A visit with the Boss

October 23, 2017 • 11:30 am

Yesterday afternoon, my friend Andrew Berry and I went to visit my Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin, who, at 88, recently moved himself and his wife Mary Jane into Cadbury Commons, an independent + assisted living facility not far from Harvard. When I was in his lab, all of his students called him “the Boss”.

Dick is still in good nick, and we had a pleasant two hours chatting over old times. (We also learned some stuff, e.g., Bob Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books for 54 years, and who died this spring, would never allow any foreign phrases to appear in his articles, not even something like “post facto”. (Lewontin wrote frequently for the NYRB, and many of his articles are online free.) Silvers maintained that policy because he didn’t want the magazine to appear stuffy (even though it did!). Writers were allowed to use the phrase translated into English, and then put the foreign words at the bottom with an asterisk.

At any rate, here are three photos of our visit. The first shows a letter that Andrew brought to Dick on behalf of the Society for the Study of Evolution. It was from Sally Otto, president of the Society, asking Dick if she had his permission to confer a Society honor upon him in his name (I won’t disclose it since it hasn’t been announced).

That was a lovely gesture, and though Dick grumbled a bit, as he always does when honored, we forced him to say yes. But both Andrew and I suggested that the name on the honorific be changed from “Richard Lewontin” to “R. C. Lewontin”, since that was the name he always used on his books and papers.

Dick reading his Letter of Honor as Andrew looks on.

It was a beautiful and warm day and we sat on the porch and chatted, watching the kids play baseball in a park across the street.

Right before we left, I asked Andrew to take a Wayne-and-Garth style photo of me at Dick’s feet in an “I’m not worthy” pose. The foot on the back was Dick’s idea:

We asked Dick if his former students or postdocs ever came to visit him, and he said, “No, none.” That’s a big shame, as he had so many people who worked with him and admired him. If you were one of these, I’d urge you to swing by and visit the Boss if you’re in Cambridge. He and Mary Jane live very close to Harvard, and if you write me I can give you his email so you can contact him in advance.

11 thoughts on “A visit with the Boss

  1. Love that Bob Silvers detail! I’ve been a subscriber to the NYRoB for more than twenty years and never noticed or thought about this until now.

  2. I guess I’ve subscribed to the NYRB for about 25 years, but I’ve read Lewontin since the 70’s. I once saw him take part in an AAAS panel, in Boston in 2008. A relentlessly critical and inspiring mind. Lovely photos.

  3. Jeez, boss, from the headline, I thought maybe you’d been hanging with Bruce (or had conjured the spirit of Mayor Daley).

    It’s always a mitzvah (for all concerned) to spend time with one’s mentors. (I try to visit the federal judge I clerked for, who’s now in his nineties and only recently gave up senior status, whenever I’m back in his town.)

  4. I know I had trouble deciding whether I should see some old professors and such once. It was hard seeing particularly the older ones declining (like with my biological parents). Good to hear that someone important to you is still with it.

  5. When I was in Cambridge in January, Steve Orzack and I, (both Dick’s students, me just de jure) visited Dick at his new home, and then we all went out to lunch at a diner in Watertown. I thought I’d posted some pictures here at WEIT, but I can’t find the post now.

  6. How sad that none of the ex-students visit. I guess everybody assumes somebody else is doing it. Something to bear in mind.

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