Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Eulogy for George Hardy: 1950-2015

The following is the eulogy I gave for George Hardy, a close friend, mentor, and fellow gamer of 20 years. He died on February 11, 2015 after several years battling cancer. 

If I say wizard, some of you think of magic. Others think of Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi. Others think of the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. When I think of wizards, I almost always think of George. The history of the word wizard is an interesting one in light of our friend George Eugene Hardy, for the first part, wys, meant wise in Old English, while the second part, ard, is a relative of George’s surname - Hardy. The root word, hard, has always meant what it means today – strength, extreme, difficult to do. So a wizard is simply someone whose wisdom is hard, extreme—greater than normal, someone who can answer the questions others find too difficult. I think in that respect, we can all agree that George was a wizard—an extremely wise man.

  When I speak of George as a wise man, I picture him with his hands folded across his stomach, quietly contemplating the best thing to say in response to a difficult question. And apparently, it was always so. Born in October of 1950 to Marjorie and Mitchell Hardy here in Edmonton, George did not start talking until he was 4. Ironically, given who he would become, there was some concern that he might have had what we now call a learning disability, but when he finally spoke, it was with complete sentences. Those first words would be echoed in many social gatherings to come, when George would stand off to the side, the silent introvert waiting for a conversation worth having to share his wisdom, underestimated by the extroverts in the room who would find themselves surprised when he finally joined in the conversation, able to hold forth on a wide number of topics.

By high school however, his wizardry was unmistakable; he was either top of the class or hot on the heels of the student who was at the top, or competing in annual school science fairs and winning numerous prizes with his friend Bill Klaus. His passion for science was attested to by his well-used chemistry set, and his father’s workbench was constantly covered with George’s electronic works in progress: a modern alchemist.

We often think of wisdom coming with age, and George apparently always gave off a sort of august presence. His Grade Twelve physics teacher, when stumped by a Physics problem and needed his young student’s help, referred to him as “Uncle George”: unsurprising when you learn George won an Alberta wide Physics competition that year. He hoped to be a world class Physics researcher, and accordingly studied that discipline for his first three years of university. In his third year of Physics, George took a Math course and solved a “bonus Math” question from his professor. However, being a wizard, George solved it in a brand new way and was published with his professor—a very rare occurrence for an undergrad student—and was then hired as a research assistant. While he never lost his love of Physics, he also never regretted his choice for Mathematics.

George’s exceptional ability, demonstrated by achieving top honors in undergraduate math, enabled our wizard to skip a Master’s degree and go directly into a Mathematics Doctoral Program at the University of Alberta. His research and thesis took three years to write and, given that it was before the invention of computer math editing software, drove the typist “crazy.” George published research articles during this period, signing his papers “G. E. Hardy” to distinguish himself from renowned number theorist G. H. Hardy.

Upon completion of his Doctorate, George accepted a teaching position at Sackville New Brunswick University, where he taught for two academic years. It was his first time living away from home, though it was by no means the end of his wanderings, neither geographically or intellectually. George traveled far and wide: regular visits to family in friends in Lloydminster and Kelowna, less common excursions as far as England and New Zealand, or as George called it, Middle Earth.

For many, mastery of chemistry, physics, and math would constitute knowledge of the building blocks of our universe. And though he would often quip that “math is life and life is math,” it was not enough for our wizard: he sought what C.S. Lewis called “The Deeper Magic,” the truth by which all things, not just atoms or complex formulae, are held together. In 1977, George was influenced by another George, George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, to start thinking about faith, prompting him to take up and read. The idea of Star Wars’ fictional Force got him wondering about the possibility of a real Force, and he began reading the Children’s Bible given to him when he’d attended Rupert Street Presbyterian Church with his mother and brother as a child. George made his first public confession of faith a few years later, in the summer of 1979, on a camping trip with his brother Walter and some of Walter’s friends during a sharing time around the fire.

George continued to grow in his Christian faith and decided to move to Jacksonville Florida where he attended Luther Rice Theological Seminary, completing a three-year Master of Divinity program in 1984. He served in a Fellowship Baptist Church and was ordained with that fellowship. His intention was to be a missionary to Portugal but he was unable to raise enough financial support. Years later, during a one-year academic sabbatical, he served as a short term missionary in Cameroon, Africa. That trip not only made good on his missionary calling, but also on the meaning of his last name, Hardy, which means “bold, daring, and fearless.” While his humility would have prevented him from seeing his adventures abroad that way, anyone who has ever tried spicy Cameroonian cuisine will know the risks George braved. Despite many outings for Mexican food, I was never able to find a dish that was too spicy for him. I like to think that George simply had a mission calling closer to home. Famed mathematician Paul ErdÓ§s, who was the external advisor for George’s doctoral thesis, had a concept of a book in which God had written down the best and most elegant proofs for mathematical theorems; he consequently referred to math lectures as “preaching.” While I cannot say if George thought of his lectures as such, George was a teacher and preacher to the end of his days, whether he spoke on the certainty of mathematics or the mystery of theology.

At the Gathering, a church plant he helped start and sustain, he was playfully referred to as “the Reverend Doctor,” a title meant in jest that held great truth: he was both academic and believer, a rare combination. As an academic at the University of Alberta and then, for many, many years, the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, George’s first love was always the imparting of knowledge, not the hoarding of it behind ivory towers. When asked what was on his “bucket list” following his diagnosis of terminal cancer, he replied that he wanted to continue to teach and serve as Chair of the Mathematics Department as long as possible. And he did end up teaching nearly to the end of his days. As a fervent follower of Christ, George had a unique gift for mentoring and encouraging others in their spiritual journey. He devoted himself faithfully to a number of church congregations, alternately as youth sponsor, tech-of-all-trades, pinch-hitting preacher, and generous giver.

Despite his trademark response to the greeting, “How are you?”— “grouchy as ever,” and the occasional invitation to “turn to the Grouch side,” or his own take on the F-word, “fun,” George was no Oscar, no Emperor Palpatine, no Grinch. Consider his love of games, which he sometimes described as puzzles with a random element. Rules were read as mathematical formulae and matters of probability, which meant that inevitably, once George understood a game, he was a formidable opponent.

Anyone who beat George at a game that involved strategy could attest to having really accomplished something – they beat the wizard. From duplicate bridge to fantasy roleplaying, games were a space where his math-mind met with his desire for community and found an outlet for both.
His unique combination of intellectual brilliance and personal humility, together with a playful, pun-filled sense of humor, endeared him to many. As a child, the person who understood him best was his mother, who he was particularly close to. Leave it to a mother to be the first to see the qualities it would take the rest of us years or months to recognize, and draw close to George. He remained a bachelor his entire life, but like that physics teacher so long ago, many of us could have easily called him “Uncle George,” given how much he felt like family for so many. His legacy is the memories held fondly in hearts of the many he has touched with his life. Both in the past month at his bedside, and here today, many have gathered to pay respect to that legacy. Near the end of the stage musical of Big Fish, one character states “A man is as rich as his friends. I am a tycoon.” So it was with George.

And so, even in death, our wizard guides us towards wisdom. Certainly, in certain knowledge, for he had much, and put great stock in it. Ostensibly, in theological mystery and musing, for he plumbed those depths and scaled those heights daily. But collectively, as with any good math problem, wherein we must show our work as well as give an answer, George’s bonus question, the difficult and hard problem he had an excellent answer for, was community: his students, his Padawan learners; his coworkers, his Rebel alliance; his friends, his Fellowship of the Ring; and his family, brother Walter, sister-in-law Nora, nephew Thomas, and niece Amanda, his very own Shire. Though our wise man has departed for the Undying Lands, his knowledge, his faith, and his wisdom remain like seeds planted in our hearts and lives.

2 comments:

  1. Oh, Mike. What profound, lovely, amazing reading, and what a tribute. I am so proud of you for this gift, and I'm sure that the Force has reminded George he is missed.
    Since I firmly believe that the teacher appears when the student is ready, I offer no apology for this late post; simply gratitude that you are still there, still writing, and still occupying your place in our Tapestry, and your thread is not yet gold.

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