My Father’s Stories:
Valuing People

For most of my life, if asked to describe my father, I would have talked about his accomplishments.   Today I believe he was a teacher who valued people and truly cared.  “Leadership is who you are, not what you do,” observed Frances Hesselbein, the former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America and founder of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute.  With my father’s death, this idea came to life: The values you live are who you are.

Those values made him a great administrator from the very beginning.  In 1962, Frederick Hovde, President of Purdue, mounted a national search to identify someone who could build a first-class mathematics department at Purdue University.  When offered the job, Dad said, “If you want a first-class department, you need to make a commitment now that I can hire people this year without any interference.  A department begins with people.”  In his first year, Dad added 21 mathematicians to the department.   All of whom loved math and cared about teaching.

Dad taught and mentored hundreds of students and faculty over the years, and their success was his greatest pleasure. Louis De Branges, Edward C. Elliott Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Purdue University, pulled me aside in 2006, when Purdue was naming a building after my father. He said,  “Your father made sure I had what I needed to do great research, and that nothing got in my way. Your father is a mentor, a coach, and my best friend. No one else has ever done so much for me.”   As he spoke, I kept thinking of how my father had come home glowing and proud in 1984.   Louis had come to his office to tell him he had proved the Bieberbach conjecture.  My father was the first person he told.  My father always said that his job was to make sure Purdue had the best people and they were set up to win.

The focus on others was more than institutional with him. A number of people he mentored have said to me, “You are so lucky. I was jealous of the relationship you had with your father. He was a great father figure.  I was closer to your father than I am to mine.” One continued, “When he visited San Francisco, he took me to dinner just to learn how I was doing and let me know he cared. He had no agenda. He just wanted to know me.” Another said, “He always told me stories that made me think about what I could do.  They had to do with life as much as math.  He saw that I felt like a stranger here.   I heard the story of Sam the Tailor at least three times.  Sam ended up in Indiana because he got on the wrong train with his family.   Sam made Lafayette his community and has a very special place here.”

My brothers and I remember his playing duplicate bridge with each of us.  For a while, he was using three different bidding systems (a weak no trump for Richard, the precision club for me, and standard American for David) to play to our individual strengths.  He did this for about 6 years.  I cannot remember one time when he used the wrong bidding system with me.  When he was with me, he was focused on me.

My father had seven grandchildren, and a unique relationship with each. For example, he wrote a proof with my daughter Violet when she observed a pattern in numbers.   None of her teachers at Horace Mann had time to sit with her and think through what caused this particular pattern, whether or not it had been identified before, or whether it could be proven.  Her grandfather did. Brian, a 29 year-old grandson, brought cards to the hospital, 120+ miles from home, to see if my father could help with a card problem. He did.

My father’s caring, passionate engagement with others even extended to politics. A few months ago, at the age of 92, he attended a fundraising event for Cory Booker. They talked for a long while, each discovering a kindred soul in the other as my father shared his concerns about the values and sense of empathy he felt needed to passed on to the next generation – for their sake and for our country’s in general. After the social portion of the event, Booker spoke for half an hour, spending about a third of that time talking about his conversation with my dad. He stressed how impressed he was with how much my father cared about people and about his country, and most of all by the fact that even at his age, he’d felt the need to come and speak with his state’s Senatorial candidate in person, rather than simply sit by and bemoan the status quo.

valuing-peopleBut that was my father’s essence: he actively cared — about his family, his students, his colleagues, his fellow citizens, and his country. And at every level, he did what he could to make things better.

My Father’s Stories:
Education – Good is Not Great

My father, Phil Haas, rose to a top position at a research university, and he saw first-hand that great teachers create passion in their students.  Igniting this passion is arguably the first item on the agenda of our education system, and it sometimes seems to have fallen to the bottom of the list.

Dad often referred to a study completed by a former president of Dartmouth College.  It compared Calculus II final exam grades for students taught by graduate assistants, associate professors, and full professors.   I’d expect that students learning from experienced professors would do better, but the results showed no significant difference in averages or distributions by type of teacher. A year later, the president investigated what classes those students had enrolled in. Students of full professors were enrolled in high-level elective math classes at a rate more than double the other groups.  Clearly, the full professors had created passion in more students than the more junior teachers.

Blackboard6My father was a math professor at Purdue University and was also an administrator. The most exciting achievements in his career were his experiences in the classroom.  He was particularly proud of mentoring the daughter of a general in 1991.  She wanted to be a teacher – maybe a math teacher. One day she needed to go home for a family conference with her father.   A few days later the U.S. invaded Iraq. My father mentored her through that difficult emotional time. She called him her father “in loco” and left Purdue with an even greater love for mathematics.   She’s since received her Ph.D. and teaches mathematics at a prestigious university. His role in supporting her achievement was one of my father’s proudest accomplishments.

Are we fostering that kind of pride in educators today? Do we measure our teachers as mentors, as individuals who inspire? Not these days.   We assess teachers on their students’ exam scores, regardless of whether the students are reeling from malnutrition, lack of sleep, divorce, and other turmoil that happens outside school.  As Jim Collins would ask, are we striving to be good rather than great?  In a hyper-competitive global job market, is good really good enough?    My father didn’t think so. Before his death this month, he talked about the decline in true standards for education. “There is nothing more important now for this country,” he said, “than passionate learners.”

My father, who believed that math skills were essential for our workforce, was proud that Purdue offered honors Calculus courses and is now expanding this program he had started — an investment in their students and our nation’s future.

My Father’s Stories:
Decisions and General Patton

Over the past 6 weeks, I have had the opportunity to listen to many of my father’s lessons and stories, and think about the questions he posed. My next few blogs will replay some of these.

Decision Making

Wisdom:  My father viewed the difference between a good leader and a great leader as the ability to know when to make decisions, and when they make them to execute without looking back.  As he phrased it, “you will never have all the information you would like to make a decision, unless you’ve waited too long.   To know when you have enough, to make a decision and then go with it, is critical of great leaders.”

General George Patton: My father served in General Patton’s artillery division as staff sergeant. Patton assembled a bilingual intelligence unit which provided essential logistic information on the movement of the Germans as the American army progressed into Europe. My father’s mind was challenged to gather vital information to his unit’s advancements and then calculate the angles and positions for artillery fire.

Following D-Day, in August of 1944, the heavy artillery as part of the U.S. Third Army was driving through France.  As they were chasing the Germans, and approaching Colmar, Patton asked my father and his team to assess if they had the power and position to blow up a monumental stone bridge that was out of sight.  It appeared as if the Germans were heading towards that bridge to cross the Rhine.

After about 20 minutes, Patton came back and looked at my father eye to eye.   My father said,  “The bridge is at the edge of our range.  We have it as accurately positioned, as we will be able to.   I think we can hit it.”  Patton replied, without hesitation,  “give it everything we have and thank you.”

Subsequently, General Eisenhower called it, “One of the most successful missions in modern history .”  We cut the Germans off and more than 30,000 did not cross that river.

As my father told the story, he was in awe of Patton’s ability to make the decision at the moment, understand the risks, trust the team completely, bet on it’s success, and own the results – even if it had failed.  Patton thanked my father, regardless of the results.   My father’s last words were thank you.


Felix Haas

Felix  “Phil” Haas, Provost Emeritus of Purdue University, passed away on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, surrounded by his family at his daughter’s home in New York.

Known as “Phil,” Haas was born on April 20, 1921, in Vienna, Austria. In 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria, he was sent by his parents to live with an aunt and uncle in London. A year later, he immigrated to New Jersey and worked in a factory for four years, until joining the U.S. Army. He served as General Patton’s Artillery Sergeant in World War II.  After the war, even though he lacked a high school degree, he was admitted to MIT, where his tuition was covered by the GI Bill.

Within six years of entering MIT in 1946, Haas had completed his bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry and mathematics, and his PhD in mathematics.  During his time at MIT, he met and married his first wife, Violet Bushwick, who also earned a PhD in mathematics from MIT.  They had three children together:  Richard A. Haas of Shrewsbury, Mass, Elizabeth Haas Edersheim of Scarsdale, NY, and David R. Haas of Westfield, NJ.

On completing his Ph.D. in 1952, Phil began a series of academic appointments—Instructor at Lehigh University, Fine Instructor at Princeton University, and Assistant Professor at University of Connecticut. He moved to Wayne State in 1957, where he became Head of the Mathematics Department and, then moved to Purdue University as Chair of Mathematics in 1962.

Phil served Purdue for more than 40 years and became the first Dean of the School of Science after its creation in 1962.   In that role, he helped launch the country’s first computer science department, recruiting many scientists at the cutting edge of their fields. He then served as University Provost (1972-86).  Recalling his 14-year period as Provost, Haas commented, “I was fortunate enough to work with presidents who allowed me to look to the future, hire the best people and effect changes.”  He believed a university should be a place where scholars and students are free to collectively pursue their research interests and interact to serve society’s needs.  He felt privileged to work at a Land Grant Institution whose mission it was to give all students the opportunity to pursue higher education regardless of their economic backgrounds.

After retiring as Provost, Phil returned to Purdue as the Arthur G, Hansen Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and taught for 15 more years (1987-2002).  Beginning in 1991, he taught pro-bono in exchange for a commitment from Purdue that his teaching would relieve non-tenured female faculty members with young children of their teaching loads.  During this time he received awards for having achieved the highest student rating of any mathematics professor a number of times, and helped design many of the honors courses.

“Of all of the things I have done,” Phil said,  “teaching is what I have enjoyed most. My best memories are of sparking excitement about a discipline in a student who didn’t know what he or she wanted to do. That excitement is the best thing that can happen.”

In 2006, Purdue renamed one of its two Computer Science buildings in honor of Felix Haas.

He was pre-deceased by his first wife.  He is survived by his second wife, Margaret, his three children and their spouses, Richard (Ann Mitchell), Elizabeth (Steven Edersheim), and David (Dana Stevens), and seven grandchildren, Derek, Brian (Yen-Hua Yu), Andrea, Jacob, Alvin, Claire, and Violet.

He has been a guide and inspiration to many and his family will miss him dearly.  The Felix Haas Memorial Fund has been established at Purdue University to support faculty members with young children who wish to have the time to pursue their passion for scientific or applied research without having the burden of a heavy teaching load.

Donations may be made to:

The Felix Haas Memorial Fund
Purdue University
403 West Wood Street
West Lafayette, Indiana 47907

The family is holding a private graveside burial, with a public memorial service planned for this fall in West Lafayette, Indiana.

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