I was a Junior Fellow in Comparative Literature at the Harvard Society of Fellows during the final years that Professor Andrew Gleason served as its chair, from 1993 to 1996. The society gathers researchers from all fields: from astrophysics, classics, economics, and others, clear through to zoology. Fellows at the society spend three years free from any requirement or examination, pursuing, and I now quote from the vows that all new Fellows take: “a fragment of the truth, which from the separate approaches every true scholar is striving to descry.” On Monday nights in academic term-time, Junior Fellows converse with a dozen or so Senior Fellows, professors who not only elect Junior Fellows but also engage them in mind-opening conversations over suppers in a dining hall furnished to nourish these exchanges. Professor Gleason, who had himself been a Junior Fellow, officiated when I took my vows at the society, and as chair he presided over Monday night dinners during my three years in his fellowship. This is how I knew him, and my fondness for him grew exponentially with each passing season at the society.
The first time I beheld Professor Gleason, here was the situation: It was a Monday morning at the so-called Yellow House, at 78 Mount Auburn Street here in Cambridge, the society’s administrative base camp. I was surely extremely nervous, because I was to be interviewed that very afternoon by the full assemblage of Senior Fellows, a terrifying prospect — each Senior Fellow was an academic star in his respective field, and many were reputed to be intimidating. A Junior Fellow had been assigned the task of showing me about the building. At one point, noisily chattering, we made our way down a corridor, where an office door was opened widely. We paused there to look through the doorway. Inside the room, there was a man leaning back on his chair before an empty desk. His head was tilted skyward, and his eyes focused on a point that appeared to be on the ceiling, but may have been further off. We stood there for an awkward few beats. I believe that we were together unsure if the man was about to greet us or if we ought to take the initiative to greet him. But he remained still, absorbed in his own world. The Junior Fellow and I shrugged at each other and continued on our way until we reached a common room out of earshot. I turned to her, made a quizzical face, and asked, “What was that man doing?” “Math,” she said.
I had never before seen a real mathematician in the act of doing math. I was mystified by the absence of any tools in his office. Wouldn’t he require a calculator or a slide rule or something to inspire himself to be mathematical — maybe a chessboard or a Rubik’s Cube? At the very least, what about a pencil and paper? She shook her head: “That mathematician is Andrew Gleason. He works in his head.”
Professor Gleason was, I think by disposition, a decipherer. He had deciphered codes and mathematical problems and as a hobby took delight in deciphering the movements of celestial bodies. On Monday nights Professor Gleason sat at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table in the society’s dining room. Like all chairs at the society, he would guide his flocks of Junior Fellows in his own way, leaving his own signature on the institution. He was not a garrulous chair — “Oscar Wildean” is not the first adjectival phrase that comes leaping to mind to describe his conversational style — but he could become animated suddenly, and with deep sincerity, when conversation turned to subjects close to his heart: astronomy, classical music, and, among so many others, of course, math.
Much of the time he would listen or observe with his extraordinary Gleasonian powers of concentration. Many of us wondered what he was thinking on those occasions when he was so sharply present yet enigmatically silent. Perhaps he was deciphering us. He never made a single judgmental remark; his leadership was delicate, trusting, and surefooted. He put out a strong aura of principled tranquility, as if his Junior Fellows’ paths, and indeed the paths of all people and objects and ideas in his midst, no matter how rough, were part of a larger pattern that would eventually become clearer to him. I found a poem that captures this Professor Gleason, the one whom I and others came to know in a quiet way and to love with great respect, a man whose presence we now begin to sense expanding through all that he discerned. He seems to be present in these lines by Robinson Jeffers:
I admired the beauty
While I was human, now I am part of the beauty.
I wander in the air,
Being mostly gas and water, and flow in the ocean;
Touch you and Asia
At the same moment; have a hand in the sunrises
And the glow of this grass.
The last time that I saw Andrew Gleason was at the annual dinner held by the society in May of this year. The gathering took place at the Fogg Museum, a few meters to the east of here. On that occasion, many Junior Fellows from Professor Gleason’s time as chair gathered to catch up with one another and with him. He had led us through our fellowship years with a light touch, a seemingly invisible touch. He always encouraged each fellow to wrestle with those daunting “fragments of truth” on his or her own terms, come what may. It had only been with hindsight, after leaving the society, that many of us came to appreciate the subtle qualities of his leadership, how he shaped our lives, both inwardly and in action, even as he had often seemed chiefly to be deciphering the world, working things out in his head.
published this observation twenty years ago, by chance on the eve of Professor Gleason’s becoming chair at the society: “We do not know what is happening at the moment farther away in the universe: the light that we see from distant galaxies left them millions of years ago, and in the case of the most distant object that we have seen, the light left some eight thousand million years ago. Thus, when we look at the universe, we are seeing it as it was in the past.”
Perhaps we are only now beginning to see Andrew Gleason. Those of us who had the privilege to know him will cherish the light that he casts out to us, even in his absence — perhaps all the more forcefully because of his absence or, rather, because he has now become a beautiful part of the beauty that he once admired.