Jacob T. Schwartz

The New York Times Obituary by John Markoff

A Celebration of the Life of Jacob T. Schwartz - March 27, 2009

Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences
251 Mercer Street
New York, NY 10011

Speech by Jack's sister, Judith Dunford

I am greatly moved to be here in this company to celebrate and honor my brother Jacob.

Jack was three and a half when I was born, still a little boy himself. In advance of my arrival he had been heavily blitzed by our motherıs great prenatal propaganda campaign. It convinced him that the new baby ­ me, someone he was still introducing to the nurses during his final hospital stay as "my baby sister" ­was a special gift, to be entrusted to his care and protection. We would laugh about it sometimes, but that never meant that it hadnıt worked. He took on his heavy responsibilities immediately and never shrugged them off. There are documentary photographs of him, still in short pants, standing ferocious guard over my baby carriage.

Jack would have been embarrassed at my mentioning any other occasions; he always behaved as though acts of exceptional kindness were perfectly routine. His standard was not whether he felt like doing something but only whether he could. So, roughly ten years ago when I was in my mid-sixties and had to spend a month or more recovering at home from a cardiac incident ­ I was already a widow, living alone — Jack arrived every day to stay all day, to sit with me, provide me with breakfast, lunch and supper, get the mail, make me tea, keep a watchful eye on me, and yes, let the record be complete, regale me past my limited strength with the wonders of nematode worms. He had already taken up molecular biology.

When my first marriage was falling to pieces and I was frantic with anxiety, Jack came to me and said in his characteristically odd, formal manner, "I regard my obligation to you and to your children as absolute." Those were his words and not just words; he meant them. I have had the luxury for seventy-five years of his wing draped over me and mine, no questions asked, no exceptions.

Jack as a brother was like Jack as a colleague and teacher, easy for me to recognize in the flood of recollections that have poured out in the weeks since he died. The intelligence so great that it seemed to weigh his head down, his omnivorous interests, his kindness and generosity — a stunning generosity that not only did not look for thanks but was puzzled and even annoyed when they came. And certainly his sometimes vexing need to include the people he cared for as voting partners in each new enthusiasm. In the mid-80s when our mother was dying and we had to drive daily an hour and a half each way to and from the hospital, I had his seminar on the Imperial Chinese examination system on the way out and the one on advanced music theory on the way home.

We always knew he was exceptional; he was given a degree of respect unusual for a child. If he disappeared into long silences at the dinner table we understood that he was working through a problem. No one interrupted him. When he was a little older my father liked to joke with his fellow garment workers that he had a son in the numbers racket.

Jack started blazing his way through subjects very early on, and as I was the person closest at hand I was the one whose head he would stuff with whatever it was at the moment. I learned a little chemistry, mostly by being assigned to wash the test tubes from his chemistry set. I learned enough algebra to do well on my junior high entrance exam. I built some modest contraptions with his Erector set. I hammered in nails at his direction for a weird Frankensteinian electronic game he invented, soon abandoned, thank god. As I got older and my head filled with static I was a less reliable information sponge, but it never stopped coming: economics, optics, American slavery, the science of knots, post-Revolutionary France. It only ended in his last hours when he could no longer speak. Not many months before he died when he was once again in the hospital, groggy and sedated, he croaked to me through the tangle of IV tubes "I cannot tell you how much I admire Robert Faglesı translation of the Iliad."

Although it was my father who taught me HOW to read, it was Jack who made me literate. If he liked something, if he turned up something of interest at the library, it was handed off to me next. I never said no ­left to my own devices I would have read nothing but fairy tales. Under Jackıs tutelage I read the great standards and then some — Sherlock Holmes, the Canadian humorist Steven Leacock, Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, Omar Khayyám, the works of Booth Tarkington, Sir Walter Scott, and Guy de Maupessant. The horror masters August Derleth, Algernon Blackwood, the slightly schlocky H.P. Lovecraft. Edgar Allan Poe. I didnıt keep a log so these are just the few I can remember. And oh yes, a remarkable story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer then unknown to me, called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which I read at Jackıs urging when I was ten or eleven.

We shared a room in our familyıs Depression-era Bronx tenement. In the dark Jack would tell me stories — the robots he would build some day to help me with my housework or the wonderful bed that would wash and dress me and fly me to school. He made up abstract games. "I am going to sing a note and you tell me what color Iım thinking of" he would say.

We never fought. Actually, thatıs not exactly true. We had two fights, both memorable. The first was when I was around four or five. My mother was laid up with a migraine and asked us to make our own beds. After we did Jack and I argued bitterly over whose blanket had more wrinkles. I knew he was right and that I was lying. Jack looked shocked that I was irrational. I had no idea what got into me. It must have shaken us up because the next fight had to wait for more than sixty years. I was temporarily lodged in workspace at NYU. Jack was alarmed by an offer I had passed on to one of his assistants for a one-day consulting job. He came to me, eyes blazing; he thought I had acted recklessly; I thought he had gone demented. This time the shock was even greater. Jack went home all contrite and told Diana that he had had his first fight in sixty years with his sister. I went home all contrite to call my daughter and say I had just had my first fight in sixty years with my brother. The next day he invited me to what he always called "a sibling lunch" and we made up, Jack-style, by not referring to it at all.

As sister to such a luminous mind I had to figure out how to thread my way between two great pitfalls. One was the risk of seeing everyone else, myself in particular, as not quite making the cut. The other, its near opposite, was the peril of falling into a smug sense of royal entitlement, as though being related to Jack was all I would ever need in the way of credentials. I canıt ever be sure I entirely succeeded in avoiding either one, but that was not because Jack ever lorded it over me. He never ranked himself in any pecking order and was still in his teens when he told me that he intended to drive any lingering thoughts of "as good as" or "better than" out of his heart as they were corrosive.

But another confession here: I did feel once feel that life with my brother was utterly unfair. We were kids at the zenith of redeeming box tops for wondrous rewards. It never bothered me that it was Jack who always got the Secret Decoder Ring, the Invisible Ink Writing Set or the Amazing Egyptian Tattoo Kit. He was older. I didnıt mind. But when he and he alone got the fountain pen in the mail I burned with jealousy.

It must have been a really cheap pen. It probably leaked. It probably scratched. But it was a lovely sea green, with a gold clip to hold it securely in your pocket. I wanted that pen!

A few years ago I remembered the incident and, laughing, told Jack about it. He didnıt say anything at all. He was not big on reminiscing. But a few days later my doorbell rang. When I opened the door there stood Jack with a blue rectangular box that he handed to me. Inside the box was a new Waterman fountain pen. It was green. It had a gold clip. That was my brother Jack.

He was not ­ emphatically not ­ the brother from Central Casting. He never sent me a birthday card, never, as far as I remember, gave me anything specifically designated as a birthday present. We never hugged. We didnıt get together for Christmas or any other holiday. There were no pecks on the cheek, none of the usual declarations of filial affection. Our parents had spawned two austere characters ­ in this Jack and I were as alike as peas in a pod. So when he lay dying and seemed to want me to hold his hand, I was overcome. His hand! that I had not so much as touched since he took me to the playground, so very long ago.

Jack and my late husband liked and admired each other in a slightly uneasy way and often got together to talk. It partook a little of the Clash of the Titans, one a supercomputer, the other a giant pinball machine. Most recently, especially when we lived in the same neighborhood and then in the same building, we two would have lunch every couple of weeks, usually in one of the semi-loathsome Chinese restaurants he favored, to talk about what we were working on or what we were reading. It will be a long time before I stop expecting the phone to ring and hear Jack proposing "say, how about a sibling lunch?"

Jack was my brother, my only brother. He was never not my brother. I was bonded to him for seventy-five years, longer than to anyone else, longer than I was a child to my parents, longer in the normal course of things than I will have been a parent to my children. At the very end all I could give him in return for the countless unpayable intellectual and emotional debts I owed him — all I could do was wish him a soft death. And that he had, made all the softer by his sublime wife Diana who lay next to him in that darkened room through the last days, cradling his gaunt head and stroking the arm rendered hairless by chemotherapy.

Jack once paid me a handsome compliment. It was right after I was married the second time when he said to his new brother-in-law: you are getting the most reasonable of women. Reasonable or not, with my brother gone I now feel my back is to the sea. I found it so hard to acknowledge that he would die. It was the incorporeal and ageless intelligence that seemed to be Jack, not the body battered by years of illness.

When he died a poem I like floated into my memory. It was written in 1799 by the English poet William Wordsworth for a woman, but it seemed to fit somehow.

          A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
            I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Back to A Celebration of the Life of Jacob T. Schwartz