About / Rolf / A Celebration / David Kelley, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University, Co-founder, IDEO
Good afternoon. These fine people behind me are the faculty in the Design Division of the Mechanical Engineering department at Stanford. We’re kind of a small, close-knit group—there are only 15 of us—and Rolf was a big part of our community and our individual lives. We wanted to come up together to honor him, because that’s where our strength comes from; as a group, and from our shared values.
For years, through good times and bad times, the division has stuck together and met the challenges that have faced us. This weekend we spent three days together at Pajaro Dunes, on the beach, and we talked about a lot of things. We talked about life, and we talked about learning, and we talked about our dreams... but we talked a lot about Rolf. I think we needed to talk a lot about Rolf. And it was a good weekend.
We all knew him in different ways, and some of us will probably speak later in this celebration, but I just wanted to bring up a couple of things that he did around the Design Division that were important to him, and that we thought you might like to hear about.
During the last 18 summers Rolf taught a creativity class, it was called a “creativity workshop,” with his good friend and colleague Bernie Roth. These were not workshops for students, they were workshops for faculty. So professors would come from around the world to this workshop, to improve their teaching, and more importantly to become more self-actualized and live more productive lives. Due to Rolf’s Norwegian heritage, he was very pleased and delighted that a number of these professors came from Scandinavia.
Japan also held a special fascination for Rolf, I think because of his interest in Zen, and because he felt a real resonance with the traditional Japanese aesthetic. He and Linda spent two separate periods there, at the Stanford Center in Kyoto. These were, I think, intensely creative periods for Rolf, both for his teaching and to develop his own sensibilities and ideas.
I think Rolf inspired his students and his colleagues in two particularly interesting ways. One was in convincing them to use both hemispheres of their brain. Many of you have probably taken “Ambidextrous Thinking,” and his discussions in that class made us all a little different I think, and for the better. He also taught students to use their entire bodies in order to develop their creative potential. This was his “Brain Gym” idea, which he was very fond of. He definitely was a pioneer in the use of the wisdom of the body as a problem solving tool in the process of design engineering.
He was also passionate about sailboats. In fact, his mother told me today that “boat” was the first word that Rolf ever spoke. If you go to see Rolf and Linda’s apartment, it’s overflowing with pond yachts. Each year he taught a model yacht class, and I see some of the students who took that class here. The thing I liked the most about that class was that the students would, at the beginning of the class, stand there and look at the yachts that were built from last year... and they would think “oh I can’t do that, that’s really difficult, that’s going to be very hard.” And then ten weeks later it was those same students who were with Rolf in San Francisco, sailing those yachts.
He was by far the most visually oriented person in our faculty. He drew beautifully and effortlessly, and it was just wonderful to watch him draw on a blackboard or in his notebook. And it was a source of great pride to Rolf that his two sons, Haakon and Trygve, inherited this artistic talent.
On a personal note, Rolf was a habit in my life. Every day when I would come to school, I would leave my bag in my office and then I would walk the 15 steps to Rolf’s office. And he was always there—it seemed like he was waiting for me—and I’d say “what’s up...?” And Rolf would have something to talk about, some student project that he was particularly proud of, or some new mind-body exercise... because he knew that I was a skeptic, so he’d try it out on me! And it was there that I realized that Rolf was a good talker, and an excellent lecturer, but he was a tremendous listener. And I think that his big contribution with students was really amazing in a one-on-one setting because of that ability to listen.
And every Tuesday night for the last 18 years, Rolf, myself, and our colleague Matt Kahn, met with the graduate students in Product Design, in the loft, to talk about their work and to talk about their Masters projects. The last few times Rolf has not been there, so I’ve tried to say what Rolf would have said.
I didn’t do a very good job, but it made me feel better.
Yes, Rolf was a habit in my life. And good habits, especially good habits, are hard to break. I’ll miss him.
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