December 17, 1946 - January 19, 2024
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At some point in life, growing older shifts from something to be anticipated, to something to be avoided. Not so for Alan Richter, who enjoyed it every step of the way, and who had a quip ready each time old age came knocking at the door. After all, growing a bit forgetful means you can hide your own easter eggs.
Alan Gordon Richter was born on a cool, overcast day in Philadelphia. Together with his sister Joanne, born a few years later, he grew up only a short walk from both sets of his grandparents. He listened to his grandpa Rudy’s stories, his grandma Mary made him french fries, he helped his grandpa Joe deliver bread, and he ate the cheesesteaks his grandma Fannie pretended to want so that he could have them.
But life wasn’t all easy. He had to walk to school, uphill, both ways. Often, in the snow.
It was on a snowy day, when he was eight years old, that he was involved in a sledding accident. Doctors had to remove his spleen.
Many years later, as a hobby, Alan attended every undergraduate and graduate level Greek art history course at Princeton University, one by one, each semester. There, he would have learned that the ancient Greeks associated the spleen with black bile, or melancholy.
Whether by natural disposition or by medical intervention, Alan had no need for melancholy.
Alan attended Central High School in Philadelphia, where he was part of the 222nd graduating class. After Central, he attended Drexel University. As a joke, he asked his parents Max and Marilyn for a diamond pinky ring as a graduation present. That is how he came to own, but never to wear, a diamond pinky ring for nearly sixty years.
Professional Career in National Security
In 1965, Alan began his professional career in national security as an undergraduate intern from Drexel University, where he interleaved studying mathematics while working as a cryptanalyst for NSA. In 1967, Alan joined NSA full-time and began a career in national security which spanned about 60 years and continued right up to his passing in 2024.
Alan’s accomplishments spanned mathematics, computer science, data science, and, of course, code breaking, where he had groundbreaking successes right from the start of his career. His analytic insights, countless hours of programming, engaging personality, and genuine interest in the success of his colleagues made him a catalyst for success in countless projects. One only had to get Alan on the team, and he would then attract many others to join.
In 1979 Alan joined the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) – Center for Communications Research in Princeton, NJ., where he worked full time for 36 years. Alan took special interest in creative mathematicians, both permanent staff members and summer interns, and helped them provide practical solutions to critical real-world problems. His humor and enthusiasm attracted many first-time summer hires and helped them fit in to the IDA culture and be highly productive on the summer’s problems. Alan went out of his way to mentor young people.
Every one of his “protegees” felt that the guidance and experience he gave them was invaluable, and many of them continued working with him later. On a personal level, Alan had enormous insights and practical results in mathematical modeling and could be considered an early pioneer of artificial intelligence (AI).
In the latter years of his career, Alan joined a virtual group of former cryptanalysts and did pro bono work on the problem of finding malicious Internet actors by applying machine learning and behavioral analytics to their network traces. Once again, his enthusiasm attracted several others to join the research project and the team achieved significant milestones in the application of AI to the problem.
Passion for Family, Friends and Life-Long Learning
Alan is survived by his beloved wife of 25 years, Nanette; son, Daniel, and daughters, Denise, Jennifer, and Laura; sister, Joanne, and nephews, Jonathan and Seth; and 5 grandchildren.
None had to work hard to make him proud of them; it was obvious. It was also obvious to his friends, who probably had to hear stories about his kids, and then his grandkids, every time they spoke.
Alan’s unfailingly positive outlook is one of the many reasons he continued to make friends throughout his life; his oldest friend is more than 50 years older than his youngest one. He was even friends with his children’s friends, and his friends’ children: he savored living vicariously with just as much enthusiasm as doing it himself. He found something positive to say about everyone he ever had the chance to know.
Among other qualities, he was persistent, and brilliant. When he had an idea, he couldn’t let it go. But he was usually right.
One of Alan’s lifelong obsessions was learning, which he liked to divide into 10-year epochs. There was the Greek art history phase, and then the poker phase, and then the learning languages phase: first French, and then Spanish. Another obsession was planning for the future, which was always going to be a bit better than today.
He had a natural curiosity which drove him to try new things like learning how to fly and getting his pilot’s license. He particularly enjoyed trying new foods and cuisines, which were all delicious. To be fair, old foods were delicious, too.
In Dylan Thomas’ poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” the poet exhorts his father to rage, to rage against the dying of the light.
Alan Gordon Richter, 77, passed away peacefully at his wife’s side on January 19, 2024, after a long and contented life. He was a long-time New Jersey resident before retiring in Cocoa Beach, FL. His light was never in jeopardy; there was no need for fury. In fact, if you peer closely enough, today his light is just a bit brighter than it was yesterday.
Although his loss is difficult to bear for those of us who must now tend to that light, we can recall what Elizabeth Gaskell wrote on bereavement, in her novel Wives and Daughters: “It’s not so easy to break one’s heart.”
The family is planning a memorial service in New Jersey, sometime late March / early April. Details will be announced at a later time. The family would also like to thank all who offered their condolences and shared memories. Alan was truly a remarkable person who impacted so many and will be missed by all who knew him.