Turkheimer's Projects: Genetics and Human Agency | Irv Gottesman

My great mentor Irv Gottesman passed away recently.  I was in Europe at the time and was unable to be at his memorial in Minnesota.  Here is something I wrote about him to be read in my absence.  It is more personal than professional.  Hopefully I will have a chance to write something about his many scientific contributions.

Eric Turkheimer to Irv Gottesman

July 8, 2016

Paris, France

Hello to all my friends in Minnesota. I am so sorry I can’t be there. I first met Irv Gottesman while I was a grad student in Austin in 1985. He was consulting on a psychopathology text Lee Willerman and David Cohen were writing. I didn’t know it at the time, but an employment deal was being negotiated, so I was assigned to lead the small group of graduate students who took Irv out to dinner. We all sat down, regarded each other uncomfortably—what to talk about? Irv cleared his throat, looked at me. “Guess how old I am,” he said.

That was Irv. Not given to easy social graces, he used his mild but chronic unease toprovoke you a little, to stretch you beyond your comfortable limits. Once the deal was done and Carol (Manning) and I headed off to Charlottesville, my slow education and trial by fire continued. He would call on me in colloquia—“Uhm, I think Eric might have a question he would like to ask here.” He would assign me reading. Particularly, and as was often the case, when I disagreed with him, I would find a stack of readings in my mailbox the next day, with a note saying, “This is the material I would expect you to master if you are going to discuss this point.” In those days I would walk down to the newspaper machine at five o’clock, buy a New York Times, sit in my office listening to NPR, and sometimes doze a little. He would stroll by, stick his head in my office, and ask, “Knocking off early today?” Irv.

The other side of his prickly nature was his ferocious loyalty. Even my late parents, despite everything they did for me, were always just a little disappointed—who can live up to a parent’s highest aspirations? No one has ever believed in my best qualities as stubbornly and unrealistically as Irv. I think it is safe to say that I was the worst assistant professor in the history of academia, a poorly fertilized late-bloomer, but in Irv’s eyes I was a keeper from day one. And when the time to promote me arrived and I was still woefully ill-prepared, he personally laid his reputation on the line to shepherd me through. I didn’t deserve it, so I owe my entire career, whatever it may be worth, to him. And for all the years afterward, every paper I wrote, even when it faced his tough and witty editing, found at the end a comment, “Brilliant.” He was the tough intellectual parent who had the strength of character never to express whatever disappointment he may have felt in my actual accomplishments. I will always love him for that.

In his own way, of course, Irv was magical to be around. He was wonderful with children. He delighted my kids by making elephant noises with his lips while he wiggled his considerable ears. He was deeply psychologically minded, with the keen understanding of the strengths and foibles of others that only a little neuroticism and a soft spot for Freud can give you. Once he left Charlottesville and my relationship with him became more remote, he turned out to have a genius for long-distance electronic relationships. Irv’s emails arrived almost daily, each one with an address list individually crafted to the people he thought would benefit most from that day’s particular bit of wisdom. Irv didn’t know it but those emails were his Twitter feed. Had he been twenty years younger he would have been a great Twitterer: prolific, trenchant, and a little self-regarding.

My mailbox already feels empty. When a great person passes one’s first impression is the silence. Good-bye Irv, thank you for everything you did for me, and for all the love you showed me. I hope I gave back even a little of it. I won’t forget.

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