Monday, September 6, 2010

The Man who knew way too much

It seems most appropriate to start my tryst with blogging (on sept 5) with a post on my favourite teacher – the one who taught me even after class hours; who went beyond the boundaries of the text book; who remains to this day a guiding light not only to me, but I am certain to all those who have come under his tutelage.

Dr.Gerald L. Thompson, was the IBM professor of systems and operations research, at Tepper School of Business (we called it GSIA in those days) was a faculty member since 1959. His teaching and research interests included large-scale linear programming, mathematical economics and management science applications. He published more than 150 articles in academic journals and has consulted for IBM, Bethlehem Steel, PPG, Bain, Westinghouse and General Motors among others. In 1976, Thompson received the Western Electric Award for Innovative Teaching from the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. The award was presented for the development of a self-managed learning method for teaching operations research.

I had to perfunctorily give you a brief bio of the person I am referring to in order to set things in context. To me, he was Gerry – my Ph.D thesis advisor. Generally, Ph.D. advisors are known to possess extremely temperamental frames of mind, and some of the well-known adjectives to describe them (including tormentor, sadist, disciplinarian, old-stick-in-the-mud etc.) are all perhaps well deserved! Jokes apart, Gerry was none of these. He was a genius - his complete mastery of the subject, impressive bandwidth of coverage, depth of understanding and above all his dedication and commitment remain in my opinion, unparalleled. But all this was not what made him a phenomenal ‘educator’.

All of his students without exception will recall him as being a kind-hearted and gentle person – you were sure to find a smile on his face any time you ran into him. But don’t let that fool you any. He was a shrewd man who sized up his pupils precisely and knew exactly how to spur them to great heights. Being my Ph.D guide meant that I got to spend a lot of time with him. This was in the early seventies – I was new to America, just finding my feet, married with a family and could barely make ends meet. He never let me make excuses. He had decided that my personal circumstances would not come in the way of me making something out of myself. Together we toiled and spent many a sleepless night slaving away at my Ph.D thesis and if it had not been for his unconditional support, steely determination and faith that Gerry had in my abilities, I would not have completed my MBA and Ph.D in a record duration of 19.5 months – (Sept 7, 1971 to April 14 1973).

While we were teacher and student on campus, off-campus he was my everything else – friend, mentor and father. My own father passed away in February 1973. I was in Pittsburgh with no way to make it to a remote town in South India in time to perform his last rites as the eldest son. To deal with such a situation can be crushing – to put things mildly. I have no idea what I would have done without Gerry to lean on to. He took the day off and took me to his home. He forced me to take my mind off the tragedy and we actually spent the next eight hours closeted in his study working on my thesis – only to be interrupted at meal times. His wife Dorothea took care of my wife and his daughter who was just fourteen then was in charge of my eight year old son. He saved me from drowning in my own guilt that day and thereafter and for that I remain eternally grateful to the man who taught me not only the principles of operations research but also redefined for me, the fundamental principles of life, education and living.

I went on to publish during those 19 months, six research papers and also won the Gold Medal for the Best Ph.D thesis in the ‘Operations Society of America’ in a world wide competition – both achievements find no precedence and are yet to be equaled.

I moved to Kellogg, Chicago and continued to stay in touch with him until he passed away in November 2009. I owe him a deep debt of gratitude – one that I cannot even hope to repay. He was not only my teacher – but also my life boat. He inspired me to be what I am today - he taught me to be a teacher and beyond that, an ‘educator’. If even a handful of my students think of me as being half the person that Gerry was, I will consider my job well done.

Dear Gerry, I adore you, admire you and appreciate all your help and kindness from the bottom of my heart. My friend, philosopher and guide, RIP.

(picture and bio courtesy:


  1. Very touching and precise too. Although missed some of our typical Uncle Bala phrases.We too love you,admire you and I am very proud to be a nephew of yours."Bolt-Volt-Avishek :)"

  2. Cannot imagine how a teacher of your stature has come down and written with the hands of a student, so true and so touching. I am sure Gerry as you call him would have indeed been a remarkable man.

  3. A student turned Guru writing about his Guru. Amazing. Its really a pleasant surprise to see you blogging. Welcome to the world of Blogging Uncle.

  4. It's just amazing to see how uncle Bala lives his life everyday. Nothing at all can stop him from realizing his dreams and the never say die attitude inspires everyone around him.
    The blog is one of the finest I have seen in recent times. A message straight from heart.
    Its an honor to be your student uncle Bala. May be someday I will be half as good as you :).

    Manoj Mamachan
    Gladiators Batch

  5. Of course you are the role model for a lot of us!! You are a Gerry in our life!!