Obituary: Keith Gunderson had 'appreciation for the absurd'

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 23, 2013 - 8:42 PM

 

Keith Gunderson’s exploration of humanity ranged from a philosophical text on artificial intelligence to a poem on mischievous boys winning a school vote. A former University of Minnesota philosophy professor who was remembered as “constantly curious” and a “pixie full of delight,” he died Oct. 14 after a two-year battle with liver cancer. He was 78.

Gunderson’s “Mentality and Machines,” published in the early days of computers, argued that they couldn’t attain consciousness, and the book’s tenets hold up after decades of technological advances. His poetry remains popular among families and in Minneapolis schools, where selections from his book, “3142 Lyndale Av. So., Apt. 24” are read aloud.

Gunderson often pondered the abstract, and wrote poetry in classic verse, but many of his poems were slices of life that sounded “like a run-on sentence about what a child would say,” said his youngest son, Nate Gunderson of Minneapolis. In “Naming the State Bird,” boys sway a class vote in favor of the chicken as the Minnesota state bird but end up losing when the teacher decides it should be an oriole.

“He didn’t pay attention to the rules, which allowed him to be freer with his thought,” his youngest son said. “I don’t know that he would describe it that way, but as I understand it, it gave him a voice that was different from the norm.”

Gunderson attended Macalester College and then the University of Oxford in the mid-1950s on a Fulbright Scholarship. As a Minnesotan who could skate left, if not right, he played hockey for the Oxford squad. He earned his doctorate from Prince­ton University. Gunderson married Donna Gunderson-Rogers, the mother of his three sons, but they divorced and he later married Sandra Riekki. Few things, relatives said, made him smile as much as time with his sons and their accomplishments — Christopher is a sociology professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Jonathon is a philosophy professor at Century College and Metro State University; and Nate is an organizer with the American Federation of Teachers.

Christopher said his father “exercised enormous influence” on him, and that his father’s activism against the Vietnam War inspired his own work for social justice.

Nate recalled being something of a prop as a toddler: His father once put him in a snowsuit that made him look like a robot for a demonstration in a philosophy class. He also set Nate on his knee, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, and told jokes and tales during story times for neighborhood kids. Nate recalled fishing with his father on Lake Waconia, and their $1 bets for catching the first, smallest, biggest, most and last fish. The son beat the father once, Nate said. “I caught the only fish so I won all $5.”

Christopher remembered his father’s patience as he noisily asked questions while they fished Up North on Steamboat Lake.

“When I couldn’t bear to kill the fish anymore and earnestly declared myself a vegetarian,” his oldest son said, “he gave me a copy of Peter Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ so that at least my arguments on the matter would be better thought out.”

Nate said he treasured a talk with his father shortly before his death. He wondered if his father was contemplating string theory or obscure physics, as physics had become something of a hobby in retirement. But that wasn’t on his mind. The two men sat in silence a bit longer before the father spoke.

“I’ve been thinking about all the different kinds of kindnesses,” his son recalled him saying. “So many different people have been so kind. I didn’t know that I would have ever known all of those types of kindnesses.”

In addition to his wife and sons, Gunderson is survived by four grandchildren.

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