George Box - A Celebration of Life

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Celebration of Life May 5, 2013
George E.P. Box — Pel
October 18, 1919 – March 28, 2013

“So don't be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don't know what work they are accomplishing within you?” Rainer Maria Rilke

Celebration of Life
Prelude: "Prelude No. 2 in C sharp minor" George Gershwin
Linda Warren, harp

Welcome & Opening Words
Michael A. Schuler, Parish Minister

Opening Reading: from “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran

Lighting of the Chalice (Harry Box and Family)
Please read in unison: "In this time of grief, we light this flame of sharing, symbol of ongoing life. In this time when we search for consolation and serenity in the face of loss, We kindle this light as a sign of our hopeful quest for redeeming wisdom and healing love."

Song: “Summertime” George Gershwin
Tamara Brognano, soprano

Brian Yandell (Chair of the Statistics Department)
Conrad Fung (friend, former student and colleague)

Song: “Experiment” Cole Porter

Meditative Moments Michael Schuler

Lighting of Memory Candles (by family)

Sue Ellen Bisgaard (friend and widow of Soren Bisgaard, a dear friend and colleague)
Harry Box (son)

Claire Box and Issac and Andy Murtha (grandsons)

Song: “Our Love Is Here to Stay” George Gershwin

Benediction: “Blessing” by John O’Donohue

Postlude: Prelude No. 1 in B flat major George Gershwin
Dan Broner, piano

Please join us in the Commons for fellowship, sharing of stories and a toast to George’s memory.

Gravesend, Kent, England
"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Gratitudes to:
• all who are here today
• ushers and greeters who are members of our Quest 1 Integration Group:
Pamela Johnson, Roy Rasmus, Kim Stege, Janet Stoneciper, Harry Carnes, Kate Ihus and Jackie Groves (Kate and Jackie are with us in spirit)
• Nutshell Catering
• FUS, Michael Shuler, Dan Broner, Linda Warren and Tamara Brognano
• Brent Nicastro, photographer and friend who took my absolutely favorite picture of Pel, Janet Swanson for photo of the chalice and Pilot leaving Terrace Pier, Gravesend, original by Anthony Blackman
• Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability where George is buried in The Natural Path Sanctuary

Memorial Gifts In George’s name may be made to:
Agrace HospiceCare, 5395 E. Cheryl Parkway Madison, WI 53711
UW Foundation-George Box Endowment Fund, US Bank Lock Box 78807, Milwaukee, WI 53278 (for the support of graduate students)

Opening Remarks from Department of Statistics, Brian Yandell

George Box started his studies in chemistry, in 1936, only by accident discovering statistics while he aided Britain’s preparations for possible poison gas attacks in WWII. George read what books he could find, and later met RA Fisher, and they sat together under an orchard tree to discuss statistics.

George approached statistics through problems he encountered from talking with other researchers. He listened to the challenges they were facing, and the solutions they had developed. Only then did he begin building models—wrong models to be sure—that might shed new light. In this way, he discovered relationships that others had missed, and developed important perspectives on experimental design, time series and quality improvement that have fundamentally changed our thinking through his books and other writings.

George was invited to Madison to found the Department of Statistics over 50 years ago. About 25 years ago, he co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement. George won many, many awards, but was most proud of meeting the Queen and making her laugh. More importantly, George delighted in working with students of all ages, many present in this room. I now ask his students or spouses to rise and briefly say their names. (*=present)

See PhD Students of George E.P. Box for all his students, with those present at the memorial indicated by "*".

Others present included long-time colleagues Norman Draper, Brian Joiner and Richard Johnson, retired administrative staff Mary Esser and Candy Smith, visitor and co-author Alberto Luceño, and Sue Ellen Bisgaard, wife of the late Soren Bisgaard (1986 PhD under Bill Hunter). Soren posthumously received his fourth Brumbaugh Award the same day as George Box's memorial.

A Tribute at the Celebration of Life of George Box May 5, 2013
Conrad Fung

One day, just months ago, while George resided for a brief time at the Agrace Hospice, beautiful music from an Irish harp suddenly wafted in from the hallway. George, and Claire, and their good friend Judy Allen (from whom I learned this story), went out to investigate and listened to several songs. All of a sudden the harpist stopped, and said: “Do you know that song, George?” George nodded yes, and recited the song straight through. The harpist was agog.

It’s not surprising that everyone knew George, and it’s not surprising that George would know the lyrics to a song. This was a very special song, however, from a poem by William Blake – and is an unofficial anthem of England. Here is the last part of the poem:

"I will not cease from Mental fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land."

Till we have built Jerusalem ... means that if you want a better world, you have to do something about it.
And George did a lot about making things better:

  • From joining the Army at the outbreak of World War II and running hundreds of experiments on how to respond in case London were to be bombed with poison gas;
  • To helping industrial scientists set up their experiments more informatively, and then understand their results;
  • To developing, and then giving to the world, for free, the theoretical and practical underpinnings of experimental design and time series;
  • To setting up new institutions – the Statistics Department and the Center for Quality at UW – so that generations of other people can grow and succeed;
  • To teaching by example, to making statistics personal with funny stories, and songs with perfect words;
  • And by being such a good friend to so many.

George taught us that with a statistical outlook, you can improve almost anything. One example was how to order food in a restaurant: half the time, you should order something you know you like, and the other half of the time, you should try something new. That way you’re sure to enjoy your meal at least half the time, and you have a chance to add to the list of things you enjoy. George’s approach, of welcoming variability, and paying attention to differences, is the essence of purposeful experimentation, and of conscious improvement.

It was wonderful to be a student in the Statistics Department in Madison. Even before knowing George directly, I benefited from his wisdom in setting up the Master’s degree as an earned degree, entirely independent from the path toward a PhD. The Master’s exam was a week-long take-home analysis of real consulting problems that had come in to the StatLab – directed by Brian Joiner at that time – followed by an oral defense of one’s conclusions. It was to get ready for work in the real world, and Master’s students from Wisconsin were in high demand.

And then to be a student of George’s directly, was a wonderful experience of inclusion, of witnessing things as they happened, and learning by doing.

A workday for George at the office was a contrast of total concentration followed by a restoring break. At lunchtime we would buy an apple from the vending machine in the WARF building and then head out for a fast walk – often to Picnic Point. On these walks, George would tell stories about whatever was on his mind, making events from decades earlier as alive as the present day. Many of these stories are now in George’s memoir.

When not at the office, George kept in touch with early morning phone calls, and, for longer communications, with cassette tapes. The early morning phone calls sometimes came just minutes apart, as George tried out new lines for a song as they occurred to him.

Monday evenings were a special treat, with the beer and statistics seminars at George’s home, at which speakers from the University would present their research, and George would share his insights about how the problem might be solved. George encouraged students to hook up with these researchers and report on their progress in a later week. I got involved in several projects like this – one in particular was together with Kevin Little in a study of bees by Warren Porter and his students.

Learning by doing extended to traveling with George on many teaching trips too. It was a gift of trust, and an early experience of a life that I still have today.

George was very perceptive of people’s emotional states, and could be nurturing and knew just what to say. He once told me to “Lay hold on life” – not as an exhortation, but rather as permission not to be tossed about by outside forces.

He himself was moved by these sentiments. When he would encounter a passage in his reading that was particularly moving, he would tape a copy to his office wall. A few years ago he made me a copy of this passage from Howards End:

"Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty. Margaret hoped that for the future she would be less cautious, not more cautious, than she had been in the past."

To be less cautious is the essence of experimentation and improvement. As George said in his song about Robustness, you have to “find a way to do it that’s a wee bit daring.” Above all, George was a friend.

George’s memoir was a lifetime in the making, but the effort accelerated in the last two years as he collected and organized his memories with the help of Claire and Judy Allen. George found great joy in his friends and treasured them dearly. Reminiscing gave him much pleasure, and the collection is now his gift to us.

Each chapter of the memoir is headed by a quotation from Alice in Wonderland, George’s favorite book. Ten days ago, Judy was helping me look for some information, and found among her notes for the memoir, a piece of paper on which George had written a single line: “Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise.

It’s from Alice in Wonderland, and must have been an unused candidate for a chapter heading. Here is the full quote, but it’s very long, and one must keep in mind that it was written by Lewis Carroll, a mathematician for whom minus times minus is plus:

“Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.”

Deconstructed, it means: You are You. Be yourself. George was himself, and the world is richer for his having been himself. Thank you.

Notes From Harry Box (son)

“Have a nice cup of tea, mate. That’ll fix you up. Just the thing”

These are perhaps the most comforting words I know. It's George Box patented funny accent routine. One of many.

My father was the kindest and most genuine of people. When Helen and I were children, one thing that gave my father a great deal of pleasure was tinkering with hobby science. He and I built an electric railway together. We once built a super powerful electromagnet by winding a coil around a large construction nail – we did this because the workshop was a mess and we needed to separate all the staples and nails from the sawdust and general debris that had accumulated all over the workbench. He loved flying kites.

In our house, Dad’s office was half way up the stairs. There was a door off the landing, and inside was a short narrow set of steps up to his little room. I would sometimes pay him a visit. He’d light up with a smile and say “Oh, Harry! Come in.” There were many curiosities in his office, dice with different numbers of sides, and lots of books with “Box and someone” written on the spine, and big mechanical adding machine that made a symphony of little metallic clicks when you turned the handle.

One time we were looking at his magnifying glass, and he showed me that we could focus an image of the ceiling light fixture onto a piece of paper by putting the glass the right distance from the paper. I was maybe 8 or 10 years old. This was a revelation to me, and pretty soon we had removed the lens from the handle and installed it in a large cardboard tube and started building a sort of camera. We found a cardboard box in the attic. We requisitioned some wax paper from the kitchen.

At different points throughout this process he would break into accents. “Oh dear, this won’t do at all” he’d say in his mock Oxford accent. Evidently this is something he picked up when working at ICI where the management were uppercrust gentlemen, with whom he got along very well, but must have made an impression on him. As many here know, he could invoke the Oxford persona in a way that just took all anxiety out of a situation.

We mounted our lens tube in one side of the box, and cut out the back and stuck the wax paper to the back, and when you held it up and looked at the wax paper you saw the image rear projected onto the wax paper. To me this was simply amazing. This was back when Helen and I watched the Wonderful World of Disney on a little black and white TV set that was perched in a flimsy stand in the living room. This camera had big beautiful image and it was in color! And what’s more the image was not a still. You could go down to the kitchen and see mom making a steak and kidney pie. It was a motion picture device. And what’s more it anticipated the i-phone in that when you turned it on its side the image stayed oriented -- upside down and backwards at all times. I took that camera all over the neighborhood looking at everything.

There is a common thread between many of the things that delighted my dad and which delighted us as well. Making music – always in the key of E flat. Flying a beautiful kite way up high on a windy day at the beach. Picking up all the nails with an electromagnet. Making a “movie camera” from a cardboard box and wax paper.

He delighted in applying a little simple theory to everyday things and, making it into a magical event. He set an example for how to live life: with generosity, with reason and intellectual integrity, with unconditional love, with humility and with a twinkle in his eye and a good punch line.

He was absolutely one of a kind, and I am very sad that our time together on this earth together is over. He had a great life. All my life he has offered his theories for how to go about living, and he has left us with a wealth of examples of how to apply it.

“There you are mate, have a bit of that. A bit of alright, that is. Just the thing.”

He will be sorely missed.

Thank You from Claire Box (wife)

George Edward Pelham Box died on March 28. Some of you many know about his nickname “Pel.” He grew up as Pel and used this name until he entered the army at the start of WWII. He then decided it was a sissy name and switched to George. On an early leave he brought a buddy home with him who called him George. His mother responded by saying “Who is George?” So to many of he remained Pel or Grandpa Pel or Uncle Pel. On entering the army he also made another important change – giving up brown ale (also considered sissy) for bitter bear.

I am filled with love and gratitude as I look around at each of you. Both Pel and I have felt held in compassion by so many of you and also by Agrace Hospice. Thank you – such important words. Thank you for all the daffodils that many of you brought. This was Pel’s favorite flower. Being color-blind he could really see the vibrant yellow, and it was a harbinger of spring.

Jeanne Lohmann has published eight collections of poetry and two books of process. At nearly 86, she relished walks through her Olympia, Washington neighborhood and remains active in the local poetry community. Printed in The Sun issue 401 May 2009 p13. With permission of the author.

To Say Nothing But Thank You

All day I try to say nothing but thank you, breathe the syllables in and out with every step I take through the rooms of my house and outside into a profusion of shaggy-headed dandelions in the garden where tulips’ black stamens share in their crimson cups. I am saying thank you, yes, to this burgeoning spring and the cold wind of its changes. Gratitude comes easy after a hot shower, when my loosened muscles work, when eyes and mind begin to clear and even unruly hair combs into place.

Dialogue with the invisible can go on every minute, and with surprising gaiety I am saying thank you as I remember who I am, a woman learning to praise something as small as dandelion petals floating on the steaming surface of this bowl of vegetable soup, my happy, savoring tongue.

Even at the saddest moments, the greatest losses and what seems like overwhelming grief, the sun shines, the breeze blows and the new life of spring and birth begin. George was in bed for just one week before his death and alert until the last couple of days. He greeted friends and family with his wonderful smile; he could not speak much but his eyes showed his delight. I particularly remember when Judith, his writing buddy, Conrad his loyal friend and Isaac his grandson entered our bedroom. He held them close; he believed in them and loved them. In his last years, in part because of lack of energy and inability to travel, he was less able to interact with family although always expressed his interest and pride in what was going on in our lives. George also loved his students, which led to the dedication of An Accidental Tourist in their honor.

During the last week Helen, his daughter, and I worked together to make those days as comfortable and meaningful as we were able to do. And during that time Pel was letting go, perhaps harder for us to accept than Pel. He was not afraid of death and had said this many times over the years. These were not just words. He showed us how to be at peace with the end of life and with grace and dignity.

I have learned so much from George over these 27 years. One lesson that he taught me was to “lighten up.” and not take everything so seriously. He often said that “most things don’t matter.” Many times he conveyed this in a song or a joke and I admit that my response was not always grateful acceptance. He taught me about integrity particularly about his life work. George was always concerned that students and co-authors received well-deserved credit and respect. He refused to be “bought” by the temptations of money – refusing offers that came along over the years that he did not want to do or felt was not ethical situations. He stuck to his life’s work, writing and sharing his talents. I teased him from time to time that he would die with a sharpened pencil in his hand and that was pretty much true.

Pel was an optimist, his spirit hardly ever failing even as his physical capacity was declining. Although somewhat forgetful, his mind remained active and clear. He was planning new projects that I am pretty confident he knew would not come to fruition in his lifetime. About a week before he died, he told me he couldn’t follow a poem and that this was really a significant loss. It seemed at that point that he began to let go of life having accomplished two last things he most wanted – to make sure that I made it through chemotherapy and to finish his memoir.

I also learned about bravery as he worked on the book. Many days it was only for an hour or two. He never gave up. Pel did this in spite of several significant health crisis. We often laughed that he was on his 13th or 14th life. Also during this time, I broke my hip, was dealing with an autoimmune issue and then colon cancer. Although these were significant challenges, there was also much joy. In some of the oddest situations he would break into song or tell a joke that was always “right on” and quite often it took folks a few minutes to get it. And I remember my last intimate connection with Pel. I was holding his hand and he reached up and touched my cheek. We looked into each other’s eyes – his full of love, peace and acceptance. There were no words however I can still feel the touch of his hand on my cheek.

As finish this celebration of George’s life, please join us for a party. He loved parties. It would delight him to see us toasting his long, productive and well-loved life. It would please him to see friends and family uniting together in laughter and love. It would really please him to see us reaching out to each other, supporting, caring, letting go of old resentments and thus honoring his life in the process.

To Pel From Claire
My heart cries, as the emptiness encroaches
My heart sings, for his long life and spirit
My heart fills with gratitude for the years
My heart grieves his death, my love and my friend

George Box, 1919-2013
Introductory Remarks to Beer & Statistics Session
Norman Draper

I first met George in the summer of 1955. For six weeks, I was his student assistant in the Dyestuff’s Division of Imperial Chemical Industries, where he was the head statistician. George was just beginning to be known in England at this time, and my taking this job was suggested by one of the statistics faculty at Cambridge. The faculty member said he thought I might find the experience “useful for your future career.” This turned out to be the understatement of the century!

Throughout his life, George was successful in many areas of statistics and had many willing collaborators. There were excellent reasons for this. He was adept, at each stage of his career, in picking collaborators with the skills and inclinations needed for a particular area. Moreover, he was able to teach, by example, the way in which successful research is done. George never hid the fact that a lot of hard work and determined patience was needed. Any flashes of inspiration usually came after one had done the hard work, and not before!

George also taught that, if one didn’t know something, one simply started learning and talking about it with others. This led to the creation of a weekly seminar series, where everyone contributed whatever they knew, as best as they could. Criticism was always to be positive. This was the basis of George’s hugely successful “beer and statistics sessions” held every week in his home. Former students treasure and talk about their memories of these meetings to this day. George was a terrific teacher and always brought out the best in students.

George will be greatly missed by his many friends, scattered all over the world. He had a long, remarkable and very successful career. Always, with George, there was learning and laughter. Those who knew him were indeed fortunate.

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