I had no idea that the first time I met Tom Rodgers would also be the last time.
We met him the Monday evening before Gathering for Gardner 9, the 2010 version of his biannual event that united creative thinkers who like to challenge rules and perceptions. To get us there, Peter had turned the frequent flyer miles he’d been saving for years into three round-trip cross-country tickets for Bill Gosper, Neil, and me, but since Tuesday and Wednesday had been unavailable, we ended up with a very early flight on Monday.
When we arrived in Atlanta, Bill called Tom Rodgers, in the hope that Neil, a fellow puzzle-lover, might get a chance to view Rodger’s collection. To our surprise, Tom invited us all over for dinner. We met some other artists whom Tom was putting up for Gathering for Gardner: Akio Hizume, who was heating either water or sake inside a tower; Kaspar Schwabe, who had built hyperbolic bamboo traps in which he caught Neil; and Lennart Green, who pretended to make magical mistakes with cards. Later Bruce Oberg showed up to touch base on the progress of the show set-up, and Neil stumped him with his own puzzle box which he’d bought at the Lawrence Hall of Science.
Tom showed us the black bamboo grove he’d grown, and his Japanese house, which had a tangram table, and an entire room with drawers of rare puzzles. Neil was delighted to see and touch puzzles he’d only read about, like the world’s most difficult sliding block puzzle, and a percussive Georgian puzzle box from 1835 that required just the right tap at the right time to open.
When Tom found out I spoke Russian and had briefly gone to school in the Soviet Union, it turned out he’d had his own adventures in the Eastern Block, before I had. As a younger man, he’d flaunted the rules of where Americans could and could not go in Eastern Europe. He’d seen fascinating things — and been put in horrible jails, like one in which he had to stand all night in knee-deep water. I’d had an easier time than that, but I knew enough that Tom was not exaggerating about Soviet-style prisons.
What he founded– the Gathering for Gardner — however, was his biggest gift to us. For the first time in his life, Neil was among his own kind in mind and spirit. Puberty hadn’t hit yet, so he looked particularly out of sync with his intellect, but at G4G9, he was accepted on his own terms; and he was not the first or only precocious participant. Tom was a wonderful host, circulating among all the participants, and throwing a huge party one afternoon at his place with a barbecue, good wine, and several artists making group-participation mathematical sculptures.
We only found out that Tom was already at death’s door the day Bill, Neil, and Peter were on the airport for Gathering for Gardner 10. Despite his ill health, Tom let Neil see his puzzle collection again, and even greeted him briefly. He was too ill to make it out to his party, but I hope he could sense the fun others were having at it.
I can’t even imagine what he looked like sick, after having met him as such a robust and lively person only 2 years ago, so I think it would have bothered me more than any of his puzzles. I understand Gathering for Gardner will continue without him (and also without Martin Gardner, who died shortly after G4G9.) But I’ll always remember him, for what he built, and for the time he made for a boy who loves puzzles.