart of a problem which he would either resolve or move on. His choice not to seek treatment is entirely consistent with the Joe that I knew. He was a remarkable man for whom I have great respect and admiration.

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