A Tribute to Frederick Lombard

14 July 1945 – 11 December 2021

compiled by Riaan de Jongh

Frederick Lombard (subsequently referred to as Freek) sadly passed away on 11 December 2021. This was a sad day for his family, his friends, for SASA, the statistical community and the country.

When I was asked by the SASA President to write a tribute to Freek, I sent out invitations to some of his colleagues and students to obtain their views on his research and teaching contributions, his talents and his character. The feedback received contained the same accolades and gave testimony to a dedicated and immensely capable teacher and researcher, passionate about his subject and supportive of his students. Especially the students praised the breadth and depth of his knowledge about statistical theory, his profound insight into the practical application thereof and his wisdom when he mentored them about life. Below I give a short summary of Freek’s CV followed by some interesting stories illustrating the gifted person he was.

Freek Lombard was born in the Eastern Cape and grew up in the town of East London. After school he commenced studies at the University of Pretoria in 1963 and completed an MSc in Statistics in 1967. In 1968 he was appointed as Statistician at the Atlas Aircraft Corporation,

followed by two years as Market Research Officer at United Tobacco Companies. From 1971 until 1979 he was lecturer at the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) where he completed his PhD in 1975. In 1979 he moved to the University of South Africa and was appointed as Professor of Statistics. He was affiliated with UNISA until 1988. He then moved back to the University of Johannesburg (previously RAU) where he taught until his retirement in 2010. During his career Freek held visiting positions at North-West University (NWU) in 1977 (previously Potchefstroom University), University of Delaware in 1983, Ohio State University in 1995, Texas A&M University in 1990 and then again from 2002 until 2012. The many visiting positions enabled him to expand his research in statistical science. Scanning his publications, the names of the following co-authors caught my eye (students not included): Jan Geertsema (NWU), Jan Swanepoel (NWU), Raymond Carroll (Chapel Hill and Texas A&M), David Mason (University of Delaware), Jeffrey Hart (Texas A&M), Leonard Stefanski (North Carolina State University), and Peter Hall (Australian National University). These authors are all globally recognised for their innovative contributions to statistics and its application. I also noticed that many of his publications were single authored. Freek worked as effectively on his own as he did in a team.

His list of student co-workers is equally impressive and I include a list of his PhD and MSc students below. According to Freek’s CV, he had 70 publications, but I am confident that he omitted some of his later papers). Half of these publications were practical and the other half theoretical in nature. Interestingly, most of his student co-publications (14) were written with Chris Koen (University of the Western Cape). The majority of these papers focused on the application of statistics in astrophysics.

He also excelled in statistical consulting in the pharmaceutical, manufacturing, industrial, environmental, mining, legal, defence and financial sectors. I believe that Freek’s knowledge of probability theory and stochastic processes, as well as the underlying mathematics (such as measure theory) enabled him to solve many problems in a variety of fields. His work demonstrates that a strong theoretical basis enables the successful application of statistical theory to real world problems.

Freek was a leading international researcher. He was awarded an A-rating as a statistician by the NRF, an honour received by only three professors of Statistics in South Africa. Freek once told me that if you discovered the ‘one-legged-toktokkie’ and you are the only one able to study the insect, then you should receive an A rating from the NRF, because you are the world leading researcher on this animal. Clearly an indication that Freek was a humble person at heart.

Below are excerpts of the testimonies and stories of colleagues and students about their relationships with Freek.

Jan Geertsema, Freek’s first lecturer in Statistics at the University of Pretoria, describes Freek as a brilliant student with a distinct handwriting style; clear, large and strong. Freek frequently referred to Jan as his ‘Leermeester’, the person who taught him the basics of statistical theory and kindled his love for the subject.

Tertius de Wet writes: 'I was privileged to be joint supervisor with Freek for a PhD student and to have been examiners for each other’s Masters and PhD students for 45 years. This exposure to his work and that of his students always impressed me with the depth and thoroughness of Freek’s academic work and supervision of his students. Also, at a practical level, Freek was an inspiration to work with on real-world problems. During the years I spent at the Institute for Maritime Technology, Freek was a consultant on many of our projects. One particular incident I remember very clearly was a project where we were working on the design of a very challenging experiment to be carried out by ships at sea, an experiment where randomised runs were not an option. Working together on this late one evening, and our thinking strengthened by a glass (or perhaps two) of red wine, we came up with a solution which Freek immediately dubbed the “red wine design”! Apart from an outstanding academic, he was also a very talented solver of practical problems and a great friend - a person I was privileged to know and to work with and someone I, and our statistical community, will sorely miss.'

Simon Sheather says the following about Freek: 'I had the pleasure of working with Fred Lombard during the whole time I was a faculty member at Texas A&M University, namely from 2005 to 2018. Initially, Fred taught face-to-face classes every summer in College Station. After the MS (Statistics) online program began in 2007, Fred also taught online classes for the Statistics Department. Fred was a wonderful teacher with incredible versatility in the courses he taught, ranging from service courses for students outside the Statistics Department to rigorous Master’s level courses for students within the Department of Statistics. Under my leadership as Department Head, the “12th Man Award” was established in 2007 to honor “a faculty or staff member for their long-term contributions to the department" (https://stat.tamu.edu/about/awards-and-prizes/12th-man-award/). A testament to Fred’s contributions to the Department, Fred was the recipient of this award in 2008. To this day, Fred remains the only visiting faculty member to have won this much sought-after award. Personally, Fred was a warm and generous individual with a wonderful sense of humor. Fred loved to tell the story about the time he was sitting in his car outside the bank across from the university waiting for it to open one morning. Unbeknown to Fred, the bank was being robbed at that time. Shortly after pulling up in his car, a SWAT team approached, with guns drawn, because the police thought Fred was the getaway driver. As Fred told the story, this was one time that having a South African accent was a very handy personal attribute.'

Neels Erasmus, Freek’s second PhD student, writes: 'While working under Freek’s supervision I remember a few all-nighters, with me rather bleary-eyed the next morning, but Freek still going strong. I remember that when we first formally started with the research for my PhD, Freek sat me down and drew up ‘na draft table of contents for my thesis. I kept that piece of paper and compared it with the final thesis three years later, and it was close to 90% identical! Shortly after I started at the Institute for Systems Analysis, we were presented with a set of data on flares that were fired at night to test how well they illuminate the area, with the request to analyse the results and to “see what the data tells us”. I contracted Freek to help, and he produced a very impressive report, given that they had just collected data without designing the experiment upfront. As it turns out, that experiment laid the foundation for ground-breaking theoretical work that he later did on observations occurring on a sphere.'

Theo Winter, MSc student, says: 'One of the lessons he taught our Math Stats Class of 93 that I will never forget, is: “Jy moet nooit te dom wees om lui te wees nie!” (Roughly, You should never be too foolish to be lazy!). As a lecturer he was able to connect with his students, both emotionally and academically. Above all, he was able to create and stimulate within us a lifelong appreciation of the pursuit of knowledge, not simply as a means to a commercial end, but as an end in itself. Freek has been a major influence in my life, as in many others, and he will be sorely missed but not forgotten.'

Herrie van Rooy, PhD student, writes: ‘He was more than a teacher, also a fantastic mentor who taught me more about life than statistics. I remember one day another faculty insisted that they should co-supervise my research. True to form I was ready to defend vigorously, but Prof Lombard took me aside and said: “There are many ways to get to the same outcome. Choose the path with the smallest people impact.” He shared the first few chapters of my research with the intended co-supervisor and reminded him that students should receive feedback within a set number of days. The co-supervisor quickly realised that the technical nature of the study was outside the expertise of their faculty and he promptly withdrew with all our relationships intact. I remember his council to this day: Brownian bridge – same outcome, different path!’

Farhaad Amod, PhD student, gives the following testimony about Freek: 'Prof Lombard was my mentor and played an important advisory role in my life ever since my dad passed away when I was 21. He was an inspirational man and spent his life doing what he loves. I will remember him for many things, but one particular statement comes to mind at this moment because I repeat it in almost every presentation that I deliver at work: "A model, at its core, should reflect what honest eyes see"; - for me, it beautifully describes Prof Freek. He had the unique ability to make the most technically challenging concepts so simple to understand. It also speaks to his impartiality and generosity. These honest eyes that he spoke of, were eyes that are free from bias and unfair discrimination. He not only taught me about the beauty of Mathematical Statistics but he also taught me about the purpose of life.'

Nelis Potgieter, PhD student, tells the following about Freek: 'I got to know Freek as a mentor during 2005, my year as a BSc (Hons) student at the University of Johannesburg. Once per week we would meet in his office and talk about… well… almost any statistical topic you can imagine. I realized quickly that my enthusiasm for learning would always be outpaced by his enthusiasm for sharing knowledge. Were it not for his investment in me that year, it is unlikely I would have pursued doctoral studies in this subject he was incredibly passionate about. I realized in 2009 that Freek was no longer just a mentor, but that he had also become a close friend. This is the year I moved to Texas to start a postdoctoral fellowship at Texas A&M University, an institution he had a long-standing relationship with. When I moved halfway around the world for this opportunity, Freek and Chrystal (Freek’s wife) were there to see that I found decent housing and to introduce me to some of their friends in town, but also to frown a little when I bought a clunker of a car to get around town. Later, my Texan husband and I decided to travel to South Africa. Freek was excited to have us over to his house and show the Texan how to have a proper braai! Always during my visits to South Africa we would spend a couple of days working in his study. These work-days typically ended with us sitting next to the pool and drinking red wine. On more than one occasion I would finish a sip of wine only to find him staring into space thinking about a statistical problem we have been trying to solve.'

I conclude with some of my own tales about Freek: 'In 1981, I enrolled for a Reliability Theory course at UNISA. My lecturer prescribed the book ‘Statistical Theory of Reliability and Life Testing’ (by Barlow and Proschan) and I read the book from front to back, in the process formulating in excess of 20 questions. Three months later I received handwritten feedback in a distinct and unique style, each of my questions was restated and then the answer given in about 3-5 lines. Every question I posed was answered and I could then understand each of the concepts I had difficulty with. I later learnt from Freek that the lecturer of the course gave the set of questions to him and asked for advice in answering it. This illustrates Freek’s passion for teaching, ready to help other colleagues to assist an unknown student in gaining a better understanding of a subject. Of course, I also respected my lecturer for asking help elsewhere, while so many would easily just have ignored it.'

On a more personal front, last year my wife went through a difficult time due to health problems and later in the year Freek’s wife experienced the same fate. During that time, I received more phone calls from Freek than previously. When I asked him about it, he replied (to my shame): 'We are in the same boat and therefore we need each other’s support!' On numerous occasions Freek told me about the first day that he met his wife Chrystal. She was wearing a yellow dress and immediately he knew she was the one! During his life Chrystal was, according to Freek, the boss of the house. After her hospitalisation he briefly wanted to overturn this, but to his relief Chrystal recovered too fast for him to implement the coup. Freek was a loving husband and a father who was very proud of his children Anton, Claudine and Adele and in later years he cherished and enjoyed his grandchildren immensely. Kelvin, Emile, Neko and Joshua all say they love their “Oupie” beyond words. Claudine tells me that Chrystal and Freek were instrumental in her boy’s’ lives and that when they decided to emigrate to Australia in 2009 Freek and Chrystal spoke to Kelvin and Emile almost daily. Today, Kelvin follows closely in the footsteps of his grandfather when it comes to learning and study.

I also received contributions from PhD-students Frederik van der Walt, Jaco Visagie, and Corli van Zyl. They echo the sentiment of the other students in hailing Freek as an excellent supervisor with an exceptional understanding of statistical theory and a human being who reached out to his students with support, wisdom, integrity and empathy.

We all miss him and cherish the wonderful memories we have of him. In particular, we will remember him as one of South Africa’s greatest statisticians!

PhD students

AP Burger, CM Erasmus, JL Fresen, JL van Wyk, Y Shen, MC Koen, D Potgieter, HF van Rooy, N Uys, CJ Potgieter, U Human, JL Robbertse, F van der Walt, I Visagie, F Amod, G Grobler, C van Zyl and J van Appel.

MSc students by research

JL van Wyk, T Winter, PJ du Toit, D Potgieter, U Human, Y Stander, S Greenberg, JL Robbertse, CJ Potgieter, GP Moolman, J-P Marshall, M Barosso, Q de Jager, N Crotty, H Sonnekus, J van Appel, C van Zyl and Z Loonat.