Celebratio Mathematica

David H. Blackwell

Statistics  ·  UC Berkeley

A Tribute to David Blackwell

by Yannis Yatracos

I came to meet Dav­id Black­well in the 1978–1979 aca­dem­ic year, when I com­menced my gradu­ate work in stat­ist­ics at UC Berke­ley. I found him to be a very warm in­di­vidu­al, ex­hib­it­ing a pos­it­ive at­ti­tude to­ward all stu­dents, and in par­tic­u­lar new­comers. He made him­self avail­able to an­swer all kinds of ques­tions re­gard­less of time. Dur­ing my stay at Berke­ley, I had the op­por­tun­ity to hold sev­er­al dis­cus­sions with him about the sub­ject of stat­ist­ics and the pro­fes­sion, the de­part­ment there, aca­dem­ic ca­reers, and life out­side aca­demia. He was al­ways straight­for­ward, in­form­at­ive, help­ful, and gen­er­ous in shar­ing his vast know­ledge and ex­per­i­ences. In so­cial and stu­dent-re­lated is­sues and in de­part­ment­al is­sues shared with stu­dents, he was in gen­er­al more lib­er­al than most of his col­leagues, usu­ally in agree­ment with Lu­cien Le Cam. Here is a token of re­mem­brance of some in­stances of per­son­al in­ter­ac­tion with him. As a mem­ber of my Ph.D. thes­is com­mit­tee, he provided in my mail­box the solu­tion to one of the ques­tions I had asked him about re­lated ref­er­ences. With re­gard to the po­ten­tial em­ploy­ment of un­der­gradu­ates as teach­ing as­sist­ants in stat­ist­ics courses, the Stat­ist­ics Gradu­ate Stu­dents As­so­ci­ation (SGSA), ex­press­ing ser­i­ous con­cerns, cre­ated an ad hoc com­mit­tee to handle the is­sue. I also par­ti­cip­ated, and a meet­ing of the om­buds­man was ar­ranged with the en­tire de­part­ment. Pro­fess­or Black­well un­equi­voc­ally stated to the ad hoc com­mit­tee that the de­part­ment had a fin­an­cial ob­lig­a­tion to­ward Ph.D. stu­dents un­til com­ple­tion of the de­gree and that this ob­lig­a­tion should be ad­dressed. In 1983, be­fore my gradu­ation, I had an ex­tens­ive dis­cus­sion with him about the vari­ous mod­els of aca­dem­ic ca­reers and, not to my sur­prise, he sup­por­ted the Brit­ish mod­el. At that time fac­ulty ranks in the Brit­ish uni­versit­ies were lec­turer, seni­or lec­turer, read­er, and pro­fess­or. Lec­tur­ers be­came per­man­ent after a pro­ba­tion­ary peri­od that nor­mally re­quired no more than three years. Pro­mo­tion to seni­or lec­turer was of­ten based on prowess in teach­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion. Pro­mo­tion to read­er was based on achieve­ments in re­search and would usu­ally pre­cede pro­mo­tion to pro­fess­or. In a more re­cent email con­tact with him in June 2008, I sent a greet­ing note with some of my pa­pers that he might be in­ter­ested in. He replied im­me­di­ately with kind and warm words, as he al­ways did dur­ing the last thirty years. Berke­ley stu­dents who came to know Pro­fess­or Dav­id Black­well will al­ways re­mem­ber him as the gen­er­ous, kind, and warm per­son he was; he will be greatly missed.