Some Memories of Hassan Aref by Alan Needleman
My first detailed memory of Hassan is about him and a closet. Some time before Hassan had come as a faculty member to what was then called the Division of Engineering at Brown in the Fluid Mechanics Group. His office was on the 4th floor with other members of that group but intellectually he felt more at home with the Solid Mechanics Group (even though his research was in fluid mechanics) and, in particular if my memory serves me, with Ben Freund. It was decided (I don't know how) that his office was to be moved into the Solid Mechanics area. The available office was the one next to mine. I went into my office one Saturday to have a quiet place to do some work. It happened to be the Saturday Hassan was moving to his new office. Strange muffled sounds were coming from the next office unlike anything I had ever heard before. I investigated. The door was open and there was Hassan on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor of the wooden coat closet. So, I thought, it really is true, he is a Dane.
We began going to coffee together and talking about research (even though we were in different fields we had a similar interest in using computational modeling to gain insight into physical processes), about department and university policies, politics and people (otherwise known as gossip) and life in general. Hassan had wide ranging interests, unique insights and a very special sense of humor. We soon became close friends both through work and through our families. One term we taught a course on computational modeling together which was a great experience for me. Unfortunately we did that only once because after that academic year Hassan, Susanne and family left Brown for University of California San Diego.
That was the end of us being together at work but solved the problem for the Needlemans of how to spend their Christmas vacations. The four of us would camp out at the Arefs in Solana Beach. I remember walks along the beach with Hassan (the rest of our families were there as well as an undetermined number of dogs but Hassan and I didn't pay attention to any of them). We were just engrossed in conversation. Our conversations would continue as if we hadn't really been away from each other. Of course, we talked about research and people we knew and what was becoming of universities but Hassan also had interesting stories about surprising subjects. One I recall that Hassan told about Solana Beach history concerned a drought that happened in the late 19th century. As the drought went on the city fathers became desperate. They hired a rainmaker who did his thing with a stick and, lo and behold, shortly after it rained. And rained and rained. The ensuing flooding caused significant damage. So the city fathers sued the rainmaker for damages. I don't recall who won.
A random collection of memories is the Christmas tree that had real candles as Susanne insisted and how nervous Hassan was and the numerous buckets of water placed around it. How all of us (4 Jews, 1 Muslim, 2 Californians and 1 Danish Lutheran) marched around the tree singing Danish songs that Hassan and Susanne claimed were Christmas Carols but could have been anything since we didn't understand a word. Hassan and I would take children to play miniature golf but we kept careful score for ourselves since we were so competitive (I like to think I mostly won).
The Christmas visits (but not visits) stopped when Susanne and Hassan moved to Illinois. What I remember most about my visits to Illinois while Hassan was there and Head of the Department of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics was the enthusiasm that pervaded the Department. He excelled at nurturing young faculty. Hassan had very high standards and could be quite critical but he was warm and caring. He had vision and, when he set his mind to it, phenomenal attention to detail and could clearly articulate a path to attaining that vision. The mutual respect between Hassan and the staff was evident. I particularly remember his close working relation with his administrative assistant Carol. I also remember what I saw as the very good working relationship Hassan had with Dean Schowalter. However, Hassan had, from my observations, little patience for people he perceived as narrow minded or manipulative or self-serving. That attitude did not always serve him well in dealing with administrators.
Hassan was also a showman and the year 2000 ICTAM in Chicago gave him the opportunity to combine his talents: scientific insight, organizational skills and showmanship. His presidency of the Congress gave him the opportunity to be a patron of the arts, commissioning a very lovely painting by Billy Morrow Jackson to celebrate the rich history of mechanics. The opening ceremony, with (as far as I am aware) Hassan's only performed play, was a huge success as was the meeting itself. The next year I went to Illinois for a program review on September 10, 2001. As we were about to meet in the morning the news of the plane hijackings reached us. I remember Hassan's concern, calmness and control in most difficult and uncertain circumstances.
Another memory of Hassan in Illinois that I have is a picture in my mind of Hassan sitting on his tractor at his and Susanne's (the only word I can think of to describe it) estate. Away from work Hassan was a gentleman gardener. In fact, I would describe Hassan as a 19th century physicist who happened to live into the 21st century.
Hassan left the university but not Illinois when he went to Virginia Tech. He relished the new challenge. With his professorship in Denmark taking him across the Atlantic for a significant part of the year we met in person less often. Our meetings generally took place as long telephone conversations. But the nature of our conversations did not change.
Last summer Hassan had the opportunity to take on a new role when he officiated at Lan and Mike's wedding. He became, via the internet, a minister and projected his special combination of gravitas, warmth and humor. He did such a good job that I remember someone commenting that if the science business didn't work out he could have a very successful career as a clergyman.
Hassan was a very special and dear friend. My life has been much richer because I went to my office on a certain Saturday. I will miss Hassan very much.