On July 15th 2013, my PhD advisor, John T. Riedl died after a three year battle with melanoma. John wasn't just my thesis advisor. He was also my squash partner, my mentor and my friend.
I've been asked to speak about him today at a memorial held in his honor by his colleagues at University of Minnesota. Here's what I came up with.
John had this running joke – at least I don't think he was serious – that I wasn't allowed to graduate until I could beat him in squash.
When I was a young grad student and I had just started working in GroupLens, John invited me to play squash with the lunchtime group of CS professors, senior grad students and our staff software engineer, Rich Davies (aka DanFr 2.0). For those of you who don't know, these guys are good at the game – very, very good. John was no exception though he may have been an outlier on the more skilled side of the distribution.
I had a lot of catching up to do. Despite my clumsiness and failure to grasp the game's mechanics, John was never quick to criticize or tell me how I should play my game. Instead, he might suggest that we try a certain drill or simply praise the parts of my game that were working well. John was never as much of an "instructor" as he was a good example.
He'd often let me in on one of his secret techniques. In squash you end up sprinting back and forth across the courts a lot. When running, shifting directions and then lunging at full speed to get to the ball, your shoes would sometimes slip and lose traction. So John wore tall socks that could be used between points to clean the bottoms of his shoes. Let those more concerned about aesthetics slip and slide.
He was a fierce player. Sometimes he could be quite intimidating. Despite the incredible pace of the game, John could often line up his shot and turn to look you in the eyes while he hit the ball like some action movie star walking away from an explosion without turning back.
After years of games, drills and training, I eventually began to catch up. My twenty-something year old legs helped me match speed for John's skill. I looked forward to every opportunity that I'd have to play another game with John – to show him how for I'd progressed and to see if I'd be allowed to start writing my thesis yet. As it turns out, I started to take some games from John around the time I was putting my thesis proposal together.
This experience of playing squash with John is just one example of what working beside John was like. You could replace "playing squash" with "running a meeting", "writing a research paper" or "designing good software" and the story goes the same way. No matter what we were getting into, John would always get us started with the same suggestion: "Have fun." And I did.