In memoriam Prof. Sheng Yu, 1950-2012

The tribute of Dr. Andrew Szilard, Prof Emeritus, Dept. of Computer Science, UWO.

 

Monday, January 23, 2012 was the first day of the Chinese/Lunar New Year,
     the year of the dragon.
The mythical Chinese dragon is a symbol of power, strength and good luck,
     as opposed to the European concept of a fire-breathing evil dragon.
I started the morning by writing a cordial e-mail to some of my friends
     familiar with Chinese culture, and wished them a happy New Year,
     attached to the e-mail was the picture of an elaborate coloured dragon curve
         constructed with an iterated function system.
It was a dark day, with light misty rain.
     Later in the day we heard our door chime, ding-dong, ding-dong.
     How strange this is, probably an overzealous door-to-door solicitor,
         or people from some strange religion who want me to read their literature
             so that I may convert to their faith.
I thought perhaps if I do not respond they might go away,
     or go to bother a neighbour instead.
         But ding-dong, ding-dong the door chime was insistent.
I finally went to the door.
To my surprise it was my block neighbour, and former colleague Sylvia Osborn,
     dressed in black, a bit under the weather.
Patricia, who works upstairs in her home-office also heard the chime came down
     and seeing Sylvia, she invited our visitor in.
After we all sat down in our living room,
     Sylvia in a halting voice apologized for coming unannounced,
         but she conveyed in a solemn tone that she had some news
             that she wanted to express in person.
Patricia and I could not believe what we heard.
     "Sheng passed away this morning".
         Sheng passed away?
             Incredible.
     Our dear younger friend,
         my former colleague,
         coauthor,
         conference and travel-companion,
         frequent dinner guest,
         table-tennis partner,
         departmental politics co-conspirator passed away?
That cannot be.

To me it seemed impossible, Sheng would not betray us like that.
I saw myself going through KŁbler-Ross' five stages of grief.
     Denial, Anger, Barganing, Depression, Acceptance.
First stage, the Denial:
     This cannot be true, he sat behind me last Wednesday,
         asking questions on Stephen Watt's lecture,
             he was playing tennis, regularly,
                 he was careful with his diet.
             He cannot be gone.
The second stage, my selfish Anger:
     "This is not fair: we were to travel to Portugal together,
     he was to continue to bring the internationally eminent
         theoretical Computer scientists to UWO,
         researchers such as Arto Salomaa,
                 Cristian Calude
                 Oscar Ibarra,
                 Grzegorz Rozenberg,
                 ZoltŠn …sik,
                 Gheorghe and Andrei P„un,
                 Ming Li
                 and countless others."
Sylvia seemed to vaguely understand my somewhat self-centered reaction and agreed
     that it will be impossible to replace Sheng in our teaching of the graduate course on
         advanced theory of automata.
How can we find such a dedicated knowledgeable and talented teacher?
     It will be difficult to replace him even in his undergraduate course
         on programming languages,
             because Sheng had his own unique style and high standard of excellence.
By that time the rain started pour down, Sylvia put on her coat,
     we lent her a big umbrella and she departed into the pouring rain.
Patricia said that the angels were crying.
     We were dumbfounded.
I wrote a quick e-mail to share the very sad news with some of
our mutual Canadian and international friends in Theoretical
Computer Science.
The reaction to that e-mail was a shock-wave of heartfelt sadness, deep sorrow
     and disbelief.
After Lizhen informed Sheng's family,
     we published a short obituary in the London Free Press
     and on the website of the Harris Funeral home,
     which was also linked from the UWO memorial page.

In the first hours of this difficult time,
     Jinfei, Kaizhong, Charles Ling and Patricia helped Lizhen
     with the complexities of the funeral arrangement.
Kai Saloma, Suning and others in the international community
     helped us gather some photographs for the slide show,
         Scott posted the pictures on the UWO website.
Jeff Shallit was the first to create a blog page
     where condolences poured in from all corners of the world.
I went through a strange depression-induced mental Bargaining stage
     with the forces of the universe.
I was ready to promise that I will live a short life, 20 more years, maximum,
     if only Sheng could live till then,
     and then he can say a few kind words at my funeral,
     he would then be 81. I thought that was a fair bargain.
There was no answer to my pleading.
The next stage was Depression, the realization of the finality of Sheng's departure.
     It also passed.
The final stage of grief is Acceptance.
This is where I am today, and I believe this where we,
     all the friends of Sheng, are today.
You and I individually became better persons
     from the exquisite privilege of knowing Sheng
         and from trying to follow his example.
We all benefited from his generosity, be it from his superbly well-prepared teaching,
     from his generous invitations to his many large, dozen-course dinner parties,
     from his kindness and sportsmanship in ping-pong matches,
         tennis and badminton games,
     from his friendly introduction to the famous international guests
         and their inspiring lectures.
We, his co-authors know very well that
     he did most of the work
     to make the co-authored papers and books publication ready.

We lost a very valuable and truly generous and sincere friend and we owe him.

So now we can reflect upon these tender lines from Claire Jones:

As we look back over time
We find ourselves wondering .....
Did we remember to thank him enough
For all he has done for us?

For all the times he was by our sides
To help and support us .....
To celebrate our successes
To understand our problems
And accept our defeats?

Or for teaching us by his example,
The value of hard work, good judgement,
Courage and integrity?

We wonder if we ever thanked him
For the sacrifices he made.
To let us have the very best?

And for the simple things
Like laughter, smiles and good times we shared?

If we have forgotten to show our
Gratitude enough for all the things he did,
We're thanking him now.
And we are hoping he knew all along,
How much he meant to us.