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Kjell A. Tovander ’09

When Kjell A. Tovander ’09 was younger, his mother said, he began reading voraciously. So, naturally, when he decided he wanted to learn how to program, he ordered a book about it. He read it in one night.

Though his mother initially doubted this was true, Tovander convinced her when he sat down at the computer the next day and started to code. He never stopped.

Years later, as a Course VI major at MIT, he still hadn’t lost his can-do attitude: “He would wake up one day and say I want to do this and buy the book and practice six hours a day,” said his friend Christopher B. Palmer ’09. “He learned python like that.” His dedication extended to areas outside of academics. “He practiced running, tennis, and games the same way,” said Palmer.

“The rock” of D-Entry

“He was kind of the rock,” said Palmer of Tovander’s role in D-Entry in MacGregor. “He was always in the lounge: he lived there and sometimes slept there.”

“He was thoughtful and observant and generous,” said Thomas Rand-Nash G, the D-Entry graduate resident tutor. “He was always around and you felt his presence.”

While he was always happy to spend time with friends and join in their outings, Tovander also maintained his own unique set of passions and interests. Asked what he liked, many of Tovander’s friends would answer “motorcycles,” without hesitation. After that they would mention video games, his black leather jacket, and pasta.

They knew what he disliked, too: 8.01 and beef. He hated beef.

Tovander was quiet but intense in his pursuits and intensely loyal. “He had quite an impact on the people around him,” said Rand-Nash.

With his close friends, he displayed a dry, sarcastic humor that his friends loved because it was striking and unique.

Tovander knew how to inject the sometimes oppressive and stressful MIT grind with a fair dose of humor: “He didn’t take anything too seriously,” said Rand-Nash. “He didn’t let [the pressure of work] get to him. I think he helped other people so it wouldn’t get to them either.”

Thomas J. P. Snider ’09 is one of those friends who appreciated Tovander’s easygoing spirit. Snider met Tovander first while working with him on the final project for 6.170 (Lab in Software Engineering).

Tovander ended up buying Snider’s motorcycle: “He blew me away by saying that he was looking for a motorcycle. A short week later he was the new owner of my ZX-7R,” Snider wrote in an e-mail. “I can’t really describe the sort of bond that riders have, but I can say we became fast friends because of it.”

Snider wrote that later, though they did not see each other on a regular basis, Tovander still had an impact on his life. “He probably did not know it, but he really helped me out a lot in my time at MIT, mainly by allaying my fears about various classes [in Course VI]. He had a great outlook on things; he never seemed fazed by the tough challenges and that outlook kept my worrying in check.”

The Road to MIT

Tovander grew up in Plano, TX, and later in Claremore, OK, a small town of 17,000 where going to MIT was unheard of. In deciding to come, he rejected full rides to state schools and defied the advice of his teachers. “Teacher tried to convince him not to go — they really tried,” said his mother. Like he did so often in life, he stuck to his guns and headed to Cambridge anyway.

Even when financial troubles cropped up during his junior year, Tovander came up with a creative way to pay for his education. He decided leave MIT and join the Navy, so he went home and began training.

In this too, Tovander showed intense dedication. He began running and doing pushups and sit-ups everyday.

Tovander steadily built up his physical abilities and began running longer races. It was during a half-marathon race on Route 66 that Tovander passed away.

Despite Tovander’s ingenuity and motivation that carried him so far in life, it wasn’t always clear that he would end up enrolling at MIT.

When Tovander was in junior high, his mother said, she discovered that he had been repeatedly sent to detention for not doing his homework. When she confronted him about it, he asked why he had to complete assignments for material he already knew when he would rather be writing software.

After the confrontation, he decided to bear down and start doing homework. He tutored his friends too, and even racked up awards that — in humble spirit — he frequently did not tell his family about.

There was one accolade he could not hide: that he was named valedictorian of his high school.