James Geller

Tribute To: 

I was lucky to meet Dave Waltz when I was a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo, where he came to visit his good friend, my advisor Stuart C. Shapiro. After that I was blessed with meeting him many more times like in the airplane to Sydney, Australia, in 1991 going to IJCAI, or at IJCAI 1993 in Aix-les-bains in France. At one of these conferences, Dave also met my wife and my son “Sandy” who was in a stroller at that time. (You will see below why I am mentioning this.) In later years I would seek Dave out whenever possible, like visiting him at Thinking Machines Corp. His work has been an inspiration for me, for many years, but I will not talk about his work. I want to talk about Dave Waltz as a mentor and a friend.


Over the years Dave helped me out many times.  I am not talking about routine help, like writing recommendation letters, which of course he also did. I am talking about coming to give a talk at NJIT at a time when barely anybody famous ever did, about helping me getting the only book I ever edited off the ground, about supporting me when I organized a Stanford Spring Symposium with all the stars in the field of Massively Parallel Artificial Intelligence, and about hosting me for a sabbatical at NEC.


Dave had this unbelievable ability....


If you said something to him...


And you were thinking, what would be the nicest answer he could possibly give ...?


He always managed to give an answer that was even nicer than what you had imagined.


When I contacted him about the Sabbatical I thought that with Dave’s and NEC’s reputation there was probably a line of Princeton and MIT people waiting for the same opportunity, and I would have to “take a number.”  But I relied on Dave being Dave that he would say “yes.” Dave's reply was this:  “Getting you at 20% of your salary for a year is really a fantastic deal for NEC.”  That was it, I was in. 


During the year of my sabbatical my mother first had a stroke and then passed away and I had to travel to make all the necessary arrangements. Dave did everything he could to help out in that difficult situation. But on top of this disaster another crisis struck at the same time. I had a major argument with one of my research partners, which I was emotionally not able to deal with. I was sure that I was right in this argument, but there was this little nagging doubt in the back of my head. When I told Dave about all this, I expected that he would start asking me questions about details of the argument to come to an "objective" opinion about what had happened and tell me whether I was right or wrong.


This is what Dave said to me: “Jim, knowing you, I am sure that you are the one who is right in this.” I don't remember exactly, but I think I went out and started to cry.  Or maybe it was an hour later that I cried. I am still tearing up when I remember the situation.


When my sabbatical was over, Dave found a consulting job for me at NEC so that I could keep the association with the Lab for a few hours a month.  I kept this job for a few more years, even after Dave himself had moved to Columbia.


Years later, Dave extended his kindness to the next generation.  He arranged for a summer internship for Sandy, the not-so-little-anymore boy that he had met when he was still in a stroller.


During the last couple of years, Dave and I had a little breakfast club. Twice a year we met at the Hilton across from the Newark train station for breakfast, as Dave would pass through that station on his way to work.


It was always uplifting to meet him.


We had such a breakfast in Newark on October 13, 2010, and I remember saying something to him when leaving, which I am now really sorry about. I said: “Dave, as long as you and I can meet like this, the world is still OK.”  By next March the world was not OK anymore. I met Dave one more time for breakfast, with my son Sandy and Dave's wife Bonnie, in Princeton on May 11, 2011, when he was already suffering from slurred speech. The two photographs are from this breakfast, showing Dave, Bonnie and Sandy. The last time I saw Dave was when I visited his home on December 21, 2011, and he was still as smart and as kind as ever, he just had a hard time talking and moving around.


Dave Waltz was a very special man. I never met anybody like him and I already miss him dearly.