Louis A. Girifalco— A Remembrance

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.

Dad rose to prominence at the University and Lou and Kate attracted a new circle of friends—the Belton’s, the Gaskell’s, the Maddin’s, the McMahon’s, the Pollock’s, the Worell’s, the Bordogna’s, and many others. They often entertained, and Mom became the gem among the faculty wives, something Dad was always proud of, Mom—proud of your grace, elegance, humility and humor—among your many natural gifts.

One of my dearest memories was the first winter we were in Bala and someone in the family needed a prescription from Dake’s Drug Store during a snow storm. And Dad let me come with him to get it. He held my mittened hand as we walked the five blocks down to Dake’s, eight inches of snow on the ground and heavy flakes falling in the streetlights. And I felt like the safest, luckiest kid in the world to be on this task with him.

Dad spent some 50 years at the Penn, starting as an Associate Professor, gaining tenure in three years, becoming Director of LRSM, Chair of the Department of Metallurgy and Material Science, serving as Associate Dean for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Vice Provost for Research, and Acting Provost…in addition to his many years on the Faculty Senate. He became the University Professor of Material Science, and ultimately Professor Emeritus.

Sandy and I were fortunate enough to go to school there and would often pop in to see him now and then at the LRSM building, where he always stopped what he was doing to spend a little time with us. It was a wonderful luxury to have.

While at Penn, he wrote half a dozen science books, published hundreds of papers in the most prestigious journals, established a new Master’s Degree called the Dynamics of Organization, and served as a member and Board Chair of Associated Universities, which oversaw the operations of the Brookhaven National Lab and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Some of his books are still used in universities around the world.

We loved his books and used to argue about our favorite equations—the girls favoring the ones describing the surface tension on ice crystals as a function of temperature, and the boys favoring the differential equations that mapped the diffusion rates of technology adoption…smirk.

Regardless, they wereelegant—just like the man who created them. To top things off, he started a consulting business to support the financial needs of his growing family.

He had some resume, didn’t he?

Dad loved music, of all kinds, and there was always music in the house growing up: Gilbert and Sullivan, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Herb Alpert, Doris Day, Bing Crosby, Al Martino, the Big Bands…and his beloved Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Chopin…and countless others. And of course he respected and played the great Chickering piano he hauled in from Cleveland when we moved.

When I was in college I took a course on the Structure of Musical Forms, and on Sunday’s during part of a semester I would bring home a large tome holding the symphonic score for Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony—The Eroica—and we would sit on the couch and watch the music unfold on the page, and he taught me how to see on the page the patterns and nuances of the notes we were listening to. Every moment was a teachable one.

Later, we would discover and listen to and discuss Granados, Gershwin, Joplin, Debussy, Claude Bolling and many others. Ironman was part of this cabal and he and I would often try to execute some of the piano pieces on the great O’Neil Steinway, discover new pieces, and circle back to Dad with our discoveries.

Our years growing up in Bala were rich and wonderful. He loved that his daughters were fierce competitors and played some wicked basketball and baseball (always among the starting five or nine), and he loved the stretch where they all played on the same softball team with Mom for several years, memorialized in the legendary Main Line Times article. He loved baseball, and he and my Mom became knowledgeable Phillie’s fans in their later years…and we all loved that.

We boys were another matter, but he loved us and always stood by us, no matter what.

Mom—you and Dad always welcomed all of our friends into your home and we can’t count the meals cooked, the parties held, the celebrations celebrated, the toasts toasted, and the times we’ve laughed and cried and loved in the warmth of its embrace. Thank you.

I can see glimpses of him now, gathering us up for hamburger dinners on the terrace at General Washington Country Club, shooting pool with a pipe in his mouth in the basement, walking into the kitchen on a late afternoon pinochle game with Mom, Drew, Moon, and Iron, taking two or three or four of us for shoes at Andrilli’s, taking us to the drive-in in Valley Forge, on the beach in his black socks and sneakers, twirling his girl on the dance floor proud as a peacock, joking about how he always bought Mom the best gardening tools, making egg nog from scratch on New Year’s Eve, hauling us up to Big Sal’s for a Sunday dinner with the cousins, or for a visit to Uncle Frank’s, Uncle Mike’s, Aunt Ellen’s or Aunt Mary’s. Making Steak Sandwiches or Liver and Onions on a Saturday afternoon, or Corned Beef and Cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, or Pea Soup from scratch with the bone from the New Year’s ham. I can see him now.

And I can see him laughing…

Laughing with Crazy Richard in the living room after a piano lesson, or laughing with Uncle Vince and Aunt Ann over an inside joke, or laughing with his father and mother over an old memory, or laughing with his sister over a Big Sal story, or laughing with Sal and Lynn and Mom over a recent one. Glimpses. Joyful. Melancholic Meaningful. And these just a smattering.

He often cited the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics which states that "in all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves the system, the potential energy of the state will always be less than that of the initial state."

He learned this law in high school and applied it to his scientific work on matter over his entire career. He once wrote that “the laws of nature are the same for everyone, everywhere, all the time”…and knew that this law would eventually capture us all, including him.

I could go on, and may have gone on too long already, but there’s just a little more.

So here we are, at the tail end of rough stretch that marked the end of a life fully lived. He was fortunate to have the Mother Teresa of Delaware County taking care of him through his final months and days. We owe you a large debt of gratitude, Bob, a debt we can never fully repay. Thank you.

Mom told me recently that they talked about the end of their days off and on over the past couple of years, joking about who would go first, and they agreed they hadno regrets.

Together, you shared the joys and sorrows that come with having a large family and living life robustly. Together, you shared privately the profound sorrow of losing two children—Stephen so early, and then Mary just a few years ago. And then your granddaughter Katie in what seems like just yesterday. He was a private man, and you a private woman, about these things, and we respect that, knowing that you went ahead anyway, living with broken hearts.

Through all this and more, you remained strong and persevered…for yourselves and for all of us…with Arthurian muscle and resolve.

As my wise Uncle Sal told me recently, this pain and sorrow is the price we pay for the privilege of having such a wonderful person in our lives.

Of all his accomplishments, he was most proud of his family—his children, his grandchildren, his great grandchildren, and his wife. He even came to appreciate the dogs—Toby, Jerry, Kesey, even Bink—because Mom did. But he could’ve done without the cats.

Like you Mom, he managed to remain grateful and positive through great tragedy and sorrow. Like you Mom, he always put the needs of others before his own. Your lives (and ours) were shaped by your relationship, and we were lucky to have your mutual love and combined fortitude to guide us this far.

Though he lived by example, I think he might want to say this to the next generation, to his grandchildren: always be grateful; always be kind and generous of spirit; learn all you can and believe in yourself; and if you want to change the world, go home and love your family.

The quote I cited at the beginning of this remembrance was from his last book—Life with Cathy—which he wrote just last year. It’s a love song celebrating a 70 year romance, rich with the ups and downs and ins and outs of an epic affair.

I know we’re all sorry to see it come to an end. And while the romance might have ended, the love never will.

Good bye Dad. And thank you.

Shhh. Listen closely for a moment.

That sound you hear is the music he left behind—the sound of 1,000 silent hearts…

…bursting with love.

—Tony Girifalco
April 21, 2018