WILF WAS FASCINATED with math problems from an early age. As a child, he says he can recall reading math books in his room at night after he was supposed to be asleep. His first and perhaps strongest lesson in the distillation of complexity came from his father. It is a lesson Wilf recalls vividly to this day.
Alexander Wilf, his son admits, was not a man to do things by halves. A successful Philadelphia rug and appliance merchant, he had his own moment of simplification shortly after World War II when he attended an address given by a member of the Irgun, the right-wing Zionist military organization. At the end of the talk, Alexander Wilf approached the speaker and gave him a check for a few hundred dollars.
"But this guy," Wilf recalls, "was a very savvy fundraiser." He refused to accept the check, telling Alexander Wilf that if that was all he could afford, he obviously needed the money more than the Irgun did. His son still retells the story with a mixture of amusement and amazement. "That was a seminal moment in my father's life."
Stung, Wilf's father pondered what the man had said and decided that what was most important to him was to devote himself to the creation of a Jewish state. With that, he sold his house in Wynnefield along with his interest in the family business and moved to New York, where he became executive director of the American League for a Free Palestine. Young Herb was sent to live with relatives while continuing his education at Central High School, feeling, as he says, "deserted" by his family.
Nevertheless, he proudly recounts his father's work. "My father was a very brilliant guy," Wilf insists. He had "a very strong worldview and awesome power to verbalize what he thought. Also, an awesome power to get things done in the real world." The American League for a Free Palestine staged fundraisers for the Irgun at Madison Square Garden, performing a show, A Flag is Born, written by the noted writer Ben Hecht. It used the proceeds to smuggle refugees into Israel along what came to be known as a "European underground railway." An article in The New York Times in January 1947 lists Alexander Wilf as one of the owners of a mysterious ship, the Abril, which was believed to be ferrying refugees through the British blockade. Occasionally, it appears, Wilf also attempted to smuggle arms. The following year, another ship in which he had invested much of his own money, the Altalena, was bombed off the coast of Tel Aviv while carrying refugees and munitions.
Alexander Wilf's passion for Israel did not overshadow his interest in his own son's future. "My father said, 'Why don't you go to MIT and be a scientist, because that's what you're good at," Wilf recalls. "I had so much faith in him that I applied just to MIT -- nothing else -- and I got in! I thought it was that way for everybody."
Shortly before he left for Cambridge, though, the Jewish state was founded and Alexander Wilf decided to move the family again, this time to Israel, where he planned to start an opposition newspaper. He pressed his son to join them.
"I can't quite figure myself out at the point," Wilf says now, "but I was very, very resistant. I was very strongly on a professional track. I really wanted to be a scientist ... and I was just as stubborn as he was." Within a few years, political machinations in Israel had doomed his father's newspaper, Wilf says, and the family returned to the United States.
Wilf, in the meantime, had gone on to Columbia University to get his Ph.D. -- but his education, he adds, came in the real world. Married and with a young family to support, while in graduate school he worked at various full-time jobs, helping design jet engines and some of the first nuclear power plants.
It was during these years that he first discovered computers. His introduction came not at MIT, where some of the earliest work was being done ("I must have missed that," Wilf says), but at IBM, where he worked one summer while an undergraduate. With only a few weeks' training on a mainframe IBM 701, Wilf wrote a program used by Esso (now Exxon) to control the quality of refined gasoline.
Wilf took his first teaching position at the University of Illinois in 1959. Three years later, he returned to Philadelphia to join Penn's math department, where he has worked ever since.
May Contents |
Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/15/98