In memory of Dante Youla | NYU Tandon School of Engineering

In memory of Dante Youla

An essay by Fred Winter, former Ph.D. student 

I had the great privilege of being Professor Youla’s last Ph.D. student (1992) and co-author on his last paper, in February 2020, when he was 94. Most importantly I consider Professor Youla to be my great friend. We spoke a few times a week for the last few years, up to the end. I miss him tremendously and feel the void on many levels. That said, here are some fond memories:

I first met Professor Youla circa 1982, as I was working as an engineer in Melville, just a few miles north of the old Farmingdale campus. I did not attend Poly as an undergraduate, but I was impressed with the stories from coworkers who had graduated from the school and knew him well. I spent my youth growing up not far from the Farmingdale campus, but I must admit that I didn’t know anything about the magnitude of the work that was accomplished there, until I heard about it from my fellow engineers. I was involved with broadband matching, and fellow engineers mentioned Professor Youla to me for the first time in this context. I looked up his paper from 1964, “A New Theory of Broadband Matching.” I didn’t completely understand it, but I could see the genius behind it as it built upon the work of other famous people such as Hendrik Bode from Bell Laboratories and Robert Fano from MIT. 

I heard stories of the “fearsome” Professor Youla and how demanding and uncompromising he was as a teacher. My curiosity overshadowed any apprehension I may have had, and I decided to visit his office. When I was able to speak with him about his paper, he asked if I was interested in circuit theory. I said yes, and in his very direct style, he replied, “Lad, you’re born about 20 years too late.” He added with some dismay (but also with a smug, sort of sarcastic tone), “That topic is not taught here anymore, but if you can find 15 friends, we could run the EL 615 course (graduate circuit theory).” He concluded the conversation rather quickly after that, saying, “Well, Lad, I must be off,” a phrase I was to hear often over the next years, and he went back to whatever he was focused on at the time.

He was always focused on something.

I can recall some bio photos of him in papers we co-authored. Even while he was posing for the picture, you could see he was preoccupied with some theorem that he was formulating in his mind during the photoshoot.

Rather than be put off by the exchange, as others had warned me I might be, I was “all in.” I knew I could learn much from him. You could just tell! I later realized that he was a true genius. I felt privileged to associate with someone of such caliber. I was later fortunate to be part of a special master’s program sponsored by local industry (AIL, my company; Hazeltine; and Grumman), which, in fact, resurrected courses like his Circuit Theory course. We laughed about it later: I reminded him that I had indeed found not 15, but 30 friends to take his course. Although I really had nothing to do with setting up the course, he remembered our first meeting and laughed.

From there, I went on to study every course he offered (and some he didn’t, but offered me material on): Linear Algebra, Control Systems, Circuit theory & Synthesis, Logic, Probability, Communication Systems, and so on. I was amazed that every paper in circuit theory that I ever read of any significance somehow circled back to his work. More practically, this was even true of the test equipment we used at work. This involved and was based upon concepts such as “S parameters” and “Complex normalization,” which he had pioneered, and I came to understand how this underpinned his work on Broadband Matching in 1964, also. Another paper that came to my attention was his decisive work on cascade synthesis in 1961, titled “ A New Theory of Cascade Synthesis.” Here he revised the work of other outstanding individuals, one of whom was Sidney Darlington, an associate of Hendrik Bode and also from Bell Labs. It became apparent that anyone of any significance in circuit theory somehow was a friend or colleague of Professor Youla. His standing even made it to Japan after World War II. He was a fan of the Japanese school of engineering and truly appreciated their abilities. He always spoke in admiration of the work of Oono from this school, even as Professor Youla filled in some of the technical gaps of Oono’s work in his recent book. The point is that Professor Youla always appreciated the magnitude of the ideas, even if the technical details needed sprucing up in his opinion. He would always remind me with a stern note of seriousness, “Fred, never neglect the work of others!!” 

There were times I felt as though I was talking to an army sergeant, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that he actually was a sergeant in World War II. At times he would speak about engineering in terms that reminded you of the military. He would refer to electrical equipment as “Gear,” and in conversation or in lectures he would often replace the number “2” with the term “Deuce.” This, of course, was a term frequently used during World War II, to describe the famous, workhorse, 2 1/2 ton trucks that were referred to as “Deuce-and-a-Halfs.“ During a theoretical derivation, when he was manipulating mathematical expressions on a chalkboard (I still prefer these to white boards), he would move one “ baby” from here to there in an expression — referring to the mathematical terms he was moving around during the derivation. 

His direct frankness and manner would often make me think of him as a sort of “Blue Collar Genius.” This reflected his rather humble beginnings in a lower-income neighborhood of Brooklyn. He would tell me about how ill his father had been, having survived the effects of chemical warfare as a soldier in World War I. It was the Great Depression, and the family was poor, so he lived in conditions that would be unfathomable today. He described the apartment that he grew up in as a “cold water flat,” referring to the fact that plumbing that supplied hot water” was a luxury during his youth. I can’t help but think that this may have shaped his seemingly harsh demeanor at times. I often found this not to be a true representation of how he really was. This may also have been why one of his favorite places to dine was Burger King. Those of us who knew him well can relate to this.

Such humble beginnings have always offered an interesting contrast to me when I compare them to the heights of intellectual and academic accomplishment and recognition that were to be his. I think this also underscores his loyalty to Poly. He often reflected on opportunities that had been offered to him through the years that he turned down. One involved Andrew Viterbi. Professor Youla met Viterbi when they were coworkers at the Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, California during the 1950s. Professor Youla had published an internal report on the use of the “Theory of Maximum Likelihood” in solving engineering problems of a stochastic nature. Viterbi became aware of this and later included it as an Integral part to a chapter of one of his early books. He makes direct mention of the inclusion of Professor Youla’s work in his book. Later, of course, Andrew Viterbi would gain recognition of his own with his idea of “Viterbi Coding,” which is an integral part of data communication today. He also founded companies like LinkBit, which would later evolve into powerhouse companies like Qualcomm, which thrive today and which have expertise in data communication and encryption. UCLA’s Viterbi School of Engineering is named in his honor. 

Why mention Andrew Viterbi? This is about Professor Youla, after all! Well, Viterbi had offered Professor Youla an early opportunity to be a founding member of his companies. Professor Youla often remarked to me, “Fred, I could have been a millionaire!!” This spoke to me of his deep loyalty to Poly. Another story involved Claude Shannon. Professor Youla was visiting Bell Labs in the 60s or 70s. He had an associate who worked there, and there was to be some sort of technical discussion taking place. This associate introduced Professor Youla to Claude Shannon. While he had thoroughly read Shannon’s famous work on communication theory, he wasn’t convinced of the merits of the arguments (remember Oono, mentioned earlier). On this topic of reading thoroughly, Professor Youla would always say to me: “Fred! When you read, read hard!” By this he meant that you should get as much as you can from the first reading. In this context he would also say to me, “Tempus fugit, my lad.” Tempus fugit is, of course, Latin for “time flies,” or, as he would say, “Time waits for no one.” Getting back to his meeting with Shannon, there was a rather lengthy discussion during which the two men developed an admiration for each other. Shannon was impressed with the challenges that Professor Youla made to his theory, and Professor Youla was equally impressed with Shannon’s ability to field the challenges. Upon the conclusion of the discussion, Professor Youla asked Shannon where he developed his ideas. As he later related, “Shannon replied, never ask an Irishman where he gets his ideas. Shannon offered Professor Youla a position in his special research group, but while it was an attractive offer, Professor Youla turned it down and returned to Poly to resume his work.

I will conclude for now, despite having much more that I could say to remember the life of this Great Genius. Amidst all of his abilities, I remember him as an honest, loyal, colorful, very interesting, dear friend. I miss him.

— Fred Winter, Ph.D. Electrical Engineering, Computer Science 1992