This statement, due to space constraints, will describe only two experiences that I had with David Blackwell. The first experience took place a very long time ago, and the second took place more recently.
After David received his Ph.D., he was given a one-year appointment as a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. When his tenure at the Institute was drawing to a close, he applied for teaching positions at 105 historically black colleges and universities. He didn’t apply to institutions that were not black institutions because it was assumed at that time that such institutions would not accept him because of his race. His first teaching job was at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and his second was at Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1944 he joined the mathematics department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and he was promoted to full professor and head of the department in 1947. He stayed there until 1954. I was a faculty member in the statistics department at the University of Chicago beginning in 1950, and in 1951 or 1952 we invited David to become a professor in our department. We made him a good offer. I believe we were the first university that was not a black university to offer him a job. This was, as I have just noted, in 1951 or 1952.
He turned us down. Here is why. This is what he told me: He was born and grew up in a small town, Centralia, in southern Illinois right on the borderline of segregation. If you went a bit south of Centralia to the southern tip of Illinois, the schools were completely segregated in those days. Centralia had one school only for blacks, one school only for whites, and a few “mixed” schools. He attended one of the “mixed” schools. His family would sometimes travel north in Illinois from Centralia to visit relatives living in Chicago; and he could see, when he visited his relatives living there, what life was really like for black people living in Chicago. He told me that he would definitely prefer to live with his wife and children in Washington, D.C., where Howard University is located, than to live with them in Chicago.
David didn’t accept our University of Chicago offer; but in 1954, he accepted an appointment at the University of California at Berkeley as a visiting professor for the 1954–1955 academic year. And starting with the 1955–1956 academic year, he was a professor in the statistics department at the University of California at Berkeley.
The second experience that I had with David, which I will describe next, dates from the late 1990s and early 2000s. I moved from being a faculty member at the University of Chicago to being a faculty member at the University of California at Berkeley in 1987, so David and I were colleagues from then on. In 1998 a best-selling book called A Beautiful Mind was published, and it inspired the making of a movie with the same name in 2001 that won four Academy Awards. The book was a biography of, the winner of a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. The prize was for the research that Nash had done on game theory when he was a graduate student in the mathematics department at Princeton University. Because of the book, the movie, and the Nobel Memorial Prize, interest in Nash was high for quite a few years — even, it seems, for example, among San Francisco’s social elite, members of the Bohemian Club and Bohemian Grove. , a devoted member of the Bohemian Club and Bohemian Grove — and also a well-known statistician and former chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley and a friend of David’s and a friend of mine — invited David and me to speak about Nash at the Bohemian Club. Al invited David because David was an expert in game theory, and he invited me because John Nash and I had been graduate students at the same time in the mathematics department at Princeton. John and I were friends then, and we continued to be friends after leaving Princeton. On the evening when David and I spoke at the Bohemian Club, David spoke beautifully — as he always did. It was striking to see how well he was able to speak on game theory to this audience — members of the Bohemian Club — who were largely unfamiliar with this rather arcane subject. I think that the audience did gain some understanding of what game theory was about and why Nash’s research was important. David and I had a good time, and our talks were well received. David was, simply, a great lecturer and teacher, as well as a gracious and interesting colleague and a sterling human being. We all miss him very much.