High-tech entrepreneur Arthur Gelb and his wife, Linda, recently gave MIT over $2 million to help create the Laboratory for Complex Systems in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The gift will cover construction and scholarships for the new lab.
“I hope that giving to MIT will make an important and lasting difference in the lives of many people. Having once been on the receiving end, I understand more than I can say. I was once down real low. And believe me, I haven’t forgotten where I’ve come from.”
Gelb grew up in Brooklyn an only child. His father died when he was 15. The next year, his mother died. Then he moved in with two single aunts.
Once a friend’s mother took him by the hand and rode the train with him to a Manhattan church, where he was awarded a $1000 scholarship. “It made a real mark on my consciousness,” he says. “I realized there were people out there willing and able to help others. I never forgot that.”
Soon after, he went to City College because it was free, working part-time and riding the trains nearly four hours a day to get there and back.
“Every once in a while the loss of my parents would get to me. At night I’d go downstairs to the street and light a pipe and just walk–one mile one way and one mile the other way. I’d just try to relax.
“Going through it, I never felt sorry for myself. I found out early that I’m a survivor. I wish I didn’t learn that lesson so early, but I learned that you take whatever comes your way and deal with it .”
Gelb threw himself into his schoolwork. He graduated City College second in his class. Then he got a master’s in applied mathematics from Harvard in 1959 and a Sc.D. from MIT in systems engineering in 1961. “I decided that focusing on education would be a stabilizing force,” he says.
Later, he wrote two books and in 1963 got a patent for developing a medical instrument. (He had seen an allergist preparing an emulsion for injection into a patient and thought, Gee, I can automate that.)
After MIT, he became manager of systems analysis at Dynamics Research Corp. in Stoneham, Ma., and five years later co-founded The Analytic Sciences Corporation, (TASC) in Reading, Ma., an applied information technology company with government, commercial, and industrial clients.
At the outset, TASC had little money and no customers. “Someone offered to buy the company after four days, but I loved the feeling of free-fall, and I wouldn’t have sold it for a million dollars,” he says.
Gelb says he is most glad the company contributed to the needs of society, creating over 2,000 jobs in the process. In 1991, he sold the $250 million company and later founded Four Sigma Corp. in Woburn, Ma., a company that uses computer modeling to trade in the stock market.
For fun, Gelb plays tennis and golf and loves to listen to music. In fact, there’s a sound system in his house that pipes music into every room.
“Music moves me emotionally the way few things can,” he says. “I have accidentally solved some of the most technical problems while at Boston Symphony Hall listening to music. It totally unblocks your creativity.”
He says that without doubt his greatest pride in life is his family. “I don’t take them for granted in any way. You’ve heard it said that no one on his death bed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’ It’s so true,” he says.
He also says that one of his greatest pleasures in life is playing with his seven grandchildren. “They release a joy in me I didn’t know I had.”
He also often visits his house on Cape Cod. While driving over the bridge to the Cape, he removes his wristwatch. “When I relax, I don’t want to know what day or time it is.”
Gelb adds that what he views as his greatest success in life is his achievement at MIT. “Nothing comes close,” he says. “Business success is important, but my academic success at MIT is my proudest success. I got a multidisciplinary doctorate with a 5.0 grade point average in just under two years.
“I held MIT in such esteem and entered with such awe of the institution that to be able to succeed so well here just was a feeling of accomplishment for me that nothing has come close to.”
Now with great business success, Gelb says: “I’m living the American dream, and I consider myself very fortunate. I try very hard not to forget my origins, because right now I’ve got it all.
“My early life taught me the fragility of life and that some people have great needs. I learned not to be so cocky about where you are in life. If you do have money, it’s important to understand that there are others out there who don’t. Once you recognize that, you need to give–if you have a heart.”