KURT OTTO FRIEDRICHS
September 25, 1901 January 1983
Sunday January 2, 1983
New Rochelle, New York
This is an occasion of mourning. But it is also an occasion for celebration - of a very full life - and a giving of thanks - for a
We were sad to see Dad ill and sometimes confused during these past two and a half months. We will miss his presence among
us. And we mourn the inevitable end of a wonderful marriage of more than 45 years.
We also celebrate a long and very full life, filled with many blessings. Dad was born in 1901, and his life coincided almost
perfectly with the twentieth century. He witnessed quite directly many of the major events - and developments - of this century.
He had a strong sense of the past, reflected in his abiding interest in his ancestry, and in history. But in his work - for example, in
aeronautics - he also contributed to important developments for the future.
Of the many blessings in Dadâ€™s life I would note first and foremost the wonderful, and for all of us, inspiring marriage of 45
years; this is a love story going back 50 years now, originat-ing in quite dramatic circumstances, a story to which many of us here,
my siblings and myself, owe our existence.
Then there is the very successful career. Dad had productive and gratifying relationships with several generations of teachers,
colleagues, and students. And his work in mathematics has resulted in much recognition, and many fine honors.
But Dadâ€™s dedication to work was complemented with a diversity of other interests, from genealogy to ornithology. In his life
there were so many mountain peaks conquered, snow-covered slopes skied... and trees studied (I remember his pulling the car off
the road, in Cali-fornia, just to study a free). Indeed, he felt close to the whole cosmos of nature... and enjoyed it thoroughly
during his daily walks; walks, I should say, which continued to the very end of his life, although finally in very constrained
circumstances. His joy with Turtle Trickle was a reflection of his love of nature; and Turtle Trickle will always be, for all of us in
the family, a very appropriate living memorial to Dadâ€™s memory.
Then there were the endless travels.., to New Hampshire... out West... throughout Europe... and to Africa and India and Japan...
and around the world, more than once.
And his family. He lived to see all five of his children happily married (or, in one case, about to be remarried) to in-law children
he appreciated and loved for their diverse qualities and warm relations with him. To see his children all settled into satisfying
careers, with families of their own: the eight healthy grandchildren.
The last five years of Dadâ€™s life - 1978 to 1982 - were marred by illnesses and deaths in the family, and other traumas. But
they were also years during which he received many fine trib-utes the National Medal of Science... the honorary doctorates... and
especially the heart-warming 80th birthday dinner - and enjoyed as well, various personal satisfactions (after all, five of the
grandchildren were born since January 1978). Perhaps above all, there were the long, uninterrupted hours and days and weeks
with Mom... at home and traveling.
Finally, Dad was blessed in his death. He believed strongly that people should be allowed to die with dignity. And he died at
home, in his own bed, tended by a loving wife, with two of his sons present, peacefully. In this respect one couldnâ€™t ask for
As a personality Dad was not generally demonstrative. He was raised in a cultural milieu which favored restraint. But he was able
to convey - and inspire - a very deep feeling for other people, and from them.
And of course he had great personal integrity.
What Dad said of his own father applied, I believe, even more to himself. This is to say he could be quite impossible and
unreasonable about minor everyday things. But on the really important things he was wonderful, he was superb. He was
uncommonly generous, he was tolerant, and even wise.
And so Dad has left us all with many fond memories, and a profound and enduring heritage.
As most of you here know, I am the oldest son, and I now belong to the Jewish side of the family, where it is a tradition for the
oldest son to say the Kaddish. This I wonâ€™t do, but I would like to share with you some of my own personal memories of my
My earliest, most vivid memories of my father were of his taking his famous walks with his hands behind his back and playing
with his key ring in his hands. I, as a 3- or 4-year old, would be running behind him trying to keep up with his fast pace and
fearful that he might forget about me, but of course, he never did.
As David mentioned, my father grew up at the beginning of this century, in Germany under an emperor, in a large house with a
staff. When he was a child, I was told, he was frequently sick and couldnâ€™t play outside that much, but he was an excellent
student. I, on the other hand grew up about 40 years later, an American boy, strong and healthy in a house full of kids, playing
outside every chance I got, but was a miserable student.
Being so different as a child, I felt, even when a child, that I was something of a puzzle or mystery to him. Yet I always knew
that he supported me in every way that he could and that he accepted me for what I was, which was very important to me.
Yet at the same time I did have some confusing feelings about him when I was young, especially when I would compare him to
other fathers in our neighborhood, whose chief week-end occupation would be to sit in front of television and drink beer; and
they knew all about baseball, football and were very good at fixing things around the house. Furthermore, when other parents
would ask, â€œWhat does your father do?â€� and I would say proudly that he was a mathematician, their answer invariably
was, â€œUgh, that was my worst subject.â€�
To be sure, in due time I was to realize that my father had probably more knowledge than all the other fathers combined. Most of
my friends had more time around their fathers while they were busy doing other things. When our father spent time with us, it
was solely to be with us and we did many interesting things, such as going to the park or to a museum. And now as I look back
on it, I realize that his time spent with us was much more effective.
When I was much older and would bring friends to the house and we would deal with, or meet with, my father in a casual way, I
often had the clear feeling that many of these people had the impression that my father really didnâ€™t quite know what was
going on about him -that he was locked in his own world of math and didnâ€™t know what real life was all about. This as all of
you know was most definitely not the case. When he and I would later talk about people, or what had happened, I found that he
knew exactly what went on and made excellent judgements of people.
In fact, when we were kids and had some problem that needed help or advice and if we went to our mother or our grandmother,
Didi, they would both frequently say â€œSee Daddy, he will give you excellent advice.â€�
I always admired him because no matter what level I was in school and if I didnâ€™t know the answers to some school problem,
I could go to him and he would be able to help me. The only subject that I had a problem with was math, because in my later
years at school if I couldnâ€™t do something and would go to him, he would sit back for a moment, figure out how to do it and
then show me. But when I brought the answer to school the teacher would say that the answer was correct, however, they
couldnâ€™t understand how I had worked the problem out so it had to be marked wrong.
Because of his work he made it possible for us to do a lot of traveling starting in 1949 (which I remember very well), to travel
throughout this country, and to Europe many times. All of which we enjoyed very much.
People say that he was a lucky man:
he did very well as a student,
he was lucky he came to this country at the right time,
he did very well in his work,
he was lucky that he enjoyed doing so many interesting things in his life,
he was lucky with his five children, and most important of all,
he was lucky with my mother who meant so much to him and was so much help to him.
But I feel that all this was not just because he was a lucky man, but he clearly knew what he wanted in life and he was the type
of person who knew how to achieve it.
I will never cease to admire:
his self discipline,
how well organized he was,
how hard he worked,
his many and varied interests,
and his vast knowledge of them.
He was a good father and for this and all the things that I mentioned and many other reasons I will miss him.
First of all, let me say that I truly appreciate everything David and Walter said about Dad that I agree so completely with
everything theyâ€™ve said.
I would like to share with you two experiences I had with Dad recently; both very different, but I treasure both of them equally.
As you may know, in May 1981, Dad received an honorary degree from Columbia University. The night before he got the degree
I was his escort at a very formal dinner at the home of the President of Columbia University. Dad wore the tuxedo he was
wearing the night he met Mom - and he looked so elegant - I was so proud of him. I know that Iâ€™ll never ex-perience such an
occasion again - I felt as if we were treated like royalty. It was unforgettable.
Two or three days later Dad and I went to Turtle Trickle alone together. We had such a wonderful afternoon there. I remember
how he took me on all the trails - sometimes he had trouble finding the right trail - but he always managed. He kept telling me
about the trees, the bushes, the plants. It was so different from our experience together two nights before, and yet I treasure this
day with him just as much.
I feel these two experiences demonstrate the great variety of life we had with Dad, and I just wanted to share them with you.
There are so many things Dad has given us - myself and my siblings - that it is hard to decide which I want to address. But I have
chosen three things he gave us that I would like to mention.
First, and this was something he particularly gave me, was an appreciation for nature, a love of traveling and a sense of
adventure. I was first hiking with Dad and our family at age 2Â½ in the White Mountains. This left in me a deep love of this area,
and I have been back there 15 times over the years. The last trip to one spot Dad had taken me when I was 8, is where I chose to
get engaged. These mountains mean a great deal to me. Also, all our trips out west and to Europe were wonderful experiences
and created a real wanderlust in me.
Dad always liked to say how the last time he went skiing was on the day I was born, so I canâ€™t say I got skiing directly from
him. Instead I got it indirectly through Walter. But skiing for me is not just a sport, but a passion and an adventure. And he
certainly passed this on to me.
I know that David, as he said in his talk, could not quite understand Dadâ€™s love of trees but I did learn to appreciate trees and
wild animals and nature from Dad and understand his feeling about these things.
And of course Dadâ€™s beloved Turtle Trickle. No one could love and care for that land quite the way he did but it means a
great deal to all of us that he has left it to us and we all cherish it.
The second thing Dad left us was his character. Although of course it was complex, the key points were an almost rigid sense of
integrity, an insistence on doing what he felt was the right and proper thing to do, and most importantly, an ability to think
independently with a truly open mind, and yet to appreciate and respect others who thought differently.
This character also allowed Dad to look at each of his five children differently and to treat us each in a unique way. Guiding and
helping us achieve what we could in our own areas. I hope and feel that to various extents we have had these character traits
passed on to us.
The third and most important thing Dad has left us is the way he loved our mother. This warm and wonderful relationship they
created, so full of caring and supporting each other was the foundation of so much else. This love set the tone for a very happy
home, a stable environment and a close family life. And although we would not and could not copy this relationship exactly, it
was an inspiration to us and an example of how a relationship between two people can and should be at its best.
It was this love and this wonderful relationship that I feel was the primary reason that all five of us developed into stable, secure
and most importantly fundamentally happy individuals. What greater gift could any parent give their child. For this and so much
more we are very grateful.
My father never liked occasions to be too formal or too rigid, and for just that reason I think he would have felt right about the
group of people gathered here today. Those who were asked to come, in addition to the family, do not represent specifically the â
€œmost importantâ€� people in my fatherâ€™s life, but they do represent some of the most important groups of people with
whom his life and work were shared. There is, for example, someone he knew even longer than he knew my mother - Nina
Courant. There are some of the people with whom he worked - Fritz, Lipa, Wilhelm. There is someone who played an important
part in the life of our home - Bridie. There are people who played an important part in his life through their friendship with my
mother - Lotte, and someone my parents met through her, Grete. And there are others as well, including some from the younger
As I tried to think of some theme that would tie together the way in which my fatherâ€™s life affected all of us who are gathered
here, I recalled something about which he more than once complained. He was annoyed that some reference work - â€œWhoâ
€™s Who,â€� I think - repeatedly listed him as an â€œeducator and mathematician.â€� He very much disliked the term â
€œeducator.â€� In the first place, he considered it pretentious. And in the second place, he considered it redundant - for, in my
fatherâ€™s conception, to be a mathematician meant by definition to be an educator. He was always cool to the idea that
mathematics could or should be done in isolated research settings. For he felt very strongly that the only way to do mathematics
was in collaboration with colleagues and through the process of teaching and communicating mathematical knowledge from one
generation to the next. In short, every mathematician already was, or should be, an â€œeducator.â€�
Yet even so, the term â€œeducatorâ€� is in fact a very suitable way to summarize what kind of person my father was -
particularly, perhaps, for those who, like many of us here, had no gift for mathematics. Some of those assembled here will know
much more than I about my fatherâ€™s qualities and achievements as a mathematician. But others among us, and especially his
five children, will remember and appreciate more clearly his great gifts as an educator. For to a large extent, I think my fatherâ
€™s very idea of what it meant to be a parent was bound up with the idea of educating his children. We all recall the â€œlessonsâ
€� we used to have with Dad in which we came to his study, one by one, to sit on his lap at his desk and â€œlearnâ€�
something. In our youngest years, of course, there was not much â€œeducational contentâ€� in these lessons, but I donâ€™t
think that mattered to Dad at all - the important thing was that a â€œlessonâ€� seemed to him to be a very natural form of
interaction between a parent and a child. And, of course, as we grew a bit older some more real content was slipped into these
lessons. Eventually the â€œlessonsâ€� were dropped, but teaching and learning continued. All of us will recall the way in which
our father followed and guided our interests in the different fields of knowledge that excited our curiosity. A tremendous
advantage to him - and to us - was his truly astonishing breadth of knowledge and interests. He could teach us about almost
Professionally, of course, it was hard to imagine Dad as anything other than a mathematician. Once when I was a student I
listened with some astonishment as someone asked one of my professors, a political scientist I think, whether he â€œliked his
work,â€� and the professor replied that he liked some aspects but not other aspects. I could not imagine anyone asking my father
such a question, or getting such an answer; being a mathematician was utterly integral to who and what he was. Yet at the very
same time, he had such a wide range of knowledge and talent that he could, I think, have followed many other paths. I think, for
example, that he could also have been a great physicist. He could have been a good philologist and certainly - this I say as an
expert - he could have been a very good historian. He would have been a better than average naturalist. He had a solid knowledge
of philosophy and a sophisticated interest in things like archaeology and modern literature, especially modern German literature.
And he had a deep and fundamental concern with the problems of society and political ethics. This is why, of course, it could
never have bothered him that (with the partial exception of Martin) none of his children followed his path as a mathematician. For
no matter what we got seriously interested in, it was something he knew and cared about. His mathematical skills, of course, he
passed on to Martin. His deep love of history he passed on to me. His thoughtful concern with philosophy and social issues he
passed on to David. His love of nature he passed on to Martin and even more powerfully, though it emerged a bit later, to Liska.
And with Walter he shared something which, though originally not of great concern to him, became increasingly pronounced after
he had acquired Turtle Trickle - a serious interest in problems of real estate and property management.
But even more important, of course, than the specific subjects or topics of interest which he shared with his children were the
values which Dad tried to communicate to us and instill in us. It is hard to sum up all of the values which he upheld, but I think I
can summarize them under three headings:
First he insisted in clear thinking and clarity of expression. Sometimes, I must admit, his absolute insistence on having things
explained to him clearly could get a bit trying, but for the most part it served to teach us - and others - a very important lesson
about the necessity for people to formulate clear thoughts about what they themselves were thinking or doing.
Second, he had an intense dislike of hypocrisy and posturing. This is perhaps best explained by an example. More than once Dad
mentioned the controversy that arose in California in the 1950â€™s concerning loyalty oaths, in which I believe his great friend
Hans Lewy had been involved. In describing this problem, Dad explained that he could understand why some people, who felt
loyal to the government anyway, would be willing to sign such an oath. At the same time, he could understand and respect the
fact that other people would refuse, as a matter of principle, to sign such an oath. But what he could not condone or tolerate was
that some people might first make a great public show of refusing to sign and then, when things got more difficult, would meekly
agree to sign after all.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there was his great belief in tolerance, his ability to see and respect both sides of a
question, his hostility of extremes and rejection of simplistic answers to difficult problems. He was often open-minded about
unfashionable ideas, but at the same time he always warned against over-hasty acceptance of them. He believed quite
passionately in doing and considering things in a reasonable way.
These, then, are some of the interests he shared and some of the values he communicated to us in his capacity and some of the
values he communicated to us in his capacity as an â€œeducatorâ€� in the widest sense. All of us, I think, have come to know
him and appreciate him in this capacity. And thus it may be fitting, in conclusion, if we would all take some moments to silently
reflect about some of the things we learned from him or from his example, until my mother feels it is time to bring to a close this
service in memory of my father.