One of my university professors died recently at 94
I can say with confidence that he did more for people than anyone I ever met. He is the only man who I ever knew, who really changed the world decisively To put that in context, I knew Steve Jobs.
My professor used more of himself than anyone. He was blind from birth.
He was a gifted child and loved math and science, but his teachers told him he could never be successful because he could not read mathematics and readers for the blind could not interpret all the symbols of higher mathematics and science for him.
So Abe Nemeth from a large Jewish, lower east side New York family went into psychology and got a Master's Degree.
As World War II ended, he began to help returning GI's by tutoring them in mathematics. Observed by an educator and prodded by his wife, he went back to school. He went from a profession of sewing pillowcases to mathematician.
He studied mathematics. He had a great memory and that helped because readers were scarce and expensive. Beyond a certain point his wife could not help either.
My first introduction to him was visual. I saw him walking down the hall of the engineering building with one hand on the wall. He walked ramrod straight with purpose. No white cane and no assistance.
This was his first university teaching assignment. I was there. I was his first student.
He could write on the board. He had practiced with his wife as a guide. He felt where the chalk was and was to be. It was not pretty, but it worked. One student was responsible for erasing as he made a mess of that. I was the first of many to clear his boards.
Later I became his graduate assistant. I would go to his house and help him grade tests and sometimes proctor them for him. I helped him with computer programs before computer science became a science
I talked mathematics with him. He had the ability to field questions by forcing the questioner to phrase the question in perfect form. This often led to a self evident answer. He never answered a sloppy question. I was careful not to give him too many to refuse.
He taught me how to reason and gave me an appreciation for what proof really is all about. He taught me how to detect nonsense too.
At about this time he came up with a way to allow blind people to 'see' mathematics. He changed their world by inventing a very clever addition to the Braille Code. I was a minor help to him on that.
He became famous for his efforts and he made a huge difference in the world. He was given medals by presidents and leaders the world over. He had a terrific impact, not making just a flimsy difference measured by money.
He was eccentric in a charming way. He burst into rooms as much as a blind man can. He had a booming voice and a twinkle in his blind eyes. He never wore dark glasses and his eyes rolled, but he made everyone smile.
His memory was amazing. I used to take him from time to time to lectures. One time a famous visiting mathematician came to speak. He filled a giant lecture hall's blackboards with mathematical symbols speaking them as he wrote to a packed audience. Dr. Nemeth listened with his head bent to the side. I was behind him and saw his concentration.
The famous professor somehow lost his way and things were not as they should be. He asked "Can anyone help me?". The Professor was scanning his work and asking the question over his shoulder to no one in particular.
Dr. Nemeth said: "Yes, you should have had a plus where you had a minus when you developed that equation (which he remembered verbatim) ...."
The Professor turned to thank Dr. Nemeth and his face reflected the awe he felt. Dr. Nemeth was not a blind man you could miss. I could see the Professor was dumfounded.
His eccentricities came out in other ways. One time I was driving him to some lecture and the fog was so dense that I could no longer see. I remarked: "Dr. Nemeth, I'm sorry, but the fog is too dense, I'm going to have to pull over and wait until it clears!"
Nonsense, Mike, you just get out and guide me. Give me directions and I'll steer. With the good sense born of fear, I refused that suggestion. Dr. Nemeth was not pleased.
I used to see him in the grocery store with his wife. I always stopped and watched him select fruit. I never interrupted him. Florence, his wife, never selected any. Dr. Nemeth's father had taught him the secrets of Braille selection of fruit.
Along the way he and other professors gave me real breaks. I could take classes without attending the lectures. They put me on private study programs. He and three other mathematics professors gave me that gift of time. He had much to do with it, I'm sure.
A few years ago, I went to visit him in his retirement. He was still playing the piano for people in his senior residence and still working to help blind scientists and engineers.
He taught me more than mathematics. Once he told me this:
"Mike, it is a myth to say you cannot legislate morality!"
He was telling me that all too often we shy away from taking up the banner to correct some wrong. We must take it from the theoretical moral field to the practical. Don't hide and don't use surrogates like a puppet master.
He reminded me that all too often evil is put into law. So why do we shy away from goodness and kindness in the law?
He cited Hitler as an example. Hitler did not seize power illegally, but did it legally. Evil and bad questions and arguments were Dr. Nemeth's enemy.
The last time I saw him a few years ago, he was trying to get an administrator rehired in his retirement home. She had been dismissed forthwith by a new owner without review. The new owners wanted to put a relative into the position. Dr. Nemeth was just beginning that fight. I'm sure he won.
For the Washington Post Obituary >>