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My mother

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Donald Knuth Scientist
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It all started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 1938 I was born. I don't remember anything about the first few years of my life, but I know a little bit from… from records that… that my parents kept that… that they… they were kind of unusual at that time in introducing me to reading. All of their friends said that I shouldn't, that… that I would be bored in school if they would do much reading for me, before I actually went to school.  But I was… I guess I was the youngest bookworm in the Milwaukee Public Library. I was… so that's the first news I have from the past, because they saved a newspaper clipping. I guess I was like two-and-a-half years old and… and I had become a bookworm at the… at the Milwaukee Library.
 
I start remembering things more when I get, you know, when I get into school, and I went to a small school at our church. My father was a teacher there. His life's work was to be an educator in the Lutheran school system, and… and their salaries weren't… weren’t much to speak of. I think… I think it was something like $10 or $15 a month. But it was… it was a very warm, loving community. We were pretty much ignorant of what's going on in the world, but… but happy and sort of a stable, nice place to grow up.

And when I was… when I was in first grade my dad was the second grade teacher, but then he moved on so that when I got into second grade he was the fourth grade teacher, and when I got into fourth grade, he was the sixth grade teacher. And finally, when I got into sixth grade, he went on to teach in high school, so, fortunately, I never had my dad as… as one of my teachers. In this school we had about oh, I think 20… 25 kids, and our teachers weren't real strong on science or mathematics, they were… but they were pretty good in English. They… like in seventh grade, I remember, that several of us would spend time after school, diagramming sentences; you know, take sentences of English and… that weren't in the book, and figure out what's the subject and the predicate, and how do the, you know, how do the phrases go in.  So we… so our teacher inspired us to… to know a lot about the English language, and by the time we got to high school, the teachers there in high school really didn't know that much about English, so that was… that was the only time I remember being bored, because we already knew everything that they were going to teach us in high school.

So the high school I went to, again, was a Lutheran high school. The… the people who work in these schools are, like my dad, doing it as kind of a mission, or, I don't know… not… they consider it their life's calling to be good teachers, and so… and so we really had people who… who took a genuine interest in us, and were not… not in their job just because it was… was a job, but because… because it was something that they felt was an important service to the world. Some people think that the church schools are places where they teach intolerance and you know, that you're supposed to only be… what do you say… anyway? Only… only be appreciating of people who are like you, and so on, but that was absolutely not the case. We… I think we had a very good experience and it was… it was… one of my teachers was a little bit prejudiced against blacks, but he… he stood out, and we didn't… we didn’t pay any attention to him. So it was… it was a… I think a really nice way to grow up, but nothing world class, in any sense of… of special, you know, special knowledge or unusual.

I think I was… I was kind of a wise guy. I think, I'd often sit in the back of the class and… and crack jokes, and the teachers didn't… didn't really like, the way, you know, my attitude. But you know, they… they learned to live with it, and I didn't get… I didn't get spanked too often, or whatever. We had good music also in the school, for singing, and… and, but we also had a lot of freedom, so I remember like, we had a circle of four or five friends, and when we were in… in fifth and sixth grade, we… we started doing some little projects, like we got hold of a tape recorder – this was in the 1940s – and we… we tried to write scripts for… for fake radio programs, and we pretended we were on the radio, and… and we put on these little shows, and recorded them. My friends and I started a school newspaper. We called it Newsweak, spelled W, E, A, K, of course. And… and in that paper we would tell stories about the things going on in the school, but also we recycled a lot of corny jokes that we had seen in… in books, and had a puzzle page and things like that. But that was when I… I had my first experience in writing, and… and as I say, we had good English in that… in that school.  So from… from early on, I had a lot of training in things that had to do with languages, and… and then a chance to do… do some creative work with things like these… these skits.

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Milwaukee Public Library, Lutheran, Newsweak

Duration: 7 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008