Andy Lennert, A Most Colorful Mentor

September, 2003

I have had the gift of wonderful and colorful mentors, whom I loved and learned from but never attempted to imitate. No one could successfully imitate them though many people tried. 

Some people seem to own any environment in which they find themselves. Such a person was Andy Lennert, a physicist, who became my first mentor after I graduated from the University of Tennessee.  Andy was one of the most intelligent men I have known; he spoke many languages, perhaps seven, and he was so comfortable in practically any language after hearing it for a while that it was difficult to know how well he spoke it. I personally listened to what appeared to be complex conversations in German, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Greek, and Russian, and, of course, English.  I never saw Andy intimidated in any situation or language; he always seemed comfortable and hyperactive wherever he was. His overconfidence with languages sometimes created comical situations.

Although his German was one of his more fluent languages, my German friends related his childish mistakes when he insisted on lecturing in German. For example, he once described the action of a rocket as upgesheitzen, instead of upgeshutzen, which means that the rocket shitted up as opposed to shooting up.

Andy had a special talent for acting outrageous and even insulting that people could enjoy-at least to a point. It is truly puzzling how he managed to get away with being who he was and saying the things he said, often to people he hardly knew.  People either loved or hated him because of this. He was a great stand up comedian, a cross between Rodney Dangerfield and George Carlin.  His word skills and quick mind made him a brilliant master of ceremonies for which he gained quite a reputation.  He played that role often until eventually at a company Christmas party, after a few too many drinks, he turned an otherwise memorable event into a fiasco that went down in history as the most embarrassing-ever company event.  After that, people considered him too risky for such a job.  He was a gracious man as long as he was sober, but after a few drinks he would often become so overbearing that his goal appeared one of driving everyone in the room beyond reasonable limits and over the edge.

He was extremely creative with words, often inventing new words to cover any situation. In science some equations are easier to derive if one can begin with certain assumptions, such as “an object's mass is concentrated at a single point in space”. For this assumption Andy had invented and often used the word "impervium" to mean a substance with infinite mass so that a small piece of it at a point in space could have a finite weight. One of his even more creative substances was hydrozonium Pepsicolite, a material he knew existed though but he had no idea what it was. Whatever property was needed hydrozonium Pepsicolite had it.  He used terms like this seriously as though everyone should know about them.

Sometimes he would deliberately bastardize words as a kind of friendly derision. Someone might for example have a degree from The Georgia Institute of Testiclenology. Testiclenology was one of his favorite words.

A lot of people tried unsuccessfully to imitate Andy, but it never really worked. Like a scientific Bob Hope, he could say anything and make people laugh just because of who he was and how it sounded.  Only Andy could give the soul to the words he used.

Andy, who was a personal friend of the president of the company, had assembled a formidable scientific team to do the leading edge research for the company. In many ways he was great and inspiring leader. He defended this group, got support for it and gained a lot of publicity for it, and he made political enemies in doing so. One of the problems was that he had so much confidence in himself that he saw himself, not just as a manager of the group, but as a leading scientific member of it.  At some point apparently he had been a strong technical person, himself, but that was difficult to know. He was a good front man for his team, and he seemed to have a reasonable grasp of the science, at least enough to allow him to sound intelligent about it, although this sometimes appeared outrageous. Insisting on getting his own hands on the hardware, however, often presented comical, if not dangerous situations. His depth and hands on skill were considerably less than he himself seemed to understand.

Everyone who knew Andy, could tell you an "Andy" story. One did not have to exaggerate when telling such a story; just tell what actually happened. At the time most of the stories were being created, they were not funny; they were always more comical later when you could look back and see that everyone survived. One of my favorite stories occurred around 1969 after the team had made a trip from Arnold Air Force Station to NASA Langley Research Center to promote the work we were doing. During this period NASA had more government funding for research than the Air Force, and Andy's mission was to get some of it for our group (which he ultimately did).

We used an Air Force plane to fly four of us from the Air Force Base directly to Langley Field with the objective of convincing NASA that we could help solve the problem caused by air craft trailing vortices. After an apparently remarkable success at presenting our capabilities, Andy was feeling especially cocky ("feeling his oats") and decided to stop at the officers club to stock up on beer before heading back to our plane. Before the wheels were in the well, Andy was downing the beers one after another.

By the time we landed at Arnold AF Station, he was roaring drunk and getting louder and louder. We had a potential problem because we had to get him from the Air Field through two guard gates in order to get him home. That would have been much simpler if we could have kept him quiet. We sat in the car for a while waiting as he appeared to drift off to sleep. Just as we approached the first guard gate he roused and began demanding to see the Base Commanding General. He had decided that tonight he would "fire the general".  It was as though he wanted to test the system to see how far he could push it. He was invincible, and not about to be quiet. Somehow he felt that his success at Langley should give him unlimited authority at Arnold. Regardless of how much we beckoned him to be quiet, he got louder and louder. As a compromise, we convinced him to sing one of the 10,000 drinking songs he knew. "My ole Sal, is a wonderful gal........". Just as he realized we were being successfully waved on by the guard he immediately began his "fire the General" routine yelling back to the officer, after having discovered our diversion.

Some how we managed to pass through two inspections without being ordered out of the car by armed guards. To this day, I am not quite sure how. Maybe the guards knew him and forgave his antics.

Andy’s group and a few outsiders formed the company, Sci-Metrics, owned equally by a dozen people, to market technology that had been developed by the group. The problem with Sci-Metrics was that no one was willing to quit his secure job and take on the role of making the company succeed. This was a real mistake, and we missed a great opportunity, allowing at least a dozen multimillion dollar companies form and succeed based on the technology we had in our hands years earlier. I learned the lesson that a successful company is not likely to come out of a part time effort.

I left Andy’s nest and ventured into the world of business, joining a company called Science Applications International (SAIC). As a part of this move, I attempted to revive Sci-Metrics, and became president.  SAIC had agreed to capitalize Sci-Metrics for part ownership and allow me to work in both companies.  At best this was still an extremely difficult struggle.  At one point, when money was short, and financial decisions became difficult, Andy and I had a strong disagreement about spending. When the argument became extremely, heated Andy somehow came to the conclusion that he, being treasurer of Sci-Metrics, would fire me, the company’s president, because I would not agree with him. I responded by firing him. We sat on two ends of the phone firing each other for the next half hour. Andy and I had finally wound up on two opposing sides of the fence. Out of frustration, I eventually sold my share of Sci-Metrics to the others, realizing by now that the company was destined for failure, because it still had no one totally dedicated to its success.  (Sci-Metrics was disbanded about a year later. SAIC lost their entire investment in Sci-Metrics.)

Andy had more outstanding strengths than faults. He was an excellent writer, an accomplished tennis player, a legendary bridge player, a friend of many people in high places, and always the center of a whirlwind. While his difficulties with drink brought on many challenges, most of which he seemed to overcome, his chain smoking ultimately killed him.