York University Mathematics Professor, Lee Lorch, September 20, 1915 – February 28, 2014

Lee Lorch died on Friday at 98 years of age. And, what a life!

Rinaldo lee lorch tweet

I was privileged and honoured to get to know him as a colleague and friend, even though he retired in 1985, five years BEFORE I joined the Biology department, in 1990, as an assistant professor.

How could this be? Simply put, Lee, who was famous in the US for being a leader in the fight for desegregation, was an example of how active, engaged scholars never really retire. He continued to participate in the academic community of York University for a VERY, VERY long time after his official retirement. He published a paper with York University professor, Martin Muldoon, as recently as 2008.

The New York Times obituary should, in my opinion, be read by all York University students, as an example of how Lee walked his own talk, often to devastating effect on his family, and his career.

You can hear a wonderful, very recent, interview with him on Youtube.

This morning, Walter Whiteley, a fellow Math prof of Lee's sent out an email describing some of Lee's other accomplishments:

Lee Lorch Walter Whiteley email

I was asked to write a letter for inclusion in a book of good wishes on the occasion of Lee's 90th birthday, in 2005. Here it is, slightly edited for awkward writing... (One can never, ever, edit enough). Lee had recently moved from his long time home in High Park to a downtown condo.

October 2005

Dear Lee,

It is an honour and a pleasure to have the opportunity to congratulate you on the occasion of your 90th birthday.  It seems just yesterday that we had a great chat about all kinds of stuff, although it was actually way back in July of this summer, just before I headed off for August to Tromsø, Norway, to sit in the Peace Studies Centre, and try to have sensible thoughts about issues of human security and the environment.  I made lots of notes from our conversation, and I WILL get back to you on what I have been doing and writing!

As an ecologist, I am fundamentally concerned with counting organisms, and figuring out whether their populations are going up or down, or staying the same.  I also study the life spans of individual organisms, and the environmental factors that influence them.  So, given my professional interest in numbers I cannot resist speculating on what factors have influenced your long life!  First, though, I must say that I fully expect you to have many, many more birthday celebrations, and that I know that I will continue to see you up at York (I hope we get the subway soon; it will make your travel up here easier from your new home). 

Now, the most obvious hypothesis for explaining your long life is that doing all that maths has kept your brain incredibly active (hence the general advice to us all that we should be doing math puzzles in our spare time).  But it’s got to be more than that, or maths professors would be the longest-lived academics, and I don’t believe that is the case.  For me, the alternative factor has to be your passion for social justice and human rights causes, and your sustained devotion to them.  Humans are social creatures, and if we are not constantly forging and maintaining links with other people, I do believe (and there are data that support this notion – it’s not my idea by any means) that we just lose interest in living.  So, for me, the secret of your long and productive life is your interest in everything – and not just maths – and your courage to live by your convictions.  You are a true academic – the kind of person who, for me defines the supposed reason why tenure exists – and an amazingly accessible role model and hero.  And, also just plain fun to talk to (that is REALLY important).

So, Happy Birthday, Professor Lorch.  I hope that you don’t miss High Park too much, and that you have lots of fun hanging out in the hippest place in Toronto! 

All the very best wishes,


And, from many of our YUFA friends from the 1997 strike – where I learned that the best place to get to know one’s colleagues was ambling around a picket line!