Friday, September 08, 2006

Bernie Galler, 1928 - 2006

One of the best, kindest, smartest and nicest people I have ever met died this past week. Bernie Galler, my friend, advisor, and mentor since I was 17 years old left this world unexpectedly and far too soon at age 77. I am not going to talk that much about his diverse set of accomplishments. They already appear in his obituary. What I can say is that besides my parents, nobody has had as profound an impact on my life, both professionally and personally than Bernie did. When I was at the University of Michigan, I used to call him my "father away from home." And he truly treated me like family.

I met Bernie Galler my first week of college in an undergraduate advising meeting. From the very first moment I met him, I felt that I had known him all of my life, and I realize now that it was because he treated me almost exactly the same as my own father. He took a great and genuine interest in me, asking me questions about my background and my personal life. It wasn't probing, it was just a true curiosity, and his advice came out of friendship and a desire to make my world a better place. Bernie created an atmoshphere of instant comfort in the room. Having just separated from my parents for the first time, there was a tremendous amount of comfort in meeting Bernie. In that first meeting, he offered me to call him anytime I had questions, and he gave me several phone numbers. He really meant it. Only now, as a busy professor myself, can I appreciate how unusual that was.

I continued meeting Bernie every semester. He convinced me to join the Honors program, and he set me up with summer jobs. He seemed personally thrilled with every accomplishment of mine, as though he had accomplished everything I did himself. Only my parents had ever shown me that kind of encouragement. I vividly remember one meeting with Bernie that stands out. I had recently broken up with a girlfriend, and I was very upset. As soon as I walked in, Bernie put everything down and walked over and put his hand on my shoulder. He asked me what was wrong, and we spent an entire hour talking about my lost relationship. He wasn't 40 years older than me then; he wasn't my professor; he was just my best friend.

Bernie encouraged me to apply to Michigan for graduate school, and he ended up as my Ph.D. advisor for a while, and then as co-chair of my doctoral committee. I also remember Bernie's support as I made it through the tough qualifying process for the Ph.D., which wasn't the smoothest sailing for me, and I remember his pride when I graduated. Again, you would think that he himself had graduated that day. At Michigan, I was a teaching assistant for Bernie several times, and by the end of my time in Ann Arbor, I was used to meeting him for lunch regularly and having dinner at his house.

Over the years, we stayed very close, emailing and visiting. Last year, I visited with Ann and the kids, and we had dinner at the Galler house with Bernie and Enid. Bernie got on the floor with the children and played with them - quite a sight! He also pulled out a box of toys that looked like they must have been old when I was 3 years old. We felt right at home.

Yesterday, at the funeral, I saw that Bernie's affection and friendship that I had always felt was the rule for him, not the exception. I listened to his beautiful family speak about him, and I felt as though I was speaking. I was at the same time jealous that these people had been able to spend their whole lives that close to him, and at the same time fortunate that he played such a big role in my life. I will miss him dearly, but I will try to use his life as a model for my behavior, as I often have in the past.

The world has lost one of the truly great and remarkable people. Exceptionally talented, and infinitely giving. Such people come along once in a lifetime.