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Jim and Florence Harris

Published onApr 19, 2019
Jim and Florence Harris

To say that Noam is a prodigious scholar and a prolific writer is to conflate two flagrant understatements. However, I can push the bounds of understatement with a couple of peeks into Noam’s celebrated attributes that I’ve been fortunate to experience personally. For a number of years I had an office close to Noam’s on the top floor of that pinnacle of architectural elegance and comfort known as Building 20 at MIT; we were also neighbors in Lexington when we had young families. Long before the miracle of digital word processing irrevocably altered our lives for better or for worse, on days when Noam decided to work at home he sometimes dropped by my house early in the morning with an alarmingly weighty package of letters he had composed on his typewriter as overnight homework. I would then deliver this hefty bundle to his office to be mailed. I wasn’t the only person to be awed by Noam’s output. When home and office computers were just on the horizon, Morris Halle said about Noam’s productivity: “Look at what this guy does already! Somebody has to make sure he never gets a computer. He’d be a menace to the literate world.” (He soon got one, of course, and we know the result.)

On another personal note, I often enjoyed after-work rides home from MIT to Lexington in Noam’s car. He compulsively obeyed as far as possible the moral imperative to never be deterred by traffic lights. The preferred alternative was to keep moving on back roads he had discovered in Arlington, Belmont, Waltham, and even Watertown—a maneuver that I suspect reveals some unsung but essential facet of Noam’s psyche. Whatever route we took, time flew for me, and the pleasure of Noam’s intellectual stimulation, sprinkled generously with gems of his wicked wit— only occasionally on display in public—was a privilege I will always treasure.

On a final note, Noam and Morris chose my wife, Florence Warshawsky Harris, then both a professional editor and their student, to edit the long forthcoming SPE. She recalls their editorial sessions together with wonder: These men she regarded as titanic sages not only respected her corrections but also spiced up their meetings with a riotous wit that forced her to forgive their never-ending changes—including a complete overhaul of the distinctive feature system when the book was already in the galley proof stage.

Thank you, Noam, for the memories.

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