Sam was a brilliant and intense. He lived his life for others. When we would go to dinner parties, he would bring the host a paperback off his shelf, or we would stop in at the local used bookstore on the way, instead of a bottle of wine. He would inscribe the books with a personal note. Here is what he wrote in the copy of Enders Game he gave me:
“Aaron - This book is emblematic of the kind of brilliance, perception, and dedication for which I strive. We are young, but do not let the youthful idealism that we now both treasure fade as we grow older. Strive every moment just beyond your limits. - Sam”
Sam would always notice people in need - strangers, friends - and drop his other activities to help them. He had a poster that listed principles to live by, among them “make excellent things and give them away”. I remember his ever-present Canadian engineers’ iron ring, clicking against his teeth while he pored over a problem.
I learned so much from Sam. We met during graduate school interviews, and saw each other several times as we interviewed around the country. We stayed in touch as we decided where to attend, and after I learned we had both chosen Caltech, I was secretly elated. I wanted to be near Sam, and I wanted to have made the right decision - his choice validated mine. We arranged to share our dorm first year. When I arrived on campus, a few hours after Sam, he had already made friends with our neighbors. That would have taken me months to do without him. He just seized the opportunities life presented him with a buoyancy and ease. I was swept up in his extroversion and outgoing nature. I made all my friends through Sam. Once the school year started, I admired Sam’s brilliance and work ethic so much - I did all I could to keep up. I learned to eat a good breakfast. I tried to train myself to need as little sleep as Sam - I gradually worked myself down to four hours per night in that first year. But I was too grouchy and couldn’t think straight, and besides, the extra time wasn't helping me understand Information Theory any better. Probably Sam’s enduring intellectual gift to me is that I learned to love math, once I saw it the way he did - as a game, a puzzle, as an intuitive process that can be described and discussed through animated exposition, rather than dry, meaningless scratchings on a blackboard (first, the intuitions, and then you go write it down.) Every time I teach now, I try to capture that style. I learned from Sam’s personality, too. How much he was there for other people. How he valued leading a thoughtful, considered life (time was never wasted with Sam - late-night conversations were about what it means to be a good person and to lead a meaningful life.) Our circle of friends always came more alive when Sam was at the party. When he wasn’t, he was often the topic of conversation.
Sam was mentoring me in those years, but we never described it that way, and I don’t think he saw it that way. He taught by example, and never in an authoritarian way. One morning, I came back from an early morning tryout flight with the Caltech flight club. I was thrilled, and thought Sam would be proud of my spontaneity and exploration. He pointed out that with flying, it is easy when everything is going well, but that things can go suddenly wrong, and in those moments it takes years of experience to make sure things turn out well. I realized flying was probably better left to the experts. I valued Sam’s approval so much - when he would burst into laughter at a joke of mine, or magnify something I said in a conversation, or compliment something I achieved academically, it meant so much to me. Sam was a teacher by nature.
Sam’s struggle in the time I knew him well was to connect deeply with people. He was defined by his work, by his brilliance - it was his way of making the world a better place - but at the same time he craved and sought balance in his life. I remember when he selected the University of Toronto for his faculty position, rather than MIT - he knew he wanted to not be caught up in the extreme pressure rumored of MIT, but instead wanted to be in the city and near the friends where he felt the most peace. He always sought balance through hiking, rock climbing, and conversations with friends late into the night. I remember driving clear across LA on Sunday nights to dance till closing time at our favorite club, then off for Thai food at the 24-hour place. We would make the trip in his old GTI. The evening was always made delightful by a funny, flattering, or keen observation Sam made about the personalities around us. Sam could make a sincere compliment in a way that was hilarious. Sam yearned for a deep, committed romantic love. I was so delighted when he found Meredith - the love of his life. When I met her at their wedding, I recognized at once that she is the embodiment of everything he cherished in other people, and sought in a life partner. They were made for each other. They shared their brilliance, compassion, humor, vivaciousness, and a commitment to lives of principle. Sam’s missing piece was found, and at last, the puzzle was complete. Stephanie and I had an opportunity to spend time with Sam and Mere when they lived in San Francisco and before we moved to Pittsburgh. Steph was completely enchanted by Sam. What an impression he made on people, even after just an hour or two of time together. I was so delighted to be able to spend time with my dear friend again, after several years apart. I experienced again how every time I got to hang out with Sam, how alive and delighted I felt. I felt smarter, more alert, more funny, more generous of spirit - Sam’s gifts were not things he kept to himself - they radiated out of him and elevated those around him. I was so delighted by the core happiness I saw now in my old friend. His restlessness had settled down, and been replaced by flowering buds of inner peace. He had achieved so much by then - personal growth, insight, maturity, contentment; and professional stature and accomplishment.
He was brilliant, in every sense of the word. Sam, you now-distant star, time will not fade your light.
Sam Roweis died unexpectedly on January 12, 2010.
He was a truly wonderful person; a beloved son, husband and father; and a treasured friend and colleague.
This is a place for all of us who were lucky enough to know Sam to share our memories and to help celebrate his life.
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