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My Father, Robert James Regan

May 18, 2011

My father with video camera at NJ Shore

Robert J. Regan, my father, passed away on May 4th, at a good age but I would have loved more. He had fallen at home on April 29th and was originally hospitalized for a broken shoulder, but things started going wrong, and news late on the 3rd was drawing me to New Jersey immediately rather than waiting to help with his anticipated home-care. His last e-mails to me and to my sister Audrey Regan Solarino, both the week of his fall, ended with his catchphrase, “more anon if not sooner.”

After teaching aircraft identification at Floyd Bennett Field as a Brooklyn teenager during World War II, he dropped out of high school to enlist, and would have been in the Japan invasion force if not for the atom bombs. British Navy friends he met on Pacific construction tasks created him the “First Earl of Nussex,” which completes the compass rose of Sussex, Essex, Wessex, and Middlesex, and otherwise exists only in the Internet name of my office machine—for as his eldest son I guess I’m now the Second Earl. He met my mother in college night classes, and after thousands of rubbers of bridge saw them still partners, they married in 1957. After stints on the Journal of Commerce and United Press International into the late 1960’s, he hit his stride as Non-Ferrous Editor of Iron Age Magazine and a regular on the American Metal Market, which was then a daily paper. This continued thirty years until September 2001, when changes began that were arguably more traumatic than his being in a ground-floor eatery of the North Tower when the first plane hit. His lively writing continued right up to his last “The Lighter Side” columns for the Magnesium Monthly Review this spring, which riffed on the orbit cycles of 1,200+ exo-planets and the cycle theory of Nikolai Kondratieff, before going into metals production cycles.

He was brilliant and unconventional, always bringing full force (only) to what interested him. My memorial page has more on his life and the eulogies Audrey and I gave. Here, for general interest, I wish to describe his effect on my education.

1. Education

Many children learn about the world from their fathers. In my case I also had a full education in the otherworld. Every natural mystery populated the family bookshelves: UFO’s, ghosts, ESP, von Däniken, lost ships, and others. Wondering what distinguished these mysteries supplemented my interest in science and mathematics, for which he had books like John Scarne on gambling, Guy Murchie’s Song of the Sky, and John Brooks’ Once in Golconda plus books on charting the stock market, which I did at age 13. I don’t know if he gave me my first Martin Gardner book, but he kept up with Sci/Math/CS books for my birthday and Christmas until the end. St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 13 that the power “to understand all mysteries” does not confer love, but it sure does help with a riddle like the P versus NP problem. He found the probing questions, such as (last month) why has the US government been unable to put UFO’s to rest? All this trebled the effect of my Sunday school education for learning to see things beyond oneself, which I think is the most important training for children.

For whole-person science one must also understand human motivations deeply. For this he had the mysteries of history, chief among them the Kennedy Assassination. I was 5 when the Warren Commission Report came out and its inadequacies emerged, and from then on I had a seminar in evaluating human evidence. How reliable are eye- and ear-witnesses? How to resolve the autopsy discrepancies? What can we see in the Zapruder film? His stories and discussion points held sway at our dinner table.

There are also questions on human impetus: How do people react under stress and in improbable situations? Are the violations of law and procedure that took place expectable without collusion? What political currents flow, likewise with Martin Luther King and RFK? One echo is that I currently need to be as concerned with the human side as with my technical work in an unprecedented chess cheating scandal in France. Of course I use my notes and books and software on statistics for this work; the human question is what do I bring that is extra? Another extra we shared is sheer dogged hard work, with no self-aggrandizement, just a search after elusive truth, which gave him no more than friends and footnotes in Harold Weisberg’s Whitewash series. This search led me at age 18 to study the JFK paper by Nobel Laureate Luis Alvarez, which was among my first tackling of papers in professional journals.

2. The Value of Entertainment

He was a necessary voice for entertainment alongside pinnacle achievement as the highest goal. The conflict between them is the meat of his favorite movie, Sullivan’s Travels (1941). Filmmaker Sullivan is driven to abandon the light comedies where his talent lies for a 1930’s realism project titled “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, but after being thrown into the masses and classes that project was supposed to speak for, he learns their preference and need for the comedies. Entertainment also means easing off: “If you sit too close to the stage, you can see the floorboards” he would say. Of course my vocation as a research scientist is highest achievement, and examining floorboards is a technical necessity. Still, not only was Martin Gardner’s brand of recreational mathematics my original inspiration, I also wonder when I reflect on creation whether the highest purpose is really entertainment after all.

With entertainment comes humor. In my eulogy I began by telling some of my father’s jokes. Waiters and toll-takers and my college friends, none were immune for my dad, and I’ve used humor similarly to engage people. He knew how to leaven financial metals reporting. In CS theory this usually doesn’t go for papers, but talks yes and also this blog—when you see a bon mot even in a serious post, it’s either Dick or an echo of my father. I am glad that he saw me finally following him into some form of journalism in the last year-plus. This year he followed my channeling of Yogi Berra and parts of other posts right up through mine on Leonhard Euler, whom he said in his last e-mail to me he recognized mainly from NY Times crossword puzzles. (Which he did mainly in his head, marking only the locations of A’s and E’s to hold his memory.)

3. Writing and Stories

Basic to all this was being taught how to write. Dick has noted the effect of my wife being an English major, but I had one for a father as well. He taught my sister and me how to make words vivid and brief, and also to copy-edit for precision. Beyond that, he taught us to develop themes. For instance, he propounded an interpretation of Moby Dick under which the Great White Whale is God, the Pequod is out to pique-God with harpoons, and other parts of what Herman Melville termed his “wicked book” fall into place. He did the same with movies. Try watching Jaws again after being told that the camera is the eye of a male homosexual, with the main difference from the book being that Hooper steals not Brody’s wife but Brody himself, and lives. For Close Encounters of the Third Kind he found a newspaper article detailing the score’s references to Schubert’s Erlkönig and other material to buttress his view that like the Erl King the aliens are malign (do they loan us any of their own in return?), while the humans do little more than “wear silly grins” as the ship comes into view. He wrote the makers of 2001: A Space Odyssey a review detailing the Nietzsche-Superman angle, like this one, and got back an envelope stuffed with newspaper reviews and a cover letter saying only, “Yours was the closest.”

4. Games

This may seem enough inspiration, as Salieri in Amadeus speaks of what he thinks is Mozart’s finished “Confutatis” section. But Mozart replies, “No. Now for the real fire.” In my case that was games. My parents played all kinds of games: bridge, pinochle, cribbage, mah-jongg, poker, Monopoly… And chess. At 5 I saw my dad playing my uncle Charlie on his glorious carved ivory and mahogany set. I wanted to play, and picked up the moves quickly to take him on. He liked to make a standard but frowned-on trade of bishop and knight for rook and pawn, and I recall gleeful series where my bishops chased his surplus rook from pillar to post, but he’d prevail in the end. Until six months later, that is. From then my losses were rare.

I actually let chess slide a little, while chasing interests in dinosaurs, insects, plants, languages, and coins. But at age 10, I discovered there was such a thing as a chess tournament. My dad started taking me to them, and then my mom. She played a good game herself and even won a small event. Two years later I was a master, and for two of the Fischer-Spassky games in 1972 I was an expert panelist on Shelby Lyman’s nationwide PBS broadcast. (Lance Fortnow recalls seeing me there.) Then my dad took his final shot. With great ceremony he set up the board and announced a special condition to be revealed later. We played until he clearly saw his position in resignable ruins. Then he turned the board around and announced the condition: I was to take over his army. After I led it to victory about fifteen moves later, he declared that’s it: he could never play me again. Alas, that held.

I never intended chess as a career, but mixing in the adult world from early age gave me untold blessings. My comfort there enabled me to give presentations before professors even as an undergraduate, and to do hijinks such as being a `mole’ at a no-notes luncheon in 1979 with Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga. I took enough of a transcript on an envelope on my knee to reconstruct 8 typescript pages in my father’s office afterwards. This was used only to help him prepare questions to get Seaga on the record in their scheduled interview the next day. Chess also made me an international person, here reflected in my solemnly informing Seaga what I’d learned from a fellow Cuban master: that Cuba was taking the Caribbean lead in producing “software”—whatever that was.

The games involved even my college roommates for long nights of bridge at my parents’ house. Games of strategy teach mathematics with more involvement than textbooks.

5. Shaping Identity

My father middle-named all his children after British generals whose cleverness he admired: Orde Wingate for me, Archibald Wavell and Claude Auchinleck for my brothers, and for my sister he came up with Maude, after Sir Frederick Stanley Maude. Wingate became more of a fit in personality than I care to admit. His general Anglophilia made me want to go there, and I did after winning a Marshall Scholarship and attending Oxford University, where I completed my doctorate and met my (American) wife. For someone already with Jewish self-identification from early age, it was a thrill to learn that Wingate fought to create Israel for missional reasons. My father’s complaint about people who say, “God told me to tell you …,” has shaped my modes of spiritual communication and respect for others. He liked the fractured verse “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a metaphor?” for the pun on “heaven for,” and for me both versions became vocation. Another verse with a big influence—my mother’s favorite as well—is this from the Rubaiyat (Fitzgerald v1, 1859):

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about,
  but evermore
    Came out
      by the same Door
        as in I went.

The joint import of all this is that how you treat others matters more than what levels you attain for yourself in philosophy or religion. My failings there were the only ones he was quick to note, and my mother still puts herself out for people. This goes hand-in-glove with Luke 10:25–28 and what follows, and I Corinthians 1:18–31. Even at the end he did not want to be fussed over, and Non ministrari, sed ministrare—or in his words “being a trouper'”—has been key to much else in my life.

All in all a fine legacy, as rich as an earldom. I am missing him.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous Rex permalink
    May 18, 2011 11:36 am

    Ken, this was great. My condolences.

  2. May 18, 2011 12:01 pm

    That is a beautiful, graceful essay … surely in years to come, your father’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren will read it and feel close to him. “God giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6) … your essay has shared your father’s grace with all of us … for which thanks are given.

  3. richde permalink
    May 18, 2011 12:04 pm

    Ken, I can’t recall a more moving tribute. My thoughts are with you and your family. Rich

  4. Ross Snider permalink
    May 18, 2011 1:13 pm

    Ken, thank you for this beautiful piece. It’s hard to do justice to a man whose done so much justice himself. Bless.

  5. Michael Cadilhac permalink
    May 18, 2011 4:16 pm

    Ken, this was very touching. My deepest condolences.

  6. P.A.S. permalink
    May 18, 2011 10:38 pm

    I have lost my mother recently. But each person is different — each life has a different bright. So I can’t say I know your pain (not exactly). Only you can… and God. God bless you.


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