Richard Colombo

Richard Colombo (1947 – 2008)

Richard Colombo was a much loved and celebrated scholar, and mentor and teacher.

Richard got his BS degree Cambridge University (UK).  After working for a decade as a statistician for the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys in UK, Richard obtained his MBA and doctoral degrees from Columbia University.  He held professorial appointments in Columbia, New York University and Yale.  At the time of his death, he was a professor at Fordham University where he also served as the also Program Director for the Bert Twaalfhoven Center for Entrepreneurship.

Listen to Don Morrison (Don), Richard’s doctoral advisor, a friend and a colleague, and one of the founders of marketing science community (now Professor Emeritus at University of California at Los Angeles) as he recollects Richard with such poignancy, “Richard was a truly special person. His impact was large wherever he was. Successful athletics teams usually have a player who is not the best, but what creates the necessary good chemistry/culture on the team. This person (male or female) is called The Glue Guy. Richard was The Glue Guy at all of his academic stops and of course with his family.”

Don now on Richard’s abilities and acumen, and initiatives and impact: “Richard Colombo was in many ways my most interesting PhD student. Richard came to Columbia with an undergraduate from Cambridge having majored in math, physics and computer science. He had ten years of statistical work in industry and was fluent with both volumes of Kendall and Stuart. To say that Richard was a better mathematician and statistician than his advisor is an understatement. I learned a lot from Richard. We wrote several articles together. Richard was the thought leader on two of them. One day Richard brought in a newspaper article from the UK on blacklisting social science departments where PhD students took too long to finish their dissertations. The sample sizes varied greatly, and Richard figured out which universities were really poor versus just being unlucky. Our article had real impact in the UK with these universities. Dave Schmittlein and I wrote many papers together. One of the best—some say THE BEST—is “Counting your Customers (Management Science, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1977).  I had the basic idea much earlier. Dave was then able to supply the mathematics that I could not. This article was Richard’s dissertation. Richard was able to calculate the value of a very difficult math concept needed. A physics professor even wrote to Richard asking how he calculated this function. It was a great collaboration, but I felt I was being pulled along by my two students.”

Here is David Schmittlein (Dave), John C. Head Dean and Professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, on Richard’s curiosity and intellect, “I share with Don the curiosity Richard always brought to times together, and the quality of mind to explore broadly and deeply; always with affection and without ego.”  Barbara Khan, Patty and Jay Baker Professor at Wharton, has this to say, “I mostly remember him as a very intelligent colleague, who was calm and thoughtful. He always had an interesting perspective on things.”

Richard’s colleagues at Fordham University testify glowingly to the many elements that made Richard such a complete scholar-gentleman: his intellect, his wide-ranging interests, his humanness and more. In many ways, the measure of a human being is best attested by men and women who are everyday colleagues and colleagues. And that’s what makes Fordham faculty’s endearing recollections so poignant.

Hooman Estelami (Hooman), Professor of Marketing at the Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University recalls Richard as an intellectual leader, “I knew Richard Colombo before he knew me. Like all other doctoral students in Marketing, I had carefully studied his seminal papers on stochastic choice modeling. They were beautifully written papers inspired by important questions and approached the issues with an amazing sense of methodological elegance.”

David Gautschi, Dean emeritus at Fordham, recalls his frequent interactions with Richard when Richard was collaborating with Darius Sabavala. “Richard and Darius were similarly and impressively skilled in quantitative methods. Their positive influence on others, particularly in marketing science, went well beyond their published work. Richard was always helping others who may have been struggling to solve difficult problems.”  Hooman Estelami observes, “As an academic, Richard had a unique ability to cut through the clutter and identify the strengths and weaknesses of research work.”

In recognition of Richard’s significant influence as a faculty leader and to honor Richard, Dawn Lerman (Dawn), another faculty colleague and Professor of Marketing and Founder of the Center for Positive Marketing at Fordham, sponsored the launch of The Richard Colombo Marketing Analytics Competition. Each year the competition continues to provide a platform for students to compete in providing a data-driven solution to a marketing problem, issue or question. As Dawn explains, “Richard's legacy lives on not only in the competition but also in the way we built and continue to grow our quantitative and analytics course offerings and the way we recruit faculty to teach quantitative courses in marketing.” 

Richard was innovative and always thinking of new ways. Who would think of Linear Programming as a tool for scheduling courses across many disciplines in a School or a University. Richard did, and he demonstrated the application to be robust.  Dawn remembers Richard proposing at a faculty meeting a course schedule that he had derived using linear programming. “It wasn't the course schedule that he was interested in sharing as much as the process of deriving a course schedule using linear programming. His hopes of changing how courses in the area were scheduled were quickly dashed, but the idea that there must be and often is a better way stuck with me.”

How do colleagues and friends remember him?  Hooman remembers Richard as “...always positive ... kind and caring, for sure. He was also calm as an individual and calming as a friend. Whenever I was around him, there was a sense of peacefulness, and in many ways, he resembled the best of humanity.”  Hooman concludes, “Richard is still with us today since, for those of us that were fortunate enough to know him, his kindness, caring, and loving ways of looking at life have affected our own life perspectives.”

Recalling a dinner evening at Richard’s house in Connecticut, Dave has this to say, “The whole evening, at which several doctoral students were present (I recall I believe the Kahn Meyers) was full of a joy, thoughtfulness, camaraderie and community that felt effortless.  And rare.  The magic in the evening emanated from Molly and Richard.  For me at least, when I perpetually felt the need to be doing four other things, it was enough to be in that moment, without wanting it to end.”

G.K. Kalyanaram, a fellow academic, remembers Richard to be a “large-hearted, generous-spirited man with stupendous statistical knowledge and skills and an acute awareness of priorities in life.”

Don, after almost 14 years of Richard’s passing, remembers Richard in these personal, exquisite, expansive and poetic sentiments: Of course, I have fond memories of Richard the scholar. I have even fonder memories of Richard the person. Richard was one of the most grounded people I have known.  Richard’s wife Molly and children Ben and Sarah were the most important people in his life. Richard passed on his IQ points and love of learning to both children. At age 6 Sarah had a good concept of infinity. She looked at a Cream of Wheat cereal box and saw the chef with the smaller same chef with yet again the same even smaller chef and it never ended thus there were an infinite number of chefs.  When I moved from Columbia to UCLA, I had many trips back to the New York area. On two of these trips, I spent a day and night with the Colombo family. It was a joy to spend time with this loving and thoroughly happy family. I don’t rank order my PhD students, but with respect to combining an academic career and family life Richard did this as well as anyone.

Richard also had a wonderful, understated sense of humor—even when he was terminally ill with prostate cancer. In my last telephone conversation with Richard a month or so before he passed away, Richard said that he was doing well and that he was living well past his “sell by date”. I so miss Richard as do many of my students. I know that some of them in the New York area get together occasionally and often include Molly Colombo. I like to think of my former PhD students as extended family and collectively as a team. It is rewarding to me to see that the “team” still includes Richard’s widow Molly. Richard is looking down and proud of his teammates.”

Dave makes this wonderful personal and wistful reflection which speak volumes of Richard’s nobility, “Though my involvement with Richard was much smaller and more brief than Don’s, I have universally and without qualification wished to be more like him than I am.”

Gurumurthy Kalyanaram (GK) 
May 2022