Since I heard the awful news, I'm sure like many others I've repeatedly gone through my email, my Sam folder, dating back to when he first arrived, in 2001, a year after I had come to Toronto. His Science paper was just published, and he bowled everyone over during his visit, both in content and style.
Yet he sought my advice quite a bit at first, about funding, students, teaching, grants. Very soon it became clear to me that he needed no help from me, because he excelled in everything right away, as a:
- Faculty member: He threw himself into every issue and discussion, and we could always count on him for the pithiest, and often funniest comment at the meeting.
- Department citizen: He was some needed glue in the department, drawing it together. He regularly poked his head into faculty offices and attended meetings in other research groups.
- Great friend, and personal booster. I still remember a distinguished visiting speaker showing up for his allotted time-slot with me, which I was nervous about, yet he came in very excited about my newest project. I couldn't figure out how he knew, let alone why he was excited, until I realized that he had just talked to Sam, who had used some of his time telling the guy about it!
- Genuinely nice guy: It is the little things really show someone's character. With Sam one thing I recall is that early on I let him use my office and computer. I had a coral reef background, with tropical fish swimming. When I returned, there was a battery-powered water-filled coral reef toy, complete with swimming fish, next to my monitor. It is still there today.
After that I watched his star steadily rise. Yet his head did not swell: he still took an interest in everything, and was helpful to everyone. And he was a ton of fun at parties -- he somehow managed to be the goofiest and funniest guy at late-night parties at the conferences, without having touched a drop of alcohol.
He was also a ton of fun to talk research with, and to collaborate with on projects: a fountain of good ideas, generous with his time, and very respectful of student's contributions. I can remember several times, where we'd be stuck, in the depths of some derivation or failing simulation. And Sam would jump up, bounce over to the whiteboard, and write down a simple insight or equation that cut through the mess, putting us on track.
Finally, there are a few lessons I've learned from him I'm determined to try to emulate: his clear thinking, his lucid and simple explanations, but also his personal style, his genuine pleasure in others' successes. And he has also made me value my work friendships all the more -- realizing how important they are, and also what a great set of people there are out there.