I last took a long walk with Alan on February 3, 2014, along the corniche in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where we had gone to teach 18 Saudis how to run science centers. This workshop would be our last joint gig, after 40 years of parallel careers and many shared projects. We had half a day before the workshop was to start, and so we strolled beside the Persian Gulf and chatted.
Not then but in earlier conversations, Alan had told me about SENCER-ISE, and how gratified he was by its progress. He had worked hard to bring together people with differing institutional perspectives, and he was optimistic about the future. No Pollyanna, he knew both sides would have to bend. He said—not in so many words but this is the gist of it—that the universities would have to deal with real people as opposed to an amorphous “general public,” and that the science centers would have to up their content game. But there was so much to be gained. He envisioned many more cross-sector projects, and, if he were still with us, he would have inspired collaborations to help them flourish. Everyone at SENCER-ISE knows Alan had the desire, the imagination, and the political acumen to make it happen.
SENCER-ISE was not the first time Alan worked across sectors or disciplines. As an undergraduate he had contemplated majoring in English, but even after physics won out, he continued to relish literature and art. Early in his career, he wrote about connections between science and literature. Later he experimented with theater in the science center: at the New York Hall of Science he commissioned and produced a one-act play dramatizing disagreement between two scientists about quantum mechanics. And for more than 40 years, he delighted in his wife’s career as a columnist and mystery writer. Alan was a connoisseur; he could talk eloquently about so many things—and he would go on and on, unless you stopped him. Which brings me back to our conversation beside the sea.
I asked Alan why he hadn’t brought one of his beloved radio-controlled helicopters to Saudi Arabia—for years he flew them at all sorts of meetings to illustrate points and for fun, because fun is a terrific teacher. He explained that since he had had to bring two sets of light sources and adapters for a demonstration—our students would be segregated by gender in adjoining rooms—there was no room in his luggage. I asked how large his ‘copter collection had become. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of what followed:
- The best piece in his small collection of scientific instruments was a sixteenth-century, orrery-like device that maps the motions of Jupiter. His wife, Mickey, had spotted the curiosity and they took it home, later to discover its meaning and rarity. (Alan respected the work of all scientists, even ancient ones. He wanted everyone to appreciate science as he did, and he believed that, given the right tools, everyone could.)
- Speaking of Mickey, she had just finished re-issuing seven mystery titles in e-book form. Alan said the moral of the story was “be sure to get electronic rights for anything you publish, and guard your name.” It seems there was another (male) Mickey Friedman who wrote mysteries, which screwed things up for a while. (Ever the raconteur, Alan made a frustrating escapade in electronic publishing sound downright funny.)
- Speaking of family, Alan asked, “How’s Michael now that he’s a married man?” He had last seen my son at age eight, but he always seemed to know Michael’s actual age and stage of life. Other colleagues might ask after my “little boy,” but Alan would keep track. He was my friend as well as my colleague, so he cared about what I cared about.
- Speaking of kids, Alan worried that the New York mayor’s single-minded pursuit of extended kindergarten was siphoning support from other important endeavors, like the cultural organizations Alan had worked so hard to defend. (Some years ago, he led the fight against retaliation by the former mayor’s office against the Brooklyn Museum for exhibiting scatological art—and won.)
- Speaking of cities, Al Khobar appeared to be a refuge for the wealthy. The mansions were barricaded behind tall fences with elegantly crafted gates. As we walked, Alan photographed gate after gate, stopping to admire one particular gate bearing two lovebirds perched on a branch, in silhouette, in iron work against white opaque glass. It was lovely. Alan had an eye, as well as the urge to document. (In fact, his image collection—many thousands of slides and jpegs of the science museums he visited over the decades—will be catalogued by the Association of Science-Technology Centers and made available to all in late summer 2015.)
Every so often a passing car would honk at the two of us as we crossed a street. We wondered if we had failed to observe an Arabic sign. Or maybe the fact that I was wearing jeans, although my head was covered, was provoking a wolf-whistle. But I didn’t worry. Walking with Alan Friedman, I felt safe. He was a man—and a thinker, teacher, leader, and mentor—in whom everyone could have confidence.
About the Author
Now retired, Sheila Grinell enjoyed a forty-year career as a leader of science centers. In 1969, fresh out of graduate school, she joined Frank Oppenheimer to create The Exploratorium, a seminal science center widely emulated around the world, serving as Co-director for Exhibits and Programs. Later, she helped restart the New York Hall of Science, serving as Associate Director. From 1993 to 2004 she served as founding President and CEO of the Arizona Science Center, leading the effort to create a new, vibrant institution for greater Phoenix.
For the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), Sheila created a week-long professional development program for people starting science centers offered 1988-1996. While consulting for a wide range of agencies that included corporations, professional associations, museums, and public television producers, she wrote the leading book on science centers. She was elected a Fellow of both ASTC and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in recognition of her innovative work.