Early in the year 2000, I was excited to start reading research papers in the area of Harmonic Analysis for my thesis, when my good friend Suneal suggested that I sit in one of Tom Liggett’s lectures in graduate probability theory. I told him that it was already the second week of classes out of ten (UCLA is on a quarter system), and to be honest, I had no interest in probability. Suneal insisted that Tom was the best lecturer he had seen in a long time, and nagged me to sit in just one class, and so I did. After that class, I agreed that Tom was an inspiring lecturer. Just like his books and research papers, Tom’s teaching was crystal clear. When explaining a proof, he effortlessly pointed out how each assumption in the theorem played its role. After sitting in a couple more classes, I enrolled in the course. A year later, I was studying under Tom’s guidance for my Ph.D. thesis.
I was Tom Liggett’s eighth and penultimate student. Tom was a wonderful advisor for a stubborn graduate student like me. He was ever understanding and forgiving of my brashness, and his guidance was pointedly thoughtful — knowing exactly when to nudge, when to gently admonish, and when and how to encourage. He remained an always willing and open mentor for almost two decades after his advising duties were officially over.
My interactions with Tom over the years taught me many lessons, whose importance transcended mathematics. For instance, by being gracious to me, he taught me to be gracious to others. He also taught me by example to be selfless as an educator and teacher.
I always enjoyed spending time with Tom, and made it a point to visit him whenever I was in Los Angeles. Conversations with him were both fun and enlightening. In the months since he passed away, I have sometimes found myself smiling in memory of a comment he once made or a story he once told me, and at other times pondering how Tom might approach a problem when I’ve seemingly exhausted all my options. Tom touched the people around him deeply, and while his person may be gone, his influence and spirit live on vividly in our memories.
Paul Jung is a Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in South Korea.