Jul 15, 2019

Remembering Larry Brown

Paul Shaman wrote these remarks, edited and expanded from his comments at the dinner on November 30th, during the posthumous tribute to Larry Brown held November 30–December 1, 2018, at University of Pennsylvania.


The Penn Department of Statistics is now in its 88th year. Over this period of time it has experienced many changes, and one of these was especially transformative. I’m referring to Larry joining the Department in 1994. In addition to his strength and accomplishments as a researcher, he brought to the Department an exceptionally high level of excellence in teaching and mentoring.

During his career Larry was the dissertation adviser for 37 students, with 21 of them completing their degrees at Penn during the years 1998–2016. [Fourteen of those 21 were present at the event, as well as many others who benefited from Larry’s teaching, advice, and collaboration.]

In 2011 Larry received a Provost’s Award for Distinguished PhD Teaching and Mentoring at the University of Pennsylvania. Comments submitted at the time included: “all you could hope for in an adviser”; “has a special way of finding important problems that highlight the talents of each of his doctoral students”; “willing to advise any student, weak or strong”; “he somehow manages to bring out their full potential. Getting to know each and every one of them, he consistently manages to come up with a fertile new research direction that is suitably tailored to their interests and talents. … In this way, he provides the perfect preparation for an academic research career, giving his students the confidence and self-resourcefulness that is so critical for success”; “devotes endless amount of attention and time to each of his students, and by doing so, he truly portrays what academics is about: nurturing young minds to investigate new problems and come up with solutions.”

At the December 15–17, 2010 conference in honor of his 70th birthday, Larry’s students presented him with a plaque that read, in part: “Happy Birthday Larry! We love you! We thank you! For teaching us how to be successful as a professional and a human; for inspiring us to achieve our full potential; for taking care of us; … and for being such a great role model for us.”

Larry’s devotion to guidance and mentoring was always accompanied by personal modesty.

I want to conclude by talking about intercollegiate athletics at Cal Tech. Larry played basketball at Cal Tech, first on the freshman team and then three years on the varsity. One of his teammates, Mike Perlman, provided some information about the team.

As we all know, Cal Tech is not an athletic powerhouse. However, during Larry’s tenure on Cal Tech basketball, the team did experience a respectable number of wins. In 1959–1960, it recorded 6 wins and 15 losses. Mike wrote: “Besides Larry, who was an intense competitor, the team featured Fred Newman, who was a first-rate player—he held many conference scoring records. Another name you may know is Roger Noll, who became a well-known economist.” [Noll is now an emeritus Professor of Economics at Stanford.] In 1960–1961 the team had 8 wins and 12 losses. “I’m not certain, but there may not have been as good a record since—the Legendary Losing Streaks began sometime after that,” Mike added.

In recent years Cal Tech teams have experienced very long losing streaks—articles have appeared in the press when these streaks have been broken. On several occasions, I talked to Larry after reading such news. One such event occurred on February 22, 2011. Cal Tech basketball defeated Occidental 46–45 in its final game of the season. In doing so, it scored the final nine points, and the winning basket was the first of two free throws, with three seconds left. The second attempt missed, and a desperation shot from halfcourt by Occidental did not connect. This win ended a 310-game losing streak. I had a lot of fun talking to Larry about this!

But there was a far worse losing streak, which occurred in baseball. On March 31, 2017, Cal Tech defeated Pomona–Pitzer 4–3 with a walk-off win. It had not won in the SCIAC previously since 1988—a span that included 587 games. I went to talk to Larry again. He said, “Oh, I once played baseball for Cal Tech.” As he explained, the team was short-handed for a game. The first baseman was his roommate and persuaded him to fill in for a game. It’s just another example of how cooperative and helpful Larry always was.

Larry Brown

Lawrence D. Brown (1940–2018), Miers Busch Professor and Professor of Statistics at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, had a distinguished academic career with groundbreaking contributions to a range of fields in theoretical and applied statistics. He was an IMS Fellow, Wald Lecturer, and a former IMS President. Moreover, he was an enthusiastic and dedicated mentor to many graduate students. Larry’s firm dedication to research, teaching and service sets an exemplary model for generations of new statisticians. Therefore, the IMS is introducing a new award in his honor: the IMS Lawrence D. Brown PhD Student Award. [The deadline was July 15, 2019.] This annual travel award will be given to three PhD students, who will present their research at a special invited session during the IMS Annual Meeting. The winners of the inaugural 2020 award will be announced in a future issue.

Donations are welcome, through https://www.imstat.org/contribute-to-the-ims/ under “IMS Lawrence D. Brown Ph.D. Student Award Fund.”


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