Saturday, March 07, 2015

In memoriam: Claude Brenner

It is with great sadness that I pass along word of the death of Claude Brenner, MIT '47.  So many of us associated with the Institute have had the good fortune to know Claude as the ultimate gentleman, unfailingly thoughtful and good humored. Oh, and brilliant, too, but a person whose intelligence was always subservient to his kindness and humanity.  I know I am joined by many who will miss him so much.

He had a fascinating history and broad interests, as indicated in this summary from the Council for the Arts at MIT:

Born in South Africa, Claude Brenner arrived in New York with his family for a two-year stay ten days before Hitler invaded Poland. Atlantic crossings being unwise, the two years ultimately became nine. Brenner matriculated at MIT in June of 1944 at 15, receiving an SB in 1947 and an SM in 1948 in aeronautical engineering. He went home to South Africa and then on to Britain to a job with de Havilland Aircraft Company in Britain. Returning to this country, he embarked on a career that spanned aircraft design and performance, nuclear warfare, defense electronics, laser systems, renewable energy, and at the end a variety of other fields as a consultant.

Brenner is not retired. He is between engagements.
Claude loved MIT and contributed to its life in many ways.

As an undergraduate, Brenner sang in the Glee Club and acted in Dramashop, was editor-in-chief of The Tech, and a member of student government. He was elected president of his class and later president of the Alumni Association. He served a term on the Corporation and continues as a member of two visiting committees. He sang barbershop lead with the founding Logarhythms.
He was also active in Jewish matters on campus as the MIT Hillel Board Chairman and a founding member of MIT Hillel Foundation.
As chair of the MIT Museum's collections committee, he once invited people to contribute to a novel project.  But please no slide rules (!), as he wrote in 2009:
Objects. Those are what matter. Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, has determined that young people who choose a career in science or technology were first motivated by an object in their childhood. For me it was a trio of South African Airways Junkers Trimotors sitting on the tarmac at Johannesburg's Germiston (now Oliver R. Tambo) Airport in 1937 on a Sunday afternoon outing with my mother and sister when I was eight years old. The wonder of those machines sparked a passion for model airplanes and a determination to be an aeronautical engineer, an ambition fulfilled at MIT ten years later.
And objects are what matter to the MIT Museum. When the Corporation established the museum 38 years ago as the MIT Historical Collections, it was fondly referred to as the Attic of MIT. Generations of students rushed to donate a variety of objects, mostly that most iconic of all MIT artifacts, their slide rules. The slide rule somehow defined us. We had them engraved with our names. We carried them from class to class in their cases dangling from our belts. We even glorified them in our rousing cheers to inspire our teams to greater effort. You must remember "e to the x du dx, e to the x dx! Secant! Cosine! Tangent! Sine! 3.14159! Square root integral udv, slipstick, slide rule, MIT!" Many a team was spurred to victory by those words. 
Deborah Douglas, the museum's curator of science and technology, is using this anniversary exhibition to experiment with some of the newest ideas in curatorial practice. She is inviting alumni-together with the larger MIT community-to help create this exhibition by nominating objects, commenting on objects, and sharing stories. In time this digital repository will become like OpenCourseWare, a boundless resource for those who want to learn about and engage with MIT. Now the museum will have a way of collecting numerous stories and connecting directly with you; and you, in turn, will connect with others.
So think on it. Perhaps that inspirational object from your happy days at the Institute? Or something from your profession? But please, no slide rules, unless it's really unusual, if not unique. In addition to robots, ship models, instruments, devices, hacks, and the world's largest collection of holography, the museum also holds one of the world's largest collections of slide rules. 


Jay said...

(Excerpt from an email I just received.) This is indeed sad news. I knew Claude extremely well.

We traveled with him on at least one occasion. It was to Japan. I remember one evening, especially. We were having dinner together with some fellow travelers. One of them was very conservative. He made some comments about about inequality in America, supporting the notion. Claude displayed a side of himself that I had never seen before. He became very passionate about the damage that inequality can do to the fabric of society, so passionate, in fact, that he felt the need to excuse himself. That occasion was in April 2003. Some 12 years later his remarks and his well-placed passion seem prescient.

Hyuna and Peter said...

From Facebook:

Hyuna Park: It is a very sad day... a loss for me personally and a huge loss for MIT.

Peter Lewenberg: Sad to hear the news. Claude was all you have said and more. A true gentleman.

Anonymous said...

My condolences on your loss.

Kyle H. said...

I was his neighbor and took care of his lawn and shoveled his driveway. I am forever grateful for his time spent with me and send all my condolences to his family.

Hugh Mann said...

The news was devastating to me. Claude has been the President of our MIT class of 1947 for many years. When I saw him last summer, he did not look well, but I had no idea that he would leave us so soon. Did you know that he was a "Quiz Kid" on the radio program in 1940? In 1946, I was an assistant to Prof. Bispling- hoff and marked student papers. Claude always was correct in his assignments. He was like a brother to me when I lost my daughter in 1886. I will miss him. I have tears in my eyes.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks for writing, Hugh. We were all so lucky to have known him.

Paul Levy said...

A celebration of Claude Brenner's life will be held as follows:

Thursday, March 19
MIT Chapel with reception to follow in 20 Chimneys (3rd floor in the MIT Student Center)

For those coming from off campus, parking will be available at West Garage for a cost of $6 (credit card needed).

Condolence cards may be sent to his significant other for 14 years:
Anne Lowell
88 Foster Street
Cambridge, MA 02138

In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, IL or to MIT for the Claude W. Brenner (1947) Scholarship Fund (#3355700) or MIT Hillel (#2010900). Checks to MIT should be mailed to Bonny Kellermann ‘72, Director of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive, W98-500, Cambridge, MA 02139. Please indicate the intended designation of your gift and note that it is in memory of Claude Brenner.