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McClellan: A mathematician’s wonderful life

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Guido Weiss

Guido Weiss, prominent mathematician and former chair of the mathematics department at Washington University. (Photo courtesy Washington University)

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Guido Weiss was fluent in mathematics. He thought of it as a language, remarkable in its clarity yet filled with mysteries, some of which took years to solve. But that was the beauty of it. There were answers.

From 1961 to 2013, he was the preeminent mathematician at Washington University, a superstar who gave an international luster to the math department. He was old school. He never warmed to computers. He preferred a pencil, or better yet, a piece of chalk. He could walk along the chalkboard writing as he walked until he had filled the length of the board with numbers and symbols.

He died Christmas night.

He was born in the Italian city of Trieste in 1928. His father was a protege and friend of Sigmund Freud. His mother had studied psychoanalysis under Carl Jung. Trieste was a cosmopolitan place. There was a large community of expatriate writers in Trieste and Guido’s uncle was a close friend of one of them, James Joyce

When Benito Mussolini became strongman of Italy, he established mandatory paramilitary youth groups. Guido was a platoon mate of Romano Mussolini, the dictator’s youngest son.

When anti-Semitic laws were passed, Guido was no longer allowed to attend public school. He was shocked. He was of Jewish heritage but his family was not religious. They did not attend synagogue.

With their academic credentials and connections, his parents were able to get out of Europe. They came to this country, sponsored by the Menninger Institute, a psychiatric hospital and school in Topeka. Guido’s father and older brother came first. Guido stayed behind with his mother while she helped a cousin in Croatia get out of Europe. The cousin emigrated to Cuba.

Guido was 11 years old when he arrived in this country. The family moved to Chicago, where Guido attended high school and starred in all sports — baseball, basketball, track and football. He was an all-city wide receiver and was offered football scholarships to Purdue and Northwestern. At a football camp sponsored by Northwestern, Guido caught passes from Otto Graham and became friends with the slightly older man. At the end of camp, Graham asked Guido if he was going to come to Northwestern. Guido said he had decided to enroll at the University of Chicago. It had shut down its football program several years earlier, but it had, Guido thought, better academics. He was especially interested in chemistry and physics. Good decision, said Graham.

At Chicago, he played basketball, baseball and ran track. More importantly, he studied physics under Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize winner and a key figure in the Manhattan Project. Fermi had built the first nuclear reactor on a squash court under the University of Chicago’s old football field.

Guido was always a voracious reader. When he was bedridden with mononucleosis, he read a calculus book. He was smitten and decided to become a mathematician.

By the time he came to Washington University in 1961, he was already an international figure in the field. He had spent the previous couple of years in Buenos Aires and Paris. He was fluent in Spanish, French, Italian and German. He was merely proficient in Mandarin.

He was an accomplished pianist and an outdoorsman. As a teenager in Chicago, he had led canoe trips in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Canada.

His first marriage had ended in divorce. At Washington University, he met Barbara Iris Gibgot, a graduate student in Molecular Biology. They were married in 1965. After she received her doctorate, she became a virologist and researcher at the Washington University School of Medicine.

They had two sons, Michael and Paul. Guido coached their youth teams. The family took ski trips and, of course, canoe trips, often in the Boundary Waters.

Guido’s passion for the outdoors led Michael into cycling. He founded the Big Shark Bicycle Company. Paul worked as a swimming and water polo coach in California and then for a nonprofit in New York City. He came back to St. Louis a couple of years ago when his father’s health deteriorated.

I met with Barbara and Paul last week. On the dining room wall were a couple of drawings from Nella Fermi, the physicist’s daughter.

“What wasn’t your husband good at?” I asked Barbara.

She thought for only a moment. “Singing,” she said.

Guido loved classical music and a particular favorite was Mozart’s opera, “Don Giovanni.” Guido was blessed with the ability to remember the words, but cursed with the inability to carry a tune. Still, he would walk around the house singing loudly.

And dancing, Barbara added. He was not a good dancer. In fact, he was a reluctant dancer.

“He was insecure,” she said.

Perhaps that came from having a mother who was a Jungian psychoanalyst. Guido always thought she favored his older brother. Whatever its cause, his insecurity led to a certain social awkwardness, mother and son said.

“I have always wondered why I turned out to be so normal when my father was so” — Paul searched for a word — “weird.”

That might look jarring on the written page, but it did not sound jarring. It was said respectfully, lovingly, and Barbara nodded in assent.

Guido liked to be the center of attention, she said, and when he wasn’t, he could be uncomfortable.

Fortunately, most of the time he was the center of attention. Paul said his father’s Wednesday afternoon meetings were the stuff of legend. Anybody with a passion for math was invited. Graduate students and professors mostly, with a smattering of undergrads. Research papers sometimes resulted from these unscripted meetings.

The family sometimes got a sense of these meetings at home. In a 2009 St. Louis Business Journal story, Michael said, “Sometimes at dinner the common language that might be spoken is math, and there are people from all over the world, sometimes with their parents. It’s akin to being around people who speak a different language and occasionally include you.”

Guido’s reputation brought post-doctoral students from all over the world to Washington University.

For the record, Guido’s special areas of interest included harmonic analysis and wavelengths.

He was also very involved with social justice issues and rescue dogs.

He began to suffer from cognitive decline several years ago and spent the last two years in a memory care facility. Even with his decline, he retained his ability to speak various languages.

The timing of his death had a certain significance to the family. His birthday was December 29th. Rather than lament that his birthday was so close to Christmas, he combined the two holidays. The celebration began on Christmas and ended on Guidmas Day.

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