Thanksgiving Service for the life of John Howie
John Mackintosh Howie 1936-2011.
None of us need reminding that John Howie's professional career developed at a meteoric speed, and has left a lasting influence on the academic and educational spheres. ... He was one of the founding pioneers of a branch of modern mathematics called semigroup theory, and the author of a seminal monograph on the subject. He published over 70 research articles, and a further four textbooks. During his time at St Andrews he shaped the modern Pure Mathematics group, which continues to enjoy world renown. ...
In parallel with his academic pursuits, John kept a continuous involvement with Scottish education matters. ... In 1993 he was honoured with a CBE for services to education, and in 2000 he received an honorary doctorate from the Open University.
Those of us who had the good fortune to enjoy John's friendship and hospitality, equally don't need reminding of his simple human qualities - devotion to family, enjoyment of good company and conversation, multitude of interests, including of course his love of music, and his service to the community.
But it is those of us who have had access to both these sides of John's life that are in a way especially privileged. Here I primarily mean John's doctoral students, or academic children as they are affectionately known - 12 of us in total. The detailed and sustained insight into how the mathematician and the man intertwined is the greatest gift that John has given each of us. Barely a couple of hours after John's passing away, emails started crossing the world - Lisbon, Paris, Azores, Oman, Porto, York, and New York. (Unfortunately, the message to Papua New Guinea bounced back before reaching its destination.) All of them bore witness to the debt each of us felt we owed to John.
I arrived in St Andrews in May 1992. Within days, I was introduced to the ritual of weekly meetings in John's office. We would sit in a couple of armchairs, a low coffee table in front of us. If I asked a question, John would fall silent for a minute, and then say something like 'oh, yes, so and so did it in the 1970s.' I would then expect him to get up, and fetch the paper from his meticulously organised semigroups library. But John would ponder for another minute, then take his notepad, and reproduce the result from memory. Only then would he actually fetch the article and give it to me. Later, when comparing the two, I would invariably prefer John's explanation to the one actually given by the author.
Semigroups were by no means the only matter under discussion in these sessions: rather unpredictably for me, we would discuss literature, the fall of communism and the war in Yugoslavia, naming conventions for Portuguese baby girls, and, of course, music, with John occasionally humming an aria from a Mozart opera.
At the time John was in the process of preparing a new, much revised, edition of his famous semigroups monograph. He asked me to proofread the chapters. I remember feeling very proud to be of help to the great man and the research community. In fact, the process was of much more benefit to me - I learnt much of what I know about semigroups by reading the drafts, and discussing them with John. As equals, I proudly thought at the time. It was only some time later that I took notice of what the acknowledgment said: '... to Nikola Ruskuc, whose ... frank comments were of enormous service'. Still, I hope not too much damage was done, as we proceeded to write five joint research articles.
Well, years passed. Our School of Mathematics and Statistics currently has on its staff three generations of John's academic children, and there are many more throughout the world. For a brief while I had the use of John's old office, complete with the armchairs and the low table. I have to confess that at the time I did not realise that a circle had closed. But, perhaps, deep down, I did: When the time came to move to another office, I selfishly retained the chairs and the table, and I continue to use them pretty much in the same way as John did, with new generations of young mathematicians. Except that I am not able to reproduce proofs without aid, and that my students prudently don't allow me to hum. I can only hope that this is a fit way of acknowledging my debt to John, while knowing well that it can never be repaid.
JOC/EFR January 2012
The URL of this page is: