Story by Ellen Greenberg

The story I want to share about George Cobb is embedded in my life—my adult life, my professional life—and how he was a brick for me. Please know that a being a brick is the highest compliment in my family.  The basis for a strong foundation, someone everyone could count on, whose contribution lasts a lifetime, and sometimes longer.

I took a probability course with Professor Cobb in 1983 at Mount Holyoke College. After that, I studied with him every semester, taking every one of his required and elective classes, until I graduated in 1985.  While advised by Lester Senechal and Donal O’Shea, in class with Harriet Pollatsek, Paul Dobosh, and Alan Durfee, colleagues in the math department, classes with George were my home in Clapp.  George supported my independent work senior year and wrote a lovely recommendation for me when I graduated. He came to see my soccer games, he welcomed me to sit and talk in his office piled high with papers and books, and he wrote copious notes on everything I turned in. At the department reception on graduation weekend, I introduced George to my parents proudly, so appreciative of this unassuming scholar who shaped not just my college years but would go on to help shape much of my professional life. I presented George a small bronze pig to add to his collection that I had made in Leonard DeLonga’s sculpture class. And I said goodbye.

It took me 20 years to reconnect with George, though he never left me. Six years into a career at MIT as a computer programmer, I changed directions, got my Masters in Education, and begin teaching high school students mathematics and statistics at Phillips Academy (#Math530). George taught me to love statistics, so I designed a new term elective course in data analysis, then jumped in to the Advanced Placement Statistics arena when that effort began. Every day I invoked George in my classroom and my planning.  The lessons he taught me, his presence in forums for statistical education, his textbooks, his writings, all contributed to my growth as a teacher. I once went to a conference where I was the only person in an audience of 200 to raise my hand to a question of whether anyone had actually enjoyed their first statistics class. When I stood and shared that I had been lucky to be a student of George Cobb, everyone in the lecture hall nodded with agreement.

In 2005, I wrote George a long email. I then visited him on campus with my 3 kids. I kept up via email from then on, and as George once wrote, “Friendships that endure despite long interludes are especially meaningful to me.  In Potter-speak, you and I belong to the Order of the Pig of Lost Wax.” You can bet I have saved every email exchange. We marveled over climbing Katahdin, shared family pictures, and commiserated when there was too much to grade and not enough time to just relax. In 2014 we visited over lunch at an ASA seminar held in Boston, and I beamed as he spoke.  That was the last time I saw George, but I see him now still.

My own father died on March 5, 2020, and as he was 87 and I could be there for him and my family during his final days, I didn’t cry much.  On May 18th, late in the evening, I saw a posting on Twitter regarding the George Cobb memorial session at 2020 Electronic Conference on Teaching Statistics and the naming of the “George Cobb Lifetime Achievement Award in Statistics Education.” Thanks to Nicholas Horton for sharing the news. The tears starting falling and could not be stopped. I am so sorry for your family’s loss—the loss to his close friends and colleagues—and so thankful that I can hold George up as an educator who played such an important role for myself, and countless Mount Holyoke students over the years, and for the continued impact on my students now. He would understand that I had to wait until today to write this, needing to first assess my students’ projects, post their grades, and see them off at their remote graduation. George, thank you for your teaching, wisdom, scholarship, and counsel.  It has been my great honor to be your student.

Ellen Greenberg, MHC ‘85

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