Celebratio Mathematica

Andrew Mattei Gleason

A life well lived

by Jean Berko Gleason

I would like to be­gin these re­marks by thank­ing every­one on be­half of our fam­ily — my­self and our daugh­ters, Kath­er­ine, Pam, and Cyn­thia — for the out­pour­ing of hun­dreds of mes­sages that we have re­ceived about Andy and your friend­ship with him. A num­ber of themes stood out in these mes­sages: you of­ten talked of his bril­liance, his kind­ness, his sense of hu­mor, his gen­er­os­ity, fair­ness, and wel­com­ing spir­it. New­comers to the So­ci­ety of Fel­lows or to the math­em­at­ics de­part­ment at Har­vard were not only made to feel at home, but they had rig­or­ous in­tel­lec­tu­al dis­cus­sions with Andy in which they found that their views and opin­ions were both chal­lenged and re­spec­ted. An hour’s talk left you with weeks of things to think about.

Oth­ers will speak about An­drew Gleason’s last­ing con­tri­bu­tions to sci­ence and to edu­ca­tion. I would like to tell you a little bit about him as a per­son. I met Andy Gleason by ac­ci­dent over fifty years ago. I was a gradu­ate stu­dent at Rad­cliffe Col­lege and he was a young Har­vard pro­fess­or, luck­ily not in my field, which is psy­cho­lin­guist­ics. But I had friends in the Har­vard math­em­at­ics de­part­ment who were giv­ing a party. When they told me that the fam­ous Tom Lehr­er was go­ing to be at the party and that he might also play the pi­ano and sing, I de­cided to go. Tom did sing, but I nev­er got across the crowded room to meet him. In­stead I met this slim young fel­low who in­vited me out to din­ner. So that was the be­gin­ning of our re­la­tion­ship, which soon led to a mar­riage that las­ted forty-nine years. Since Andy was not the type of per­son to talk about him­self very much, I’d like to tell you a few things about his ori­gins that you may not know.

You may think of Andy as quint­es­sen­tially New Eng­land, white Anglo-Sax­on Prot­est­ant — the blue eyes, the pale skin, the dis­in­terest in worldly goods. It is mostly true: his fath­er was a mem­ber of the May­flower So­ci­ety. Andy was a dir­ect des­cend­ent of four people who came on the May­flower, in­clud­ing Mary Chilton, who by tra­di­tion was the first wo­man to come ashore at Ply­mouth Rock. But per­haps you did not know that Andy was also just a little bit Itali­an. His middle name, Mat­tei, came from his grand­fath­er, An­drew Mat­tei, an Itali­an-Swiss wine­maker who came to Fresno, Cali­for­nia, and es­tab­lished vine­yards, where he prospered and pro­duced prizewin­ning wine. An­drew Mat­tei’s daugh­ter, Theodolinda Mat­tei, went to Mills Col­lege in Cali­for­nia and on gradu­ation did what all wealthy, well-bred young wo­men of the day did: she em­barked on the grand tour, a trip around the world via steam­ship, with, of course, a chap­er­one. On board ship Theodolinda met a dash­ing young bot­an­ist on his way to col­lect exot­ic plant spe­ci­mens. This quickly be­came a clas­sic ship­board ro­mance and led to the mar­riage in 1915 of Theodolinda Mat­tei and Henry Al­lan Gleason, who was to be­come not only An­drew’s fath­er but a fam­ous bot­an­ist, chief cur­at­or of the New York Botan­ic­al Garden, and early tax­onom­ist and eco­lo­gist whose work is still cited — he wrote the clas­sic works on the plants of North Amer­ica. Andy had an older broth­er, Henry Al­lan Gleason Jr.; Andy’s older sis­ter, Anne, is one of the smartest people I have ever met.

Andy and Jean in 1958.
Photo courtesy of Jean Berko Gleason.

We were mar­ried on Janu­ary 26, 1959. This was ac­tu­ally the day of the fi­nal ex­am­in­a­tion in the course Andy was teach­ing. So he gave out the blue books at 2:15 and came here to the Ap­pleton Chapel of The Me­mori­al Church to get mar­ried at 3 p.m. We took a wed­ding trip to New Or­leans, and he did not bring the ex­ams. Over the next forty-nine years we raised our three tal­en­ted daugh­ters, bought a house in Cam­bridge and a won­der­ful house on a lake in Maine, and traveled all over the world, some­times to see some of Andy’s fa­vor­ite things, which in­cluded total ec­lipses of the sun, most re­cently in 2006 sail­ing off the coast of Tur­key. We were both teach­ing, of course, and main­tain­ing our own ca­reers, but we man­aged to have a lot of fun too. Dur­ing those forty-nine years Andy main­tained the calm spir­it he was known for and really nev­er raised his voice in an­ger. He had a great sense of hu­mor and was ex­traordin­ar­ily gen­er­ous, giv­ing away sur­pris­ingly large sums of money, of­ten to his fa­vor­ite schools: Har­vard and his alma ma­ter, Yale.

Be­cause math­em­at­ics was truly his call­ing, Andy nev­er stopped do­ing math­em­at­ics. He car­ried a clip­board with him even around the house and filled sheets of pa­per with ideas and mys­ter­i­ous (to me) num­bers. When he was in the hos­pit­al dur­ing his last weeks, vis­it­ors found him think­ing deeply about new prob­lems. He was an em­in­ent math­em­atician. He was also a good man, and he led a good life. We are sorry it did not last a little longer.