Remembering Alan

Alan Candiotti– my mentor, boss, and friend for nearly thirty years–passed away five years ago today. I think about him nearly every day. This post will be based on remarks I made at his memorial service, additional recollections, and reflections on my life since his passing.

Alan Candiotti as the marshal at the 2013 Drew University Commencement, three months before his passing.
Alan as a marshal at the 2013 Drew University commencement, three months before his death.

It was 1986 and I had just arrived on the Drew University campus for the New Jersey Governor’s School in the Sciences.  Governor’s School was a program for 100 of the brightest high schoolers in New Jersey, and it was a transformative experience in my life. I lived four weeks immersed in science and math, and was in awe of the other scholars, most of them far more brilliant than myself.  At the first general session the director, Alan Candiotti, talked to us about the experience we’re going to be having for the next four weeks. Dr. Candiotti—for that is what we called him—was the alpha geek; his warmth, intelligence, and subversive wit permeating the entire experience and demonstrating by example the life that the intelligent should aspire to.  (Governor’s School is also when I first met then-Governor and future Drew president Tom Kean.)

Alan at a 1986 Governor’s School dance

I applied to and was accepted to Drew, and when the time came to pick my freshman seminar, my first choice was “Mathematics: Science or Art?” taught by Dr. Candiotti.  Although our seminar wasn’t until the spring, Dr. Candiotti welcomed me warmly to campus that fall, clearly having remembered me and happy that I had decided to come to Drew for my education. We had a blast in that class, learning about the creative process of mathematicians, understanding how mathematics affects art, and generally living in microcosm the liberal arts experience.  By the way, we determined that mathematics was, in fact, fun.

I was deciding if I was going to be a physics or theatre major, and Alan, as my advisor, was never judgmental about my choice, although I think he was happy when I picked physics.  The only other class I took with Alan was Math 17, Calculus III. Not only did I get an A minus in that class, I also remember I would frequently write down funny or clever things Alan would say in class—many of which would make no sense to you now, but again demonstrated Alan’s prodigious and at times deeply subversive wit.

Although I had a new advisor after declaring my major, Alan was never far away.  Even though he was not yet in charge of technology, he was a frequent advisor to the managers of the technology organization, and as a student employee in Academic Computing I would frequently interact with him.  I also became a Governor’s School counselor my junior year, and he would be my boss for four weeks over the summer as I helped guide the students through the program that had so transformed me four years earlier.  It was then that I first experienced working with Alan as my supervisor, and he was kind and gentle while insisting on high standards and inspiring you to want to do your best.  

I went to graduate school the first time in physics and after three semesters, choosing not to complete my Ph.D. for a host of reasons, returned to Drew as a systems manager in Academic Technology.  Alan welcomed me back kindly, although you could tell he was concerned that I hadn’t finished my degree.

At the time there were a handful of us who Alan seemed to take under his wing, and mentor more directly.  After a few years I was promoted by my boss and given more responsibility.  Alan was always close by, and we would frequently have long, detailed discussions about many different topics, often staying late at work to complete them.

Eventually my boss left Drew, Alan reorganized the technology organization, and asked me to take over a part of it.  Working directly for Alan allowed our relationship to grow closer.   My life at that time certainly had its ups and downs, and whenever a challenging professional or personal situation presented itself, I knew that Alan would know just what to say and would give me what I needed to face the issue and do what I needed to.  He supported my decision to return to graduate school, and to work to advance my career. He was there to help me when I stumbled on my path. He was there when I was faced with profound loss.  The word I keep thinking of is “gentle”–even when he needed to tell you something you didn’t want to hear, he made it clear that he cared for you very much and wanted you to succeed.

The thing about Alan that everyone who knew him understood was his unique combination of profound intelligence balanced with a just as profound sense of empathy, and with a complete lack of ego.  He rarely wanted anyone to fuss over him, but he always had something to give you. I remember on the day he died looking at the faces of my colleagues in University Technology, and in each one I could see the times that Alan had helped us through a personal or professional challenge, and how he gave so much of himself to everyone who worked for him, at any level, at any time they needed it.

I think it’s safe to say we all underestimated how much Alan worked to keep our team in technology together, and how much his presence alone moderated our worst impulses and gave us purpose.  After his death everything changed.  We drifted apart, and our energies became focused in different ways, and no one could even begin to fill the void that Alan left.  Many of us who worked for him left over the subsequent few years, after our shock wore off, and after we tried to put things back together again.   Without my own loyalty to Alan I entertained my own departure, and eventually found a new job a little more than two years later, where I am today.

It is not an exaggeration that I owe my entire professional life to Alan.  I also owe my personal life, for without him I would not have applied to Drew, and met my wife, and started my family with her.

I miss my deep conversations with Alan, working through the big issues with him, always seeking truth, beauty, and the fundamental sense of what is right.  I knew well Alan’s moral compass, and it was only after his death that I learned just how grounded it was in his deep Jewish faith.  I miss his kind, humble friendship, and his ability to always know what to do, even when it didn’t seem to make sense; time would always prove him right.  Alan had boundless optimism about the potential of everyone who worked with him, and was most encouraging when you fell down, when you needed the support the most.

At least several times a week in my new job I want to pick up the phone and bounce an idea off of Alan, to get that idea that was so orthogonal to the way I was thinking, but simultaneously so fundamentally right that it seemed obvious once you heard it.  I find myself thinking about how he would handle a situation, making sly, witty comments like he would make during discussions (sitting next to him at a faculty meeting usually meant a running commentary under his breath that was just absolutely hilarious), attempting to handle my employees’ concerns with the same warmth and empathy that defined him–and if I can do that even a quarter of the time knowing that I am a better person than most.

I hope that Alan would be proud of where I am and what I have accomplished since he’s been gone.  I think he’d be proud of all of us who worked for him–no matter what we’ve decided to do these last five years I feel we all have much to celebrate and thank him for helping us achieve.

If you’re in higher education, or information technology, I hope you have had someone in your life like an Alan Candiotti to help you through it.  If you haven’t, perhaps you can try to be that kind of influence on those around you.

I miss you, Alan.

P.S:  My Facebook memories today unearthed this photo from 2014.  The Hall of Sciences at Drew had just had some renovations completed, and Professor Bob Fenstermacher (my advisor, and mentor, and good friend to Alan) led the effort to have this quote of Alan’s grace the entrance to the lobby of the builiding.  This is a quote from the speech he gave when he won the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, which he was one of the first faculty to receive, and rightfully so:

“If you like science, study poetry too;
If you like art, study science too;
If you like literature; study politics too.
You will be the richer for it.”

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Mike Richichi

I'm an inveterate geek who's somehow become a leader in higher education information technology. These are some of my thoughts.