When I was a child, I thought that everyone had the same kind of childhood that I had, and it wasn't until I was older that I learned to appreciate the uniqueness of my childhood. Let me tell you about my dad.
When I was little, before I could say the word "statistician," Daddy and I would pretend to be statisticians. We’d do little experiments in the kitchen, or we’d do a survey of words in the newspaper, and then we would graph our results. We discussed the properties of bell-shaped curves. We figured out the probability of drawing a pair of matching socks from my well-mixed sock drawer.
When I was in third grade, Mrs. Hoffman was teaching us multiplication tables, and I was bored. When I told Daddy I was bored in math, he said he would teach me a magic trick. He got out his book of logarithm tables (back in the olden days before calculators could do logarithms), and he showed me how to look up numbers in the logarithm table. Then you would take the logarithms and add them, but when you undid the logarithm they would really be multiplied. I tried it over and over for any multiplication problem I could think of, and the next day I told Mrs. Hoffman that my dad had taught me a really cool magic trick with logarithms. She called my dad later and suggested to him that he should stop teaching me at home. He ignored her suggestion.
But math to my dad was more than just the kind of math you might use as a statistician, it was the kind of math you used in sports. I learned how to compute "yards per carry" and "runs batted in." There is never a time in my life when I can remember NOT knowing the rules to football, baseball, and basketball, and I've been a Nebraska football fan my whole life. Some of you might know that my dad knew Richie Ashburn who played major-league baseball in Philadelphia and later worked for them as a broadcaster, but my dad had other connections, too. When we lived in Vermillion, South Dakota, Daddy was friends with the announcer for the town baseball team. Daddy and Don and I went to a lot of baseball games in Vermillion, and sometimes I would get to sit up in the announcer’s booth, and one time I even got to run the scoreboard, to turn on the balls, strikes, and outs. Daddy took us to high school football, basketball, and wrestling, and University of South Dakota football and basketball, too. And when we moved to Tennessee, we started going to Science Hill and ETSU games and track meets.
Time with Daddy was more than just math. Daddy read out loud to us, everything from "The House that Jack Built" and "Oh How Do We Get to the Zoo?" to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burrows. Daddy taught me to sing the tenor part on the hymns with him before I could read well enough to read the words of the hymns. We took family vacations out west to see the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and trips in the east to every major Civil War battle site, and as many of the minor ones as Daddy could find.
Daddy loved to look for patterns in every day things, from the number of petals on wildflowers to odometer readings on the car. I remember calling Daddy on his 48th birthday and asking how it feels to be 48. He said it felt a lot like 47. I called him on his 49th birthday, and he was really excited. This wasn't just any birthday. I had just turned 25, and he was 49, and that was 5 squared and 7 squared. And to make it even better, on his mom’s next birthday, she was going to turn 81, so then we'd have 5, 7, and 9 squared. I remember that he said, "We couldn't have done better if we'd planned it." And I remember thinking, but who would have thought to plan this?
No matter what happened in our lives, I always knew, without any doubt, that my dad loved me and my brothers, even when (or maybe especially when) we were being punished. I also knew, without any doubt, that he loved my mom.
It wasn't until I was much older that I realized that not every child has this kind of childhood. Not everyone grows up in such a secure and loving home with such amazing parents. I also discovered that not everyone loved math and statistics like I did.
Now I’m married with three kids of my own, and this has given me a chance to see Daddy’s teaching abilities with the next generation. I remember very clearly overhearing my dad watching a Nebraska football game on TV, and hearing him explain the kind of plays you might want to run on second and 7. I went out to see who he was talking to, and it was daughter Naomi when she was only two months old. I asked Daddy what he was doing, and he told me that it’s never too early to start training the next generation. And it works. Much to my husband’s chagrin, all three of my girls route for Nebraska. Daddy loved watching his granddaughters play soccer and going to their piano recitals. And Mom and Dad took us all on a family vacation out to Yellowstone and Custer State Park to see Daddy’s beloved buffaloes in the wild.
Besides being a mother, you might have guessed that I’m a statistician by profession. Every day I use the lessons he taught me. I teach classes on time series, and I explain to people how magical logarithm can be. I teach my girls math and music and history, and we visit as many battlefields from the War Between the States as we can manage. I still sing tenor on the hymns in church. I still have a very well-mixed sock drawer.
I could never live up to everything Daddy did. I mean, we are talking about the man who had to walk through the snow barefoot to school every day, and uphill both ways. OK, so he liked to tell stories, and I was fairly gullible, but I did always work hard at what I set my mind to do. I always wanted to do my very best, not so that my dad would love me, but because I loved him, and I wanted to be just like him.
The most important thing that Daddy taught me was to be passionate about God. Finding patterns in nature wasn't some kind of hobby with Dad, or something to pass the time. It was just one way to marvel at all the amazing gifts that God has given us, to appreciate the world around us, to see God’s handiwork in even the little things. Daddy taught me that there is beauty in everything around us. There is beauty in every situation, even the bad ones, when we can see that God is in control. When something miraculous happens and other people chalk it up to coincidence or chance, as statisticians, we can figure out the probabilities and see very clearly the hand of God. Daddy taught me how to see the Power behind the chance.
The older I get, the more I'm convinced that if someone doesn't love math, it's only because they didn't have a good teacher. So every day, I can thank God that I had the very best math teacher, right from the start.
03 April 2007
This is the eulogy I gave tonight at Daddy's funeral: