January 12, 2006

Nothing More, Nothing Less (Obituary)

It was September, 2001. I had been in Germany for just a few days, having come from India for the Masters course in Electrical Engineering at Fachhochschule Darmstadt (FH Darmstadt in short, or University of Applied Sciences, Darmstadt). It was the introductory meeting of our course, where the professors were being introduced to us. That was the first time I saw him. His pleasing manner had won over everyone. At the end of the meeting, I wanted to choose him for my mentor. As I approached him, there was a small crowd of my classmates around him. When I asked him if I could have him as my mentor, he smiled and responded, "Why not? But I believe every professor is allowed just 3 wards." Well, I believe that the number 15 is greater than 3!!! And I was outside the closed interval [1,3]!!! An energetic, ever-smiling and pleasing personality, Prof. Horst Friedrich Roeder exuded the mirth of a man who knew not what it was to be stern. At least in appearance. None of us ever saw him angry. Or displeased. He always had a smile, and his carefree and relaxed manner was contagious. It stuck to every one of his students. Not just as a person, but also as a teacher.

And oh, I forgot to mention that he also taught us some subjects. Certain facets of a person's life are so over-bearing, that sometimes we forget that the other facets even existed. Like how wonderful a teacher Prof. Roeder was. He taught us Communication Principles, Advanced Modulation Principles and Information Networks (Parts I and II), in addition to leading some projects in Technical Management and also System Design modules. I would rather say he 'introduced' us to the subjects, instead of saying he 'taught' them. And he 'introduced' them not in the sense of showing us something new, but like you are introduced to a beautiful girl (if you are a guy) or to a cool guy (if you are of the fairer sex) at a party, whence you develop an interest in her / him, leading up to a relationship. It was a sort of romantic interest that he induced in us for the subjects he taught us, for here was a man for whom no teaching material was worth more than a few pages, no derivation to an equation was worth more than a few easy steps, and no solution to a complex problem was worth more than a few minutes of your valuable thought and time. To use his own words, every thing is just simple, "nothing more, nothing less". We used to imitate his mannerism of using this phrase quite often. So often that we started believing that not only the course, but everything else, was cool and simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

So much he believed in the beauty of learning that he told us that education was more than just getting good grades in our exams. "If good grades are all you want, I will give them provided you show me you have learnt something." How many teachers have we seen who would say that you do not need to solve a problem in the examination to its end to obtain full marks for it? Like Prof. Roeder told us regarding solving a Viterbi Decoding problem. "You need not get the final solution. If I can just get a hint that you have understood it, which you can prove by proceeding in the right way to solve it in its first few stages, then you will get full points for it, without having even completed the solution." Or how often does a Professor start explaining to you how to solve a problem, right when an examination is in progress? Like he did during our first semester. I still vividly remember him handing us over the actual questions for his exams in advance. "If passing in exams makes you happy, then let it be so. Exams mean nothing with regard to your learning process."

I worked under him twice. The first was during our semester break in February 2002, when almost every one in the class worked for him in the 2-MN project, creating MS PowerPoint presentations for an e-learning system ELAT. Many students continued it as their Technical Management project in the second semester, whence they not only got excellent grades for it but also were paid handsomely for it. I opted out of it, because I could never accept money for something that was mandatory as part of my course. I would either get grades for it, or money. Not both. Some time during that semester, one of his sons died in a motorcycle accident. That shook him terribly. But any one who saw him at that time, or afterwards, would not have believed that he was a man in mourning. He was serene and calmer than his usual self, I agree, but definitely not visibly shaken. At least that is how we students saw him. Including me, who worked under him a second time the following year. It was when one of my friends recommended me to him for another module of the same ELAT project. She had been doing the video presentation part of it, and I had to do the audio part. I was to provide audio background for the PowerPoint presentations of his teaching material. Not only did I just record my voice, but also I corrected and improved many of the slides. He was impressed. "Wonderful! Excellent!" Now, this was his standard remark to any student for anything. Do what you will. You could expect him to shower you lavishly with praise, which normally consisted of these phrases. And more. But this time I knew it was not just words by rote. He really appreciated my effort in not just stopping with my work, but also in going the extra mile to make it perfect. And boy, did I love it!!!

And then one day I stopped working on the project. Not that I did not like it, but I had to concentrate on my Thesis. But I made the mistake of not communicating it to Prof. Roeder. I had made lots of audio slides, which I did not submit to him. At the beginning I thought I would give him those slides in a few weeks’ time. Then I felt sheepish how I could contact him after this break. Let me finish the entire module and submit to him. I did finish the module, but never submitted it to him, as I was trying to find words to tell him why I did not even communicate with him. Not that he would have needed any explanation from me, being the person he was. But I felt I owed him one. I did not know what I was waiting for. Probably for my degree certificate, which I got 3 weeks back. I felt the time was ripe to meet him to inform him about the completion of my course and also to submit whatever I had done. But he was unavailable. He was also unavailable when I had been at the FH to invite some professors for the Diwali Function we had organized at Darmstadt towards the end of October last year. I managed to invite a few professors, but Prof. Roeder was the conspicuous absentee, as I could not reach him.

Well, I never bothered to ask at the department where I could reach him. For a person like him who always made himself available to us all in spite of his tight schedule, I felt it queer that I had to ask some one else for his availability. That was simply not the way Prof. Roeder operated. And then last Sunday I happened to overhear two students speaking about some announcement that was due soon. I caught some phrases that made me curious. When I asked them if it was anything that would interest me, they just shrugged, and said: "Well, we don't know if it might interest you or not. May be you know Prof. Roeder. The guy from the Communication department at the Fachhochschule. He died of cancer last week."

We always thought he had a simple solution to every problem. Probably he did not have an answer to this one. This was one time when Prof. Roeder could not answer with a poignant "Ja" - to the question of life. Nature, with time, is the best leveller. Not without reason, do they say, "Nature is the best teacher." And then, of course, there was Prof. Roeder. Rest in Peace, dear Professor.