Peter A. Freeman
Retirement Tribute
17 April 2002

Georgia Tech Graduation Ceremony, Atlanta, Georgia (13 June 1997)

Dr. Peter Freeman was my Ph.D. Advisor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. After serving as the founding Dean of the College of Computing (CoC) for 12 years (1990-2002), he will assume a position at the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC as assistant director of NSF for Computer & Information Science & Engineering (CISE), effective May 5, 2002. On the 17th of April, the CoC Advisory Board hosted a dinner to honor his years of service at Georgia Tech. Below follows the tribute that I delivered at the dinner at the Peachtree Club in Atlanta, Georgia .

It isn’t often that one has the opportunity to speak, openly, about one’s experiences with her PhD advisor in his presence and I’m delighted to be able to do so this evening. It is my understanding that Peter received a bit of a roasting last year, but as I was not involved and Mary Alice has given me this opportunity to speak, I feel compelled to share part of my unique perspective as that of Peter’s only PhD advisee during his tenure at Georgia Tech.

I first met His Deanship in 1990 upon my election as the new Grad Student Liaison to the Faculty. I was rather nervous prior to my first official meeting with him, during which I expressed our desire for more student representation on various College committees. A few hours later he had emailed all the committee chairs and requested that a grad student be appointed to each committee. I was astounded by his openness to student participation as well as his proactive response. It was immediately clear to us that this man would become a strong advocate for students at Georgia Tech.

With time, I came to realize that Peter was also a strong advocate for women in computing. His record as a dean shows his impact not only as a leader in computer science, but as a champion of diversity. A look around the room reveals his influence in this regard.

There is lots of clean, yet rich, dirt in the Peter Freeman annals. For example, I bet many of you are unaware that Peter and Kurt Eiselt were arrested by the Georgia Tech Police Department back in 1991. I don’t recall how much the “Jail-A-Prof” bail was set at that year but, thanks to the other Deans, Peter was able to make bail rather quickly! Apparently, he actually enjoyed going to jail. You see, needing to make bail before the police would release him provided him with an excellent excuse to miss President Crecine’s cabinet meeting that afternoon. Peter proved to be a good sport that day and was instrumental in raising funds for a good cause. To my knowledge, he hasn’t been arrested for a good cause since then.

Peter officially became my PhD advisor in April of 1992 and for the next five years I would experience the pleasure (and at times stress) of having to report my research progress to him on a weekly basis. During my first year as his student, I was always a wreck before my meetings with him, thinking that I hadn’t made enough progress, or that he would think I was wasting his time. But, as the years passed, I grew to look forward to our weekly meetings ...and wasting his time ;-).

I am certain that I was a unique challenge for him because I am dyslexic. And yet he was always supportive and extremely helpful. One day I apologized for how long it was taking me to read the papers for my depth exam. The next week when I arrived at his office for our weekly meeting, he closed the door and said, “Today we’re not going to talk about what you’ve read. Instead I’m going to teach you how to read.” Needless to say, I was startled and speechless. He took an issue of IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering from his shelf, opened it to the first page of a paper within it and asked me to sit next to him at the table. He then read aloud, quickly, following along with his finger, showing me what to read, what to skim, and how to discern the important from the trivial.

As someone who has struggled with reading and writing since childhood, there are insufficient words to express how much Peter’s gesture meant to me. He observed that I was struggling and equipped me with the tools to be able to conquer that stack of papers that had previously seemed insurmountable. I admit that to this day I’m a bit embarrassed that the Dean felt he needed to take time away from his busy day to teach a student how to speed-read. And yet that week’s session was possibly the most memorable for me and certainly the most helpful. I still use the techniques that Peter patiently taught me that afternoon and I am very grateful.

One day I was following him through the door to his office for our meeting after hearing his weekly “The doctor is in; $0.05 please!” He asked me something and I replied “Yes, Your Deanship”. He turned around, bowing before me – it was very smooth except for the fact that his glasses went flying back through the door and into the front office! I believe that’s the day His Deanship formally asked me to start calling him “Peter”.

Some of my fondest memories of Peter at Georgia Tech occurred on the 1st of April each year.

I suspect his most memorable April Fools Day was in 1996. You see, during the spring of 1995 an amazing picture of Peter during his years at UC Irvine was obtained. It was a picture of him lecturing, with longish hair, wearing an amazingly academic corduroy blazer with rather prominent lapels and he had apparently forgotten to wear his bow tie that day. It was a picture that truly begged to be seen …. by many. As the 1st of April drew closer, it became apparent that Peter’s Web page was in need of an update since it lacked certain bits of information about him.

For example, Peter once made the mistake of inviting graduate students to ask him anything they wished to ask at his quarterly lunch with them. One student subsequently asked him what he dreamed of growing up to be when he was young boy. Peter responded: “A shrimp boat captain!” While I have always admired Peter’s honesty and integrity, I must admit that I had serious doubts about his prudence that day because it’s generally not a good idea to admit such personal bits of information to students as they have a tendency to remember these gems! This gem made it to his Web page, as did the picture.

Now it happens that Peter was visiting another university on the 1st of April that year. And he received countless compliments about his Web page that day as each person he met smiled and said “I saw your Web page today!” All the while, he had no idea that his Web page has been “updated”. That is until he returned to his office the following week and launched his Web browser! That’s when he realized that George P. Burdell had been rather busy.

[If anyone is interested I brought a printout of that Web page with me this evening. The picture still begs to be seen.]

I wish to close by publicly expressing my gratitude to you, Peter. Thank you for your mentoring, guidance and friendship. Thank you for the 7:30 AM tee times at Bobby Jones, the lunches, the times when you acted “fatherly” even though at times it was rather embarrassing (like at RE’95 when, in front of some rather prominent members of the RE community, you felt the need to explain how to make a phone call to you in the U.S. if I needed anything because you were leaving the next day!).

As a professor I have strived to be the kind of advisor to my students that you were ... and always will be .... for me.

Your legacy at Georgia Tech is both distinguished and profound. And since 1990 you have led my cherished alma mater to excellence with distinction. As you move on, please know that you have been a positive influence in the lives of those fortunate enough to know you and count you among our friends. God bless you and Barbara as you begin your new position in D.C. I hope that your time at the NSF allows you to save enough money over the next few years to buy that shrimp boat. :-)

Annie I. Antón
17 April 2002
Atlanta, GA
© 2002 A.I. Antón

Updated: 4.20.02...