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Students Commemorate Rota with Candles and Coke

By Erik Snowberg

It was only 6:15 p.m. when I made it to Networks, but already the line was out the door. By anyone else’s account the group gathered in line must have seemed strange. After all, for what reason would there be a long line outside of Networks, and why did everyone in line have a can of Coke in their pocket?

The line that stretched out the door was for that night's special, “Pasta with Rota Sauce,”' and the can of Coke was homage to a dearly departed professor, Gian-Carlo Rota. Over the years Rota had taught thousands of MIT undergraduates, and during every hour-long lecture he consumed two or three cans of Coke. It was rumored he could even tell which bottling plant a can had come from just from the taste.

The staff at Networks wasn’t anticipating such a large crowd, and they ran out of Rota Sauce early on. While we were waiting for the next batch, people began to mill about and get to know each other. I was embarrassed because I had bought a bottle of Coke -- the only form available at LaVerde’s -- and was the only one without a can. Luckily I ran into Peter Schulman ’01, who had been in charge of Coke procurement during Rota’s last semester. He told me that one day he had been unable to get Rota his customary cans of coke and instead had to resort to plastic bottles. Rota didn’t seem to care, so I shouldn’t either. “If I could have brought in a keg of Coke on tap, I am sure he would have been fine with that too,” he said.

The conversation was restrained at first. For most present it was the first time they had been to a memorial service for a professor, and no one was quite sure how to act. Some participants worked combinatorics problems while others began awkward conversations by asking, “What class did you take with Rota.”

The somber air didn’t seem quite fitting for a memorial of a man who always so happy and full of energy. By the time we finally sat down to eat, everyone was telling their favorite Rota stories and enjoying each other’s company. I was already finishing my third can of Coke, and was seeing spots from all the caffeine. Others seemed to be having similar problems, the atmosphere could be best classified as “giddy.”

As it began to get dark outside, we started our candlelight vigil in Kresge Oval. A bulletin board on the student center steps displayed four pictures of Rota in his recently cleaned office the week before his death. There was a light wind which made us all stand close together to protect the flames.

One by one, former students stepped into the center of the circle to share their thoughts and feelings about Professor Rota. Some told stories which made everyone laugh, but they were always tinged with a hint of sadness. As one student put it, “I am not sad for Professor Rota, he had a great life. I am sad for all the students who will never have a chance to take a class from such a great man.”

The candlelight vigil was punctuated by long silences and a few tears. A former graduate student reminded the circle that although Professor Rota’s achievements were great, Rota himself would have thought them to be minor compared to what his students would achieve.

Teresa Rond, Rota’s ex-wife, spoke last. “Gian-Carlo always knew his students liked him,” she said, “but he never guessed how much he truly meant to them.”