A Life: Vic McGee, 1935-2013; ‘He Found Wonder in All Aspects of Life’
Vic and Marie McGee stand on a bridge over the River Cam on a return visit to Cambridge University, England, in July 2007. The Bridge of Sighs (part of St John's College) is in the background. Vic was a member of Trinity College. (Family photograph)
Vic McGee in New York Harbor visiting the Statue of Liberty on his first trip to America in 1958. He came with a group of camp counselors headed for Camp To-Le-Do in the Catskills, a program sponsored by the Association for World Travel Exchange. (Family photograph)
Sharon — Vic McGee never quit learning.
In fact, his life was governed by a motto he picked up while studying in England: “Let your mind wander over all things in heaven and on earth, unhindered by knowledge and unhampered by experience.”
That’s the way he was — fascinated by things he didn’t know, inspiring others to get to the bottom of things.
And he was good at what he did for a living, an expert in the field of applied statistics, a pioneer in the use of the computer programming language BASIC and a compassionate and influential professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. He had degrees from three universities, including Cambridge and Princeton, and he was greatly admired by colleagues and students alike for his knowledge and ability to inspire others, his friends and family said.
Although he was a man dedicated to academics and rigorous study and was called a “consummate teacher,” he wasn’t a stodgy, ivory tower professor. He had a relaxed, approachable manner and keen sense of humor, colored by his modest upbringing in South Africa.
Yet, academia was only part of McGee’s life, something he kept in balance with time for his family and friends and in the outdoors in the Vermont countryside, and his career was a passion that shared space with his love of athletics, carpentry and cutting wood.
And what McGee, who died in October just short of his 78th birthday after a long battle with prostate cancer, most enjoyed were people, his wife of almost 52 years, Marie McGee, said last week.
“He was very impressed with people who are good at what they do. It didn’t matter what they did — whether it was logging, or bricklaying, driving a tractor or something — he sincerely admired them and wanted to know about them and how they did what they did.”
In 1965, the McGees bought an old farmhouse and 65 acres on Fay Brook Road in Sharon. They spent their off-time and weekends on the property while they maintained a home in Hanover, where their daughter, Beth, and sons, Bill and Ed, were in school. They moved across the river and built the house of their dreams on the property after Ed, the youngest, graduated from Hanover High in 1988.
“He was really an outdoor person, who loved to hike and cross country ski, and he loved clearing the property and working with his chainsaw,” Marie McGee said. “For somebody who grew up in the tropics (on the coast of South Africa), he really loved living up here and getting out in the winter.”
McGee also was keen on traveling with the family, journeying not only in the United States, but also to Switzerland, Turkey, Ireland, England and South Africa for family reunions. And when Tuck decided to launch an MBA program in Japan, he volunteered to be part of the effort. He and Marie, who is a CPA, spent time in Urasa, Japan, each year, from 1988 to 1994, teaching in the program.
The travel was another avenue for him and the family, an opportunity for gaining knowledge of other countries and cultures, Bill McGee said.
“He would get very excited about it. He would convey that to us, and we’d get excited about it. He always wanted to learn at least a little bit of the language — he could speak some of four different South African tribal languages — and he would work to make sure he had the pronunciation correct. … Particularly with names, he believed people deserved to have their names pronounced correctly, that it was a sign of respect,” Bill McGee said.
Vic McGee was the middle of three brothers, whose father, a newspaper linotype operator, was a stickler for proper English grammar and whose mother excelled at math. Their parents were determined that their children would have the best possible education, the Rev. Dr. Terence McGee said in a tribute to his older brother that was presented at Vic McGee’s Oct. 12 memorial service at the Sharon Congregational Church.
“Their message was clear: Get a good education, take up any profession you choose and stay with it for your whole life,” Terence McGee said in the tribute.
All three brothers applied themselves — they were known in high school as the “mathematics brothers” — obtained advanced degrees and went into teaching.
“Our other brother, Owen (who died of cancer seven weeks before Vic) was a brilliant university teacher, very human in his relationships with students and family, but a quiet, reserved man, or at least very much so compared with Vic, who was always adventurous, ready to ‘move out of the box,’ ” Terence McGee said last week in an email from South Africa.
Vic McGee was an avid athlete, and as he did in his mathematical pursuits, he approached cricket and rugby when he was young and tennis, skiing and marathon running later with great intensity and a desire to be the best that he could.
He completed the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, running the grueling 56-miles ultra-marathon from Durban to his hometown of Pietermaritzburg.
“He was an incredibly competitive tennis player, a serious athlete who liked to play and play hard,” said Michael Livingston, the head of The Sharon Academy, where Vic McGee also volunteered to teach math classes after his retirement from Tuck in 1999.
“We’d play three sets of singles, and I’d crawl off of the court. He was very focused, and he was full out on every shot. I think he really needed some level of intensity (to clear his head), and when we were done, he’d go right back to being a wonderfully warm, generous and interesting man who had a quick sense of humor.
“He’d rarely talk about himself. He would always put the spotlight on you. He wanted to know what you were doing, and he was sincerely interested. He really appreciated people who will work and try to be the best they can, and he inspired that in people. He was exceptionally bright, he had incredible energy, and he found wonder in all aspects of life,” Livingston said.
McGee also offered staunch support to his family and backed the children without hesitation in their studies, sports and endeavors.
He was faithful about attending their sporting events, rarely missing a home or away game and sometimes being the only Hanover High parent attending, Ed McGee said, noting that at one sports banquet he was proclaimed the cheerleader of the year and given a jersey with the word “cheerleader” emboldened across it, and he wore the shirt proudly to future games.
Even after all of the McGees had graduated, Vic McGee kept attending Hanover games and even an occasional Lebanon game.
“He just liked sport. He wasn’t a team fan. He was a sports fan. It didn’t matter who was playing, he just liked seeing skilled athletes at all levels,” Bill McGee said.
Vic McGee also could be a strict disciplinarian and a demanding teacher at home. When the children would bring home a 96 on a test, he would praise them, but then ask what happened to the other 4 percent, Beth McGee said.
All three children would hesitate to ask him a question about their homework, fearing the answers would stretch into hours — cutting into TV time. It was a learning experience that they would fully appreciate only after they’d grown up.
“He was the smartest person that I will ever know, and the word curious doesn’t come close to the way he was,” Beth McGeee said. “When he was interested in something, he would learn enough to teach a master class on it.
“It wasn’t easy (being his children). There was a lot of pressure to measure up, but he wasn’t slow to give his blessing to something that we wanted to do,” she said.
Vic McGee was in a “publish or perish” business, and he met the demand with books and significant papers, “but he always said the three best publications he ever produced was his three kids,” Marie McGee said.
“Vic was a bright light and a joy to talk to, whether we were discussing politics, statistics, medicine, rugby or just the delight we took in our own families,” said Perry O’Leary, a longtime friend and fellow South African and marathoner.
“At the end, Vic knew (and told me so) that all his achievements were of minor significance when measured against the success that he and Marie shared in bringing three productive, kind, decent human beings into the world and guiding them as they developed. That was Vic at his heart,” O’Leary said in an email from his home in Ireland.
After he retired from Tuck, Vic McGee still stayed in touch with the community, often attending alumni dinners and events, said Matthew Slaughter, Tuck associate dean of faculty.
“It was striking how beloved he was by his colleagues. He would be constantly surrounded with people wanting to talk with him. He was never alone.
“The sharpness of his mind was incredible even toward the end. He had great warmth and intellect, and he embodied the spirit of being a teacher, and he shaped a lot of lives. He could really connect with students and have the kind of impact that many teachers only aspire to, but he achieved it.
“And how close he was with Marie and the children really struck me. He was someone who didn’t live to work, but someone who worked to live. I had a real fondness for him,” Slaughter said.
McGee was a highly valued member of the Tuck faculty, said John W. Hennessey, who was dean of the school when McGee was hired.
“He was an expert in his field, but he was quick to mentor others and help. He came to work with a sparkle in his eye and with joyful optimism.”
McGee came up with the red, green and blue color-coding system of knowledge that is a useful tool for managing and teaching, said longtime friend and colleague Scott Neslin, who teaches management science and marketing statistics at Tuck.
“Red represents what you know, green what you assume but don’t know and blue what you know based on what you assume. Vic pointed out that many managers and statisticians base decisions on green and blue knowledge,” Neslin said. “It’s extremely relevant today, and unfortunately it’s still the way decisions are made.”
“He was very good in his work, creative and the consummate statistician … he could be very concrete, but there was a dualism about him. He was into the land and very human and warm, a robust person with high energy and full of life.”
One of the lessons former Tuck and Thayer School of Engineering student Alok Kumar learned from McGee was to go after knowledge without a concrete payoff. Kumar, who teaches at the University of Miami, and McGee became close friends and research collaborators over the last two decades.
“He was my friend and mentor,” Kumar said.
“He would emphasize over and over again ‘I am interested in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.’ ” It wasn’t uninteresting knowledge, but knowledge that had no tangible reward, Kumar said. “That has been very useful to me in my career.”
Al Freihofer, who was an English major struggling to pass McGee’s statistics class while he was studying at Tuck, also learned a life changing lesson from his teacher.
“He recognized that I was challenged, and he gave me an alternative final exam that allowed me to express everything that I learned in the class, and that got me through. I’m now a teacher, and I’ll always remember that and I try to teach that way. It was a real gift to me as an educator.”
Vic McGee never took himself too seriously. If fact, he called that the 11th Commandment, and instilled that in his children, along with the saying “pride comes before a fall,” Beth McGee said.
And he never lost his sense of humor even in his final, pain-ridden hours, Marie McGee said.
“He could barely speak, but he was telling me to get on with my life after he was gone,” she said.
“ ‘You can do anything you want. The world is your …’ and then he paused. I said ‘oyster,’ and he said ‘no, I really don’t like oysters. The world is your lobster tail. I like them much better.’ ”
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.