In Memoriam: Manfred te Grotenhuis

Manfred te Grotenhuis passed away. He was a respected sociologist, statistician, and teacher. I’ll leave it to others to comment on his many achievements. To me, he was my teacher and mentor in statistics, and a dear colleague. Textbooks and other teachers have a lot to say about the theory of statistics, but it was Manfred who taught me the joy and intuition of doing statistics.

I have enjoyed two trips with Manfred. The first was to Rennes. We developed statistical software (in R) and we were to present it at a conference. It was a great adventure for me, as I was still a student who had attended few conferences before. I remember the midnight sessions, frantically working to program new features, and to improve performance. Making it the best we could. But I also remember the open conversations we had, about family, about mental illness. About unconventional paths into university.

The second trip it was only Manfred travelling, as he came to visit me in Stockholm. Again, we were to work on a statistical software project and this time we thought it would be easy. How wrong we were. We worked days on end without getting any closer. Long days trying all kinds of angles, but everything we tried failed. At the end of another long weekend-day of relentlessly failing to solve our puzzle, and just in time before our frustration reached a boiling point, we decided to take a break and go for dinner. And just like that, over a steak, we had our breakthrough. Manfred matched my vague intuition with the expertise to come to a formal solution. It’s the moment captured in this photo. The excitement! We raced home to do more testing, and early in the next morning Manfred confirmed: We nailed it!

Manfred

This is how I will remember Manfred. I enjoyed working with him so much, and he was a fantastic teacher. Driven to be the best, energetic to get everything right. A very friendly guy, into good music. He loved his job and continued teaching even when he got sick. He had the unique ability to talk about statistics to very different audiences: complex scientific debates on statistical methods, motivating reluctant students to learn statistics, and entertaining a crowd at a music festival with a lesson on probability theory (‘This can’t be a coincidence!’). He could be stubborn and short-tempered when things didn’t work out. And Manfred was very involved when it came to personal matters. At my graduation, he spoke about what my family was going through, how death comes ‘unexpectedly and deviously’.

His e-mail, this summer, came as a shock. Braintumor. I’m grateful that we still had the chance to exchange a few emails, and share some memories. Manfred approached his death without remorse, and lived his final days in the moment. He enjoyed these days, undertaking adventures with a group of friends, and even gave a hashtag to the whole process, in Dutch and untranslatable: #derannn.

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