Paul R. Kleindorfer: Farewell to a gentle giant

By Luk N. Van Wassenhove

Paul Kleindorfer passed away August 24 after a long and courageous fight against illness. Even though we all knew this was coming the shock is still rude because he was such a special man who did not leave a single soul untouched.

Paul joined INSEAD after retiring from Wharton and moving to Paris. He held the Dubrule chair in Sustainability and made his mark on the TOM area, the Social Innovation Centre, and perhaps above all, on our PhD students and colleagues.

Of course, Paul was an exceptional academic. No need to repeat that since a quick glance at his CV would humble any researcher. But Paul contributed to different fields and bridged areas, e.g. linking risk, finance, operations, economics, energy, sustainable mobility and sustainable operations and quite a few I forget. In short, he was one of a disappearing breed of true scholars.

Paul was far from an armchair academic. He strongly influenced policy making and business practice, e.g. with his work on accident risk in the chemical industry, or by making an impact on postal services in many countries. He recognized big issues and found ways of translating his academic insights into practical solutions.

However, Paul was not just a professor. Did you know he was a great singer, an accomplished guitar player, a true lover of poetry and so much more? Were his days 48 hours or was he just one of these exceptional renaissance men? I believe you know the answer.

All of the above sounds anecdotal once you add “Paul, the amazing human being”. Never have I seen a more generous man, always ready to help. His enthusiasm, smile and positive attitude would lighten up even the darkest day. How many times did I come out in the corridor only to hear his characteristic voice shout “Hey amigo, are you behaving?” His sense of humour and lust for life were legendary. Even just before passing away he was still in good spirits, asking for the latest juicy gossip about INSEAD.

Paul was unique with students. He was not the typical academic seeking to seduce only the brightest PhD students. Instead you could always find Paul patiently working with students who were struggling to get through the program, taking them by the hand and leading them to graduation and beyond. He would even co-author with them later to help them progress in their career. Pretty exceptional in our current dog-eat-dog academic culture I would say.

To many people Paul was a mentor. I wish I could have his generosity or his positive view on life but like many others, I guess I hardly reach to his knees (which is not so bad for those who knew Paul). He scared the living daylights out of me as fresh PhD student arriving straight from the airport at Wharton some 35 years ago. It was mid-July and Paul was about the only person in the building. He had arranged for a place for me to stay the first week. When I met him he shouted “Hold on a second, I’m coming” Two minutes later he passed by my rented car in front of the building on his bike crying “Follow me!” So here I am following my advisor I just met while he is guiding me through the streets of Philadelphia on his bike, in shorts and sandals and with a coke in his hand. Talking about a culture shock! Where I came from a PhD student would hardly be worthy of carrying the professor’s overhead projector to class…that was Paul then and that is how he has always been: An amazing person and a true friend.

In spite of his terrible illness that slowly took all normal bodily functions away, he continued to work, happy as a child when he solved another problem that had been bugging him for a decade: “I have time to think now” is what he said of that. Thanks to the eye-controlled computer INSEAD made available to him he was able to remain active and to communicate with his family and friends. In the last months of his life he finished four papers and edited a book. Don’t ask me how. His energy and willpower were way outside of the 3-sigma control limits of the normal homo sapiens. Unfortunately, even his eyes started to fail on him and communication became extremely difficult. That’s when Paul said that it was time to engage on what he called his “final voyage”. Throughout his terrible illness as well as during the last weeks he showed huge courage and mental strength. As one friend put it “He even taught us a lesson in how to go in style”.

Paul is gone but for many of us he is still very much present. There is no way one can forget Paul if one has had the privilege to know him. A colleague told me “If Michelin was giving stars for humans they would need to invent a fourth star for Paul”. Come to think of it, Paul probably would have liked to be a four-star general drinking a beer and cracking jokes. May he find the peace he was looking for.

Take care, Amigo…