A Familiar Name

Written in 2009. See also Connections.

So here I am, in Ithaca, NY, giving a talk at their Light in Winter Festival. It’s my usual math + origami + science + technology + all-this-stuff-is-tied-together spiel. At the end of the talk, there’s the usual Q&A, and then the formal stuff breaks up and individuals walk up to say hi and ask questions that they didn’t want to shout out from the audience. After two or three people come by, an older man walks up, sticks out his hand, and says, “Hi, I’m George Rhoads.”

Heart palpitations…OMG, squeal, it’s really him! George Rhoads! Secrets of Origami George Rhoads! Best of Origami George Rhoads! THE ELEPHANT!!! George Rhoads! In person! Shaking my hand!

Of course he doesn’t look anything like his picture in Secrets of Origami. But then, hey, I don’t look much like I did in 1963, either.

I was totally verklempt. But I managed to stammer out a hello, a “I so love your work”. (George Rhoads! It’s really him!)

So we chatted a bit, and he said he had given up origami a while ago (which I knew), and that he lived in Ithaca (which I didn’t). And then I walked around on air for the rest of the afternoon. (Very cold air. This IS Ithaca in January, of course, and there’s a reason they call it “Light in Winter,” and not “Heat in Winter.”)

For those who don’t know, George Rhoads was one of the pioneers of American origami back in the late 1950s and 1960s, and his use of the blintz bird base in general, and his elephant in particular, was far ahead of its time. He subsequently went on to become a world-famous kinetic sculptor, and his mechanical sculptures, which typically have lots of balls whizzing around tracks and plopping through elaborate 3D structures, are to be found in museums around the world. They are intricate, clever, and oddly addicting to watch.

But to me, he is one of the great masters who, through his published origami designs, inspired an eleven-year-old boy to continue what was already a passionate interest and devotion to the art. And, briefly, transported a late-40s origami guy back to those heady days of being eleven.