October 7, 2004
Vol. 24 No. 2

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    Harry Roberts, pioneer in applying Bayesian statistics

    Harry V. Roberts, the Sigmund E. Edelstone Professor Emeritus of Statistics and Quality Management in the Graduate School of Business, died Saturday, Aug. 14, at the Rest Haven South Nursing Home in South Holland, Ill. He was 81.

    Roberts joined the faculty in 1949, and after his retirement in 1995, he continued teaching courses in the GSB’s Executive Education program. Roberts became Professor Emeritus in 1993.

    Described by colleagues as an enthusiastic statistician who loved his work, Roberts had curiosity and passion for problem solving that led him to continually reinvent himself through his long academic career.

    “In addition to his selflessness as a colleague and a teacher, Harry had the paradoxical quality of being incredibly broad in his interests, but within those interests, incredibly deep,” said Harry Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management in the GSB. “In many fields, Harry would often get involved early and set the research agenda for his peers. His interests always had a practical dimension, in terms of how people could use the research to do their work more effectively.”

    Davis added, “Harry modeled the very best of what collegiality at the GSB is about, and that is his enduring legacy. You can see his mark in ways beyond his research publications. He was an incredibly important part of the history of the school.”

    Roberts was a pioneer in looking at the applications of Bayesian statistics to business decision-making. His varied research interests also included interactive computing; time series analysis; the relation between statistical theory and practical decision-making; survey methodology and practice; and quality and productivity improvement.

    Roberts was the co-author of many influential publications, including two groundbreaking books written with former faculty members: Basic Methods of Marketing Research with James Lorie, and the textbook Statistics: A New Approach with W. Allan Wallis. He also co-authored an early work on the random walk hypothesis of stock market prices, “Differencing of Random Walks and Near Random Walks,” with Nicholas Gonedes, published in the Journal of Econometrics in 1977.

    Roberts was an early computer enthusiast, and was especially interested in developing computer methods for statistical analysis. In the late 1960s, Roberts, in collaboration with his wife, June, and Robert Ling, developed a statistics package called Interactive Data Analysis, making it possible to perform statistical tasks in any sequence instead of having to follow rigid procedures. The program was used for statistical instruction at a number of top business schools.

    Toward the end of his career, Roberts helped develop a curriculum in Total Quality Management at the GSB.

    “Harry was always accessible to his students and fellow faculty, and would spend enormous amounts of time helping with their problems,” said John Gould, the Steven G. Rothmeier Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and former Dean of the Graduate School of Business. “He was also committed to being an effective teacher of statistics. Many generations of students have admired his innovations and energy in the classroom.”

    In 1997, Roberts was awarded the University’s Norman Maclean Faculty Award, which recognizes emeritus faculty for their contributions to teaching and to the student experience on campus.

    In recognition of Roberts’ career achievements, the Chicago chapter of the American Statistical Association created the Harry V. Roberts Statistical Advocate Award. The first of these awards was given in January 2002.

    Roberts received an A.B. from Chicago in 1943, and shortly thereafter was drafted to serve in World War II in the 4th Armored Division. After fighting in France and Belgium, he was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and became a prisoner of war. Following the war, Roberts returned to Chicago and earned an M.B.A. with honors from Chicago in 1947. After completing his M.B.A., he worked in marketing research at the advertising firm McCann-Erickson.

    Roberts began teaching at the University’s Graduate School of Business in 1949 as an Instructor of Statistics and was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1951. He earned his Ph.D. from Chicago in 1955, and was then appointed Associate Professor.

    In 1959, he was appointed Professor, and in 1991, he received his named professorship, the Sigmund E. Edelstone Professor of Statistics and Quality Management.

    Roberts is survived by his wife of 60 years, June, of South Holland; a son Andrew and daughter Mary; and five grandchildren, including two sets of twins, Vincent and Veronique, Alexander and Benjamin, and Connor.

    The Roberts family lived in Homewood, Ill., for nearly 50 years. Roberts was active in the Homewood community, having served as chairman of the Zone Board of Appeals and as a member of the Plan Commission and Rezoning Commission, and he provided enrollment projections for Homewood-Flossmoor High School.

    Memorial services for Roberts will be private. Memorial contributions may be sent to the Homewood Izaak Walton Preserve, 1100 Ridge Road, Homewood, Ill. 60430, or to the Graduate School of Business, 1101 E. 58th St., Chicago, Ill. 60637.