Louis A. Girifalco

In memory: A man of many hats...

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Esteemed scientist, influential teacher, trusted colleague, gifted orator, prolific writer, voracious reader. Pianist, guitarist, sailor, marksman, photographer, chef. A son, a grandson, a brother, a cousin, a nephew, an uncle, a friend. He was a father, grandfather, great grandfather and, above all, a husband. He was—and is—loved and admired greatly by many. He made everyone he touched feel special, which was easy for him…because they were. When he talked to you he made you feel like the most important person in the world…because at that moment you were. He was something else! Authentic. Brilliant! Soulful. Loving. Thank you everyone…for the kindness of stopping by to help us say goodbye to my father.

“It is only now that I realize how extraordinary my life has been.  From school to work to marriage and family; it had all seemed so normal and mundane.  No intense drama, no great actions or achievements with far-reaching consequences; my conflicts, sorrows and joys were just like those experienced by the vast majority of men.  At least I thought so until I nearly lost everything of value, and I could see the end.  Then I knew that my life was, and is, an astonishing saga.”

Those words are from the dust jacket of his last book.  With what follows I hope to present some of that saga…and capture some of the essence of the man we were so lucky to have in our lives for so long.  Let’s bear with one another, for this is very, very personal.  For all of us.

My father was a Serious Man.  It’s a phrase he often used and something we often talked about when discussing the affairs of men.  A Serious Man was a man who took full responsibility for his actions, acted in the best interests of others, followed the truth, was honest with himself and with others, loved unconditionally, and persevered in the face of any difficulty.  A Serious Man was a man who, when he acted, acted as if his action were to become a law of nature.  My father was a Serious Man.  With a grand sense of humor.

I suspect the genesis of this was as much from King Arthur as it was from his father.  My father told me (and  wrote about) how the Arthur Legend had such a great influence on him as a young boy, how he found the book, complete with illustrations, in the small bookcase at his Aunt Mary’s, and read it and re-read it and re-read it.  The Arthur stories had everything that might fascinate a young boy’s mind—conflict, intrigue, knights, battle, magic, love, deceit, and betrayal.  Through it all, Arthur remained steadfast, always putting the needs of the kingdom and his people above his own self-interest. King Arthur was a Serious Man.  And so was my grandfather.  Neither of them ever faltered in the face of adversity.  And neither did my father.  He was a Serious Man.

This early book cultivated in him a lifelong love of reading.  He readeverything—science books, fiction, histories, biographies, memoirs, everything…All of this combined to make him a genuine Renaissance Man of Modern Times, and he became well known for sprinkling literary and historical references into his classes, lectures, and conversations, and for having a broad and deep reservoir of knowledge on many topics.

His academic and professional careers were nonpareil.He graduated from Rutgers with a Bachelor’s in Chemistry in 1950—the same year he married Mom.They honeymooned in Niagara Falls with his high school buddy Ralph and his new wife Grace; and he relished the fact that he was still connected with his high school friends—Ralph Raphko and Johnny Malechar, and that even in the later years he was able to get together with them (Ralph and Grace and Johnny and Lois) and celebrate their 70+ years of friendship.

Next thing they knew they were in Cincinnati where he completed his Master’s and PhD at the University in 4 years, and where Sandy was born.  Dad recounts these days in his late books—how they were barely able to make ends meet, how they persevered, and how much he cherished them.

With his new degrees and new baby, he and Mom moved to Wilmington where Dad was hired by DuPont as a research chemist, and where I was born.  In those days, DuPont was a premier employer working on the cutting edge of basic research and new technologies.  They didn’t hire just anyone.

After a year, however, he was offered a position as a Physicist at the Lewis Research Center at NASA in Cleveland, so he moved his young family to Lakewood.  In those days, NASA was a premier employer…and they didn’t hire just anyone.  He was a bit of a stud.

He rose to become head of the Solid State Physics Section there, and he and Mom had four more children—Mary, John, Bob and Terry.  Sandy and I went to St. Rose’s Catholic School and have fond memories of those days, marching in the Halloween Parade the night Terry was born, going down the water slide on our trips to Madison Pool, and stopping at the donut shop on Detroit Avenue on Sundays after church.  And so much more.

As they did their entire life, Mom and Dad made great friends there—Jack and Marian Meehan, the Ladd’s, the Grimes, and many more.  Our neighbors were the Spellacys and Mr. Freeze.  I remember the day little Jimmy Spellacy turned blue: I was sitting on the back door steps playing and Dad came flying out the back door in his white T-shirt and black pants, taking all the steps in a single leap, running into the Spellacy house, carrying Jimmy out and putting him in the back of the black Hudson, and racing him off to the hospital.  His swift response saved Jimmy Spellacy’s life.  To me he was Superman—decisive, fearless, and invincible.

In 1961 he got a call from Bob Maddin, whom he knew from scientific conferences, and who would become a lifelong friend.  A few years earlier Maddin had led a team that applied for an award to establish a new research department at the University of Pennsylvania, and he called Dad to invite him to become part of the team.  The award was from ARPA—the Advanced Research Projects Agency—which was the federal government’s skunk works for working on the very frontier of scientific research (a bit like the National Science Foundation), and it was to establish LRSM—the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, where he would forge an illustrious academic career. 

Taking a chance, he accepted the position and he and Mom moved their growing family to Bala-Cynwyd where they had two more children—Stephen and Dori, and where they would spend the rest of their time together.  I remember all of us on the car ride from Cleveland to Bala singing the rhyme—1432 Alameda Avenue—a new adventure in the offing.  Our stories from the Bala phase are too many to re-count here, but the house at 155 Union became and still is central to who we’ve all become, and what we’ll all remember.  Especially the kitchen!  Where everyone was welcome at the table and made to feel like family…all the time.