Monday, February 14, 2022

In memory of Fred Abernathy

My colleague and friend Fred Abernathy passed away a few days ago, at the age of 91. A fine obituary is here. Fred was my mentor and collaborator in several of my loving criticisms of Harvard; one of them I detailed on this blog; see also Harvard Magazine's account. And it was Fred who, in his innocent, shambling way, asked President Summers why Harvard was so vigorously defending its actions in the Harvard-in-Russia scandal. The Faculty room's collective gasp at the president's in artful response (to use Alan Dershowitz's characterization) was the beginning of the end of the Summers presidency. But there was more to Fred than all that; he invariably kind to students of every variety, and was Harvard's energy watchdog before that was fashionable.

Like many others, I will miss him. I spoke at his Zoom memorial service; my tribute is posted below. I tried to write something Fred would enjoy.

Uncle Fred.

I am not sure who first referred to Fred that way. It might have been Mike McElroy. Or it might have been me, or someone else. But as I tried to take stock of what we have lost with Fred’s passing, it’s the phrase that keeps pushing to the front of my mind.

Fred was, to be sure, an avuncular figure. Kind and funny, with a big laugh, never hiding behind a locked door, warm and genial. So comfortable in his own skin that his frustrations and disappointments, and he had some, always came out with humor rather than anger. He could go on the offensive, but the attacks were never launched as a fist against a chin. They were rather as a pinprick against a balloon. No one who was in the Faculty Room on February 7, 2006, will ever forget Fred’s dry observation about Harvard settling some litigation with the federal government, to the tune of $31 million dollars, over a faculty shell game. “It appears to me,” Fred said, “Harvard was defending the indefensible.” Poof!

But to me, and, I expect, to many others, Fred was close to being a real uncle and not just an admirably avuncular figure. What are uncles for? Uncles (and aunts too) are the people to whom you turn when you are in despair about your relation to your parents. Your uncle understands your parents, and can be honest with you about them because he isn’t compromised by your relation to them. 

And the parent, for these purposes, is Harvard, of course. And its sundry deans and transient presidents, who come and go while the faculty remain anchored in place. Fred knew Harvard and its weaknesses and foibles. Not to complicate the metaphor, but he was Harvard’s son too.

When I joined the faculty, DEAP, as it was then known, was a small place. And yet I felt isolated within it. There was little family feel among the skeletal group of computer scientists. Some were intensely rivalrous; some were just nuts; more than one were sleeping with their graduate students. It was the senior mechanical engineers who showed me how practitioners of a mature science behave. They let me tag along to their lunches at the old Legal Seafoods in Inman Square. It was Fred and Annamaria who made me and Marlyn welcome in their home. It was at Fred’s office, stacked to the ceiling with books and journals, where the door was always open for me to wander in, toy with stuff, and chat. It was Fred who made me feel, to use today’s lingo, included and belonging, and taught me how to transfer that feeling to others. Fred taught me not just how to be a professor, but how to be a good member of the Harvard family.

I was always amazed at how much Fred knew about the inside-baseball of Harvard, and how his prescience in the energy field made him an especially valuable loving critic of the institution. I remember Fred pointing out the absurdity that even as late as 2005, Harvard built a brand new building, 60 Oxford Street, which in midwinter was pumping into the frigid outside air the heat it had extracted at great cost from electronic equipment, at the same time as it was burning fossil fuels to heat the building’s offices, badly. A metaphor for Harvard’s centralized dysfunction, as though heating and cooling were different departments, each jealously defending its turf against interference by the other, lest both be put out of business.

Ah, Fred, we will miss you. You were so good to us and so good for Harvard.


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