Memorial Day has come and gone. It is somewhat buried under the weight of school endings, graduation parties, and the beginning of summer. A heavy burden for any holiday. For me, however, it generally makes me reflect on a painting of my dad. Yes, the painting.
The painting is part and parcel with Jerry. Born the youngest in a German Catholic family, where the father worked at the Rock Island Sash & Door and the mom raised a passel of kids, Jerry’s life was a typical blue-collar life in the 1930’s. But Jerry was very good at math and very good at teaching. The new field of computers grabbed his fancy in the 1950’s. Turning his back on IBM, he ended up at the University of Iowa. Soon he was running the newly created Computer Science Department and the Math Department.
He was 46 years old and poised to take over the world — or at least his little corner in Iowa City. And he was funny. I mean really funny. Perhaps his forte was not academia but stand-up. He began speaking internationally and was referred to as the “Flip Wilson of the Computer World.” The sky was the limit.
Ahhhh . . . . But, enter stage left, a small brain tumor. It took three years for that uncontrolled mass of cells to kill him; but kill him it did. Which brings us to our story.
As Jerry lay dying, the accolades began. A large painting was commissioned. A famous artist appeared who painted his head, but what to do for the now wasted-away body? The oldest son was enlisted and the father’s head was placed on the son’s body. Voila, the painting was born.
The Computer Center at the University of Iowa was posthumously named after him, and his last name appeared on every log-in by a University of Iowa student. And Jerry’s picture hung with pride in the main entry way of the Computer Center.
Time marched on. The world of computing changed from a gigantic mainframe to the wispy laptop. In fact, years before, Jerry had engineered his fame’s demise by promoting the end of a central computing location. And the Center vanished. The Picture moved under the stairs and then totally disappeared. The end of a life.
A few years ago there was a brief resurrection at the insistence of the few colleagues still alive and some of his students. Jerry was honored, a few speeches were made, some money was raised, and everyone had a piece of sheet cake. A second ending, but still an end.
And that was to be my story. The story of a painting that would be the foil for moralizing about the height of fame followed by the quick drop to nothingness. A story about living, dying, and then there you are in the basement in storage. A fun Ecclesiastical fable.
So the other day I travelled to Iowa City in search of The Painting to prove that it had vanished. I searched classrooms, and hallways, and even restrooms in support of my thesis. Of course, there was no painting.
So that was that. I gave up the fruitless looking. I was confirmed in my belief as to the nihilism of life. Yahoo.
As I walked out of one of the old buildings in my smugly fruitless search for the picture, a middle-aged man was walking in. Being the thorough detective, I decided to make one last effort to demonstrate my due diligence — so I asked him. He paused; quietly he looked me over and then said in a soft voice: “Go to MacLean Hall, go down half a flight of stairs, turn right, and go to room 14. The picture is there.” I was stunned! Seeing my jaw drop, the middle-aged man added: “He’s a legend, you know, a legend.” Damn him.
Did you know that there are now nearly 30,000 folks who call the University of Iowa home? What are the odds? Of course, I go to room 14, and this is what I see: A legend. In room 14. May he rest in peace.