2014-06-08 - Our debt to Andy Nowak

Post date: Jun 9, 2014 5:32:47 AM

This morning, Sunday June 8th 2014, Andy Nowak, the founder of our scholastic chess activity, died of cancer. He was in hospice care in Santa Fe.

I first saw Andy Nowak indirectly years ago, observing from a distance as he organized various chess activities.

I then met him directly when he coached my younger children at Carlos Gilbert Elementary.

My first reaction was to think "it's great that someone is volunteering to do this". I was inspired to help him as much as possible.

I helped him organize the Simultaneous exhibition for the viewing of "Brooklyn Castle", and then to get the current incarnation of the children's chess club up and running. Eventually I took over the administration so that he could focus on teaching to the kids.

I learned much more about Andy: he was sometimes difficult to work with -- he had particular ways in which he needed to do certain tasks, and he would get into a worried mood if there was a chance that things might not work out: the club might peter out, not enough people would sign up for the tournament, volunteers would not show up to help, ...

Then I learned even more about Andy, a sort of Hegelian synthesis of my understanding of him: his frustrations were *always* based on the worry that the delicate activity scholastic chess might not sustain itself. He dedicated his full-time work in retirement to bolstering scholastic

chess, and he worried that the kids might not have a structure to continue playing. All of the annoyances sprang from his generosity.

There are many people you will call generous. I think that when you classify these in your mind you will place Andy in the highest category: someone who dedicated more than thirty years to an activity that is largely thankless, never stopping because he wanted to see children develop those important life skills. Andy did this before his retirement, and did it full-time after retiring. The duration of this consistent effort is awe-inspiring.


I have many anecdotes about Andy Nowak; a handful are:

anecdote: When we prepared the very successful first Groundhog Day tournament we had set some precise rules and deadlines for registration. The purpose was to make Andy's work less stressful on the day itself. Some parents would register their children after the deadline and Andy would put on a loving smile saying "oh, we need to make sure they can play". I knew that he would be up late the night before, and have to work harder on the day of the tournament, to make it all work out, but he just did it. It was obvious to him that he should do it.

anecdote: Another time I heard him chatting with a parent at the Wednesday evening chess club. Andy was saying, jovially: "it's funny how you don't hear parents telling the swimming or soccer coach 'my kids couldn't make this meet meet because of a chess tournament'". I hope that some of us will consider having a 50/50 balance of missing chess for physical-sport and missing physical-sport for chess!

anecdote: Andy wanted to invent a gadget that would give people a small tingle of electricity if they started making a move in less than ten seconds.

anecdote: A few times Andy came over and we would stay up late talking about ideas for inspiring children even further and keeping them with the chess club. He had big visions of bringing luminaries to Santa Fe to work with our children; I hope we can carry those out. He also had a focus on penetrating remote parts of northern New Mexico, contacting schools and finding teachers and parents who could organize chess clubs in those schools. I think this is very important, and I feel daunted at the task of continuing this part of what Andy did. We will try to continue because you *never* know which town in our state will produce the next New Mexican grandmaster, and at the same time you *do* know that the towns we reach will put out a generation of kids with strategic thinking and critical thinking skills.

anecdote: Recognizing that chess has traditionally appeared out of reach for girls and minorities, Andy used his fluent Spanish to teach chess classes in Spanish, and made a point of recruiting girls for the chess club and of organizing the first Santa Fe Girls Open in the winter of 2014. We have women and minorities at all skill levels of our scholastic chess activity.

anecdote: We were looking for a new shorter name for our club, since "Children's Chess Club" is a mouthful, and someone proposed "Nowak's Knights". I asked Andy for permission to start using this name, telling him that I knew he was modest and might object to it, but hoping that he would let us use his name. He was already getting sick at this time, but he took time to phone me and say that he would allow us to use the name, even though he was shy about it, because he appreciated the honor. I could feel the instinct for modesty fighting with the happiness at our gratitude; I am glad that the latter won.

anecdote: The last email I got from Andy was when I announced that Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales would publicly award the city cup for scholastic chess. It was one word: "Wonderful!" I like to think that he was happy with what he started and with the recognition it got.


Now for a few biographical notes:

Andy Nowak was born in Argentina, lived in Buenos Aires as a youngster and then moved to New York state.

He went to university at Stevens Institute of Technology and went on to get a PhD in physical chemistry from MIT.

He was a postdoc and then a research scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

He then worked for the state of New Mexico on air pollution and retired from the highway department.

He had no wives or children.

There will be a memorial service on Saturday, 2014-06-21, at 3pm at the Center for Spiritual Living, 505 Camino de los Marquez (near Trader Joe's and Maria's).


A paragraph of my personal rambling and thoughts:

I am sad sad sad that Andy could not work with us for many more years. Still, in moments like this I tend to celebrate the life, so I will say that Andy Nowak was a mentor to hundreds of kids in Santa Fe for many decades, he was a treasure to our city, he was a generous man of a high order. We need more people with that kind of dedication.


We will start the transition to our new club name: "Nowak's Knights" (short form) or "Nowak's Knights, the Santa Fe Children's Chess Club" (long form, to identify our city.

Let us all dedicate our next chess game to Andy Nowak, and let us all play that next game very well, remembering what Andy taught us. And in this game (and future games) let us think at least ten seconds for each move!