Catching Up With . . . Tom Willemain
A Random Walk to Vital Work
by Brooke C. Stoddard '69
Tom Willemain grew up in South Hadley, Massachusetts, the older brother of two sisters. His father was a master machinist at Worthington Pump who set up the machines “because he knew the math.” He had won the Silver Star as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge and supplemented his income with trumpet playing and singing. He also designed and built the home Tom grew up in and where his mother still lives. Unfortunately, multiple sclerosis crippled him, so Tom’s mother became the family breadwinner as a travel agent.
Tom did well at South Hadley’s high school. He won medals for science, was an outstanding debater, and valedictorian. He was also MVP of the “start-up/not-very-good,” soccer team, and it was his Princeton-alumnus soccer coach who encouraged Tom to apply to Princeton. Tom did so, successfully, but a boating accident hurting his spine during the summer of 1965 nixed his ambitions for Princeton’s soccer team.
Tom entered Princeton not knowing any other freshmen and having “previously slept only two nights out of my own bed,” but, as he says, “I was blessed with an outstanding roommate in Walter Chow in North Edwards, which was heavily populated with upper classmen and to me wonderfully weird.” Tom relates that “across the hall was Greg Curfman, a future editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, and Geerat Vermeij, who, though blind, became a world-famous expert on mollusks. “Truth be told,” Tom confesses, "in high school I was a big fish in a small pond. Then to be among people who operated at a level I never expected to be near was actually more stimulating than depressing.”
As recollected, the highlight of Tom’s freshman year was leading the pre-dawn raid that poured buckets of red-dyed liquid soap onto the jagged flanges of the James FitzGerald pool sculpture in front of the (then-named) Woodrow Wilson School. Zillions of suds were the result. “I regret that the Princeton fire department had to show up, but their high-pressure hoses hilariously doubled the volume of suds, filling the plaza.”
“I was of two minds about a major,” Tom recalls. “I was inclined toward engineering, but I thought I might be an English major. I knew at Princeton I could switch and still be in the right place. I ended up in electrical engineering but still took many courses in the Humanities.”
Tom singles out six Princeton professors who significantly affected him, two from engineering, two from physics, and two from the Humanities: “Bede Liu: He wore florescent checkered socks and introduced me to randomness and probability, the fascinating center of my future career. Theo Pavlidis: He supervised my senior independent research and gave me confidence that I might be able to invent new things. That work resulted in an award and a plaque still on a wall somewhere in the E-Quad. Val Fitch: He gave me the model for what I wanted to be as a professor, which I have been for fifty years. He went on to win a Nobel Prize. I was astonished that he and other senior professors vied with one another to teach freshman physics; it was astonishing. His lectures were amazing. All that propaganda about wonderful Princeton professors teaching introductory courses – there’s the evidence. Jim Peebles: Another Nobel Prize winner. He taught Thermodynamics, which I never could really wrap my mind around, but I’ve accepted that. He’d stumble around, flapping his arms: infectious enthusiasm. H. H. Wilson: He’d stood up to the HUAC [Committee] and taught First Amendment issues, which inspired me later when I jousted with the National Security Agency about my memoir. The last is English Professor Carlos Baker, whose course started me writing poetry, which I now do more than writing equations. One lingering memory of Baker’s course: My preceptor was a young PhD candidate with a drop-dead gorgeous wife, whom he’d bring to class. In one tiny precept room were we six lunkheads, the preceptor, and one gorgeous female, who might have been enjoying the situation a little too much. So, six professors, six impressions. I was imprinted with an idyllic version of what a college should be.”
Tom classifies engineers as of two varieties: “Physicals” and “Phantoms.” “Physicals make things; Phantoms work in the invisible realm,” he says. “My father excelled in the physical world, but I live in the invisible world. In my independent work, I wrote a Fortran program to do proto-AI by teaching itself to play 3-D tic-tac-toe – that’s the invisible world.”
Graduating Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa helped Tom earn a slot as a grad student at MIT, where he roomed in the slums of East Cambridge with Ron Chin '69. Tom was set to study Artificial Intelligence with the leading professor in the field. But he recalls, “My PhD plan lasted less than a week. Introducing himself to incoming grad students, my intended advisor spent his time demeaning other professors. That put me off, and I abandoned my whole plan. I ended up writing a master’s thesis on tactile pitch feedback for deaf speakers, including making equipment by which deaf children could feel their voices through their fingers. I worked at Boston School for the Deaf to test the equipment, and I really enjoyed the work. Surprisingly, that led to a summer job at Bolt, Beranek & Newman, the best company at the time in acoustics. As it turned out they had a contract with the Defense Language Institute to develop the same type of equipment, but in this case to teach soldiers tone languages such as Vietnamese and Chinese. (One Saturday that summer I was turned away by the Secret Service: They were keeping suspicious people away while the infamous Nixon Tapes were being analyzed inside.) The job gave me the bit of money I needed to marry that amazing Harvard girl I met at a party (I looked at her and thought, Wow, a hippy. She looked at me and thought, Wow, a nark). So far that accident has become 51 years of marriage.” (Tom’s best man at the wedding was Lew Haut ’69 – see photo.)
There were still two years to go in the NSF grant Tom had won to study at MIT. What to do with those two years? “I was struggling with this question when I had a sugar craving and descended to the candy machine in the basement of our dismal building,” recalls Tom. “Inserting coins for a Three Musketeers, I fell into conversation with an MD-PhD who was also looking for candy. Half an hour later, I climbed up the stairs with a candy bar, a thesis topic and a thesis advisor. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t had a sugar fit that day.”
Tom’s new advisor was the MD-PhD, who was working on the first telemedicine systems. Tom threw himself into trying to figure out how such systems might be created and how to include something else that then didn’t exist – Nurse Practitioners. He ended up being the first doctoral student of Richard Larson, now very prominent in the field of operations research. He did the whole PhD in two years “because that’s how much of Uncle Sam’s money I had left.”
What happened next was another bit of luck in the vein of, as Tom says, several aspects of his life “being where I didn’t really belong.” His advisor had a joint appointment in Electrical Engineering and Urban Studies, and Tom won a faculty position in a field he’d never considered. But the common link was quantitative health planning, and Tom was asked to teach a course in statistics for planners. To this day, Tom has never taken a statistics course, but he has taught hundreds. Tom learned upper-level statistics by reading texts on the trolley during his commutes. “I came to love statistics,” he says. “It tapped into the enthusiasm for randomness I picked up from Bede Liu.”
He continued at MIT teaching and researching telemedicine and emergency medical services, particularly telemedicine pioneering until a grading dispute cropped up. “Princeton taught me a great deal about academic honor; I took it to heart, and perhaps there was a little bit of H. H. Wilson in me that didn’t like bureaucratic dissembling. I didn’t like the way MIT handled this affair, so I cut my commute short by joining the faculty of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I taught statistics to mid-career statistics-phobes. My crowning achievement was that they spontaneously requested a second course.”
One day in his Harvard office, Tom realized that the new paper he was writing looked a lot like the last one. So he thought it might be time for a break from academia. Fortuitously, his best friend was starting a software company; when the friend asked him to join as a co-founder, Tom accepted (with the blessing of his not-very-risk-averse wife). This was in the late 1970s when personal computers were blooming, so Smart Hartunian & Willemain (now Smart Software of Belmont, MA) joined the personal computer startup frenzy.
Like so many start-ups, however, this one ran on a shoestring, and soon cash flow became a problem for husband/father Tom. He began talking with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s management school, which thought an academic who had helped start a tech business was a good match. Tom, Lucinda and their two children moved to the Albany, NY area. Tom taught statistics and operations research at RPI for 27 years, a career he sustained until anointed with emeritus status upon his first retirement in 2013.
Two notable sabbaticals punctuated Tom’s RPI career, one to the Federal Aviation Administration and one to the National Security Agency. The first entailed helping FAA analyze all their data on air traffic, which had been lying dormant. The second not only led to three years of national security work, but also to a memoir, Department of Defense strong-arming to stop publication of the memoir, and perhaps an amicus brief in an upcoming Supreme Court case.
“I was interested in NSA for a sabbatical,” Tom says, “because I liked the notion of pursuing something that would be socially valuable but also risky in that it might end in failure if I didn’t step up. This was after 9/11 and I had to do some soul-searching: Did I want to be part of a kill chain, that is, to have my technical skills contribute to the war on terror? I went ahead. I took about a year to get cleared in and when I started, there was only one other sabbatical professor entering. Working at NSA pushed me to my intellectually limits. I had fabulous “toys” to work with and playmates at the top of their fields. I received recognition for the work I did, including some that helped fill in gaps when Snowden’s leaks helped terrorists disappear from our view. For about an hour I was even part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but unfortunately it was somebody’s crazy idea that was more desperate than useful, and so the exercise was very short.
“My sabbatical year ended,” Tom continues, “but I kept at my work in the summers for NSA indirectly at an offshoot called the Institute for Defense Analyses in Bowie, Maryland (one branch of IDA was in Princeton, and I had unknowingly walked by it every day in my lunch break from the E-Quad to Cloister Inn.). It was very interesting work. Each summer, selected professors came there to try to solve a hard problem in need of an urgent solution. One summer I was part of a team that actually did solve a problem considered impossible.
Tom wrote a memoir of his NSA/IDA work focusing on the agency’s culture entitled Working on the Dark Side of the Moon: Life Inside the National Security Agency (available on Amazon and elsewhere). NSA frowned on the effort, tried mightily to quash the book, and eventually censored it in a process called “pre-publication review.” About 15% of the text is composed now of black ink rectangles.
Tom set out to reform pre-publication review. “The process is neither clear nor well organized,” Tom says. “No one can say ‘Yes,’ but everyone can say ‘No,’ and they review every word. Luckily mine was a short book. But it was like urban warfare, block by block going over every page, every word. Some censors wanted to say I couldn’t say such-and-such on account of it being classified, but I found instances of information that NSA itself had declassified. Other places the censorship was purely subjective. What the censors didn’t like they expected me to write around, but I left it all in though blacked out. Those redacted portions made for good marketing because they gave the book street cred.”
One particular thing NSA censors did not like was Tom writing that working at NSA generated a great deal of psychological pressure, either because lives are at stake or national security and so on. “Censors didn’t want me showing some of the stress – and the humor – of working at NSA. They didn’t see the value of revealing some of the culture there. The NSA review was a long, complicated process and I felt at times as if the whole DOD was bearing down on me. But I think I had a little H. H. Wilson in me; I and the book survived. We are both mostly intact.”
Despite the flak, Tom is glad he worked at NSA. “I think the book has actually helped the agency because nearly all depictions of NSA in the movies and popular media show the people as closet killers, enjoy trampling the Fourth Amendment and so forth. No one else had written about the regular people who are doing a great job at some sacrifice and sometimes great peril. For instance, few know that the NSA has a wall dedicated to the anonymous fallen just like the better publicized wall at the CIA.”
Tom says he is slowly replacing his math formulas with his metaphors. On August 1, he began a “soft retirement” from Smart Software, shifting his focus to writing poetry and short fiction -- the erstwhile English major taking over from the engineer. He participates in two writing workshops and enjoys a scribbler’s struggles.
To date, Tom has published 22 pieces of flash fiction and 20 published poems. The English major is scribbling. The Engineer is keeping score in a spreadsheet [Late news: One of Tom's short pieces of fiction has been nominated for this year's prestigious Pushcart Prize in fiction. In a previous year he was a nominee in the poetry category].