Prof. Lee Lorch, a long-lasting light in a dark world

Almost twenty years ago, in 1994, I made my first trip to Cuba as an adult. I had visited as a child with my family during Lee Lorchthe days of close U.S.-Cuban ties, but after Fidel Castro’s successful revolution, it was difficult for Americans to travel there. The 1994 trip was to a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations so participants came from all over the world. The trip was an eye-opener for all of us as it gave us a chance to see for ourselves what Cuba was really like. For me a special bonus was getting to know Lee Lorch, a most unusual academic and activist who has had an impact on people and events in several different societies.

Lee contacted me through mutual friends to see whether I would join an effort to send secondhand computers to Cuba. Having seen the shortage of technology in the schools and libraries in Cuba, I was glad to participate. As time went on I discovered that helping Cuba was only a small part of Lee Lorch’s efforts to improve the world. As a mathematician at York University he taught students and wrote scholarly papers, but being a scholar wasn’t enough for him. He had spent many years fighting racism in the United States and every time I met him there were new revelations about events he had participated in. He fought to open an apartment complex in New York City to African-Americans; he and his wife escorted students into the newly-desegregated Little Rock High School during the turmoil of school desegregation. He lost teaching jobs and had to move from one university to another as his notoriety grew.

In 1959, Lee and his family moved to Canada when he took a position at the University of Alberta. Later he moved to York University in Toronto. After all the turmoil of his life in the U.S. he found friends and a new life in Canada, and he never gave up fighting for justice. One of his interests was to encourage women mathematicians who were routinely discouraged from entering the field and often treated unfairly if they persisted.

People today find it almost inconceivable that even in the 20th century academics openly discriminated against non-white people and women. Until you read the story of someone like Vivienne Malone Mayes, it is hard to imagine the determination needed for women, and especially African American women, to be accepted in science and mathematics. Lee Lorch was among the pioneers in encouraging women to enter the field and in supporting their efforts for advancement.

I know I am late in finding out about this, but it made me very happy to learn that last year Professor Lee Lorch received a distinguished scholar award from CAUT—Canada’s organized voice of academic scholars. At the age of 97, he has participated in many struggles for justice and fair treatment for all people. He is a credit to the universe, and I hope the honors continue to flow during these crowning years of his long life.