Gene Golub Had A Talent For Giving, Which Lives On At Illinois CS
Not long after Michael T. Heath completed his PhD at Stanford University, he received a paper from his advisor, Professor Gene Golub, to review for a journal, and a letter explaining why he wanted Heath to take up that task immediately.
“You start giving back. You owe this community a return on their investment in you. He applied that to himself and to his students,” said Heath, an Illinois Computer Science professor and Fulton Watson Copp Chair Emeritus. He led the department as interim head from 2007-2010.
Golub, who died in 2007, was a co-founder of the Department of Computer Science at Stanford and the Fletcher Jones Professor of Computer Science, and an Illinois alumnus (BS Math '53, MA Statistics '54, PhD Math '59).
Golub was honored last fall with the department’s Distinguished Achievement Memorial Award. His gifts to Illinois Computer Science continue to benefit students and faculty, and they will do so for years to come.
Most recently, a gift from Golub’s estate was used last year to establish the Gene Golub Fellowship, set up in honor of his love for students and interest in supporting their studies. Three Illinois CS graduate students are benefitting during the 2018-19 school year.
Thanks to Golub’s generosity, the Gene Golub Computer Science Visionary Scholarship Fund was also established.
Golub was also the source of the funding that established both the Paul and Cynthia Saylor Professorship in Computer Science in 2005, which is currently held by Professor Laxmikant “Sanjay” Kalé, and the Franz Hohn and J.P. Nash Scholarship in 1997.
That neither of the two funds established during Golub’s lifetime bears his name does not surprise Heath.
Golub had earned the right to lend his name to anything he liked – he is well known for creating algorithms and software that allowed researchers to run large engineering and scientific calculations effectively on computers, including the singular value decomposition algorithm in 1964. His work was recognized with memberships in the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, the Hall of Fame for Engineering, Science and Technology, and other organizations.
“Gene was an immensely talented man, and obviously of substantial intellectual stature,” Heath said, noting that Golub could be prickly when fighting for a principle or convinced of a point of view. “(But) with respect with how he dealt with colleagues, he seemed to have very little ego. He kind of kept his eye on what’s best for the field, what’s best for the kind of scientific research he wanted to facilitate.”
Regarding the Saylor Professorship, named for Professor Emeritus Paul E. Saylor, Heath doesn’t think Golub even considered attaching his name to it.
“If he’d named it after himself, he couldn’t have named it after Paul Saylor,” Heath said. “And I think he felt a collegial affinity to Paul and Paul’s wife, Cindy, just honoring that friendship.”
Golub didn’t have children, but his great niece, Alix Golub, remembers him similarly, even in limited exposure to him.
“He was thoughtful, generous, and kind,” said Alix Golub, who is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. “He was my grandpa’s best friend and confidant. Of the few times I met him, I remember fondly his love for corny jokes, going on long walks in the park, and having him tutor me in math.”
Gene Golub’s approach to the larger computing community was similar, according to Heath and others who knew him, and it wasn’t lost on his colleagues.
He was president of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), founded two SIAM journals, and was the recipient of 10 honorary degrees.
But less formally, Golub was good at being a social link: bringing people together, hosting visiting faculty and students at his home. That included Heath when he visited Stanford to look for a place to live as a grad student. And Golub made sure that all felt welcome and, as Heath recalls, equal.
Golub’s Leap Day birthday – Feb. 29, once every four years – was regularly celebrated by colleagues around the world. Known as Gene Golub Around the World, the gatherings took place at Illinois, Stanford, and more than a dozen other universities in the United States, Australia, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
“He very much enjoyed claiming to be only one-fourth his actual age,” Heath said. “When Feb. 29 rolls around, people think about Gene.”
SIAM uses a bequest from Golub to host annual Gene Golub Summer Schools, conferences where graduate students gather to work with and learn from top researchers.
“It’s something that’s very much in the spirit of Gene Golub, senior people helping younger people enter the field,” Heath said.