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Remembering Irving H. LaValle

February 3, 2000

Joan W. Bennett, professor, Department of Cell and Molecular Biology

Irving Howard LaValle, the Francis Martin Professor of Decision Theory in the A. B. Freeman School of Business, died of emphysema at his home on Jan. 5, 2000. He was 60. Irv spent his entire academic career at Tulane University, joining the faculty in 1965 shortly before completing his doctoral degree.

He was perhaps best known on campus for his role as secretary of the University Senate, a position he held for 18 years, first from 1975 to 1978, and then from 1984 until the fall of 1999, when failing health made it impossible for him to carry out his duties. During his three-and-a-half decades at Tulane, his brilliant research, his institutional loyalty, his personal kindness and his many eccentricities created a unique legacy.

A native of upstate New York, Irv received his BA in economics cum laude from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. After graduation he spent a year working on Wall Street. Then Irv returned to the academic world, receiving both his MBA (1963) and his DBA (1966) from Harvard University.

While at Harvard he won the Wall Street Journal Student Achievement Award. His doctoral dissertation on "Strategic situation theory: a Bayesian approach to an individual player's selection of strategies in noncooperative games" was the first of many incisive and original contributions in decision theory.

Irv joined the faculty of the Tulane School of Business in 1965 as an assistant professor. His climb up the academic ladder was rapid, and he held the rank of professor by 1971. During his early years on the faculty, Irv taught a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses.

In addition, he wrote two textbooks published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston: An Introduction to Probability, Decision and Inference (1970) and Fundamentals of Decision Analysis (1978). During the 1980s, he transferred his major energies to research and entered an extremely productive collaboration with Peter Fishburn of Bell Laboratories.

Singly and together they authored a series of groundbreaking papers on lexicographic utility. Almost incomprehensible to outsiders, this research deals with the process of making decisions under uncertainty. Irv's scholarly achievements were highly regarded both on and off the Tulane campus.

The first recipient of the Freeman School's Erich Sternberg Award for Faculty Research in 1988, he received the award a second time in 1996. That same year, the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science conferred on him the Frank Plumpton Ramsey Medal, "the Nobel Prize" of decision theory.

Even among academics, Irving LaValle stood out for his braininess. He was both mathematically and verbally gifted, with a phenomenal memory. Everyone who knew Irv was regularly impressed by his capacity to dredge up the names and dates of obscure historical figures or the speed with which he completed The New York Times crossword puzzle.

An avid and undiscriminating reader, he could digest a dense 800-page biography in a day or two of spare-time reading, or summarize the plots of thrillers he had read 20 years before. He enjoyed baiting literary colleagues by proclaiming that the greatest living American authors were Tom Clancy, Robin Cook, Clive Cussler and Stephen King.

When the TV serial "Dallas" was running, he never missed watching and taping a single episode. The movies of Peter Sellers were another avocation, and he claimed to have watched Dr. Strangelove more than 80 times. Accomplished at the keyboard, Irv played the piano, harpsichord and organ. An expert craftsman, he built much of the furniture in his house, inlaying fine wood veneers and designing all kinds of special shelves for his gadgets. He loved sailboats and hunting rifles, and was a good sailor and marksman.

A gourmet cook, he entertained regularly, for many years throwing an elaborate Christmas Day buffet. Irv could be exasperating. His pet peeves included colleagues who evidenced an imprecise command of the niceties of the English language and people who ate a lot of health foods. He loved cats and dogs, even when they were only marginally housebroken, but had no patience with human babies. Then, almost as soon as children were old enough to hold a conversation, he promoted them to honorary adults and treated them as peers.

I have fond memories of the year Irv spent many fruitless hours trying to convince my then 8-year-old son, Dan, that double infinity was no larger than single infinity. Willing to stand up for unpopular causes, Irv didn't seem to notice they were unpopular causes. His response to the perennial campus parking problem was to convert all green space into parking lots. At personal expense he printed a large number of "Pave the Quad" bumper stickers and seemed perplexed when his friends declined using them.

However, the most unpopular cause of all was his unwavering support of "the right to smoke." During the years Tulane adopted a series of increasingly restrictive anti-smoking policies, Irv made impassioned pro-smoking speeches in the University Senate, wrote letters to the editor (usually unpublished), and delivered tirades to anyone who would listen.

Apparently oblivious of the power of non-verbal communication, Irv delivered these speeches and tirades sometimes literally gasping for breath, and in the last thee years of his life, while dragging a portable oxygen tank. Irv faced his long illness with dignity, courage and denial.

Sustained by his religious faith, he never complained about his declining health, and to the end was unrepentant about his nicotine addiction. In his will he thanked God for "all the good souls, human and nonhuman animals, who have contributed in so many ways to giving me a wonderful life." After he became dependent on supplemental oxygen, he switched from cigarettes to a pipe, but continued to defend the rights of cigarette smokers and speak longingly of his Marlboro Days.

"In my mansion in heaven," he said on more than one occasion, "there will be plenty of ashtrays." During his lifetime, the Freeman School established the Irving H. LaValle Research Award, which is given to faculty members who demonstrate "significant research accomplishments." It is fitting that contributions in honor of Professor LaValle's memory be made to this fund c/o the dean's office at the A. B. Freeman School of Business.

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