I heard earlier this morning that Fred Jelinek passed away last night. Apparently he had been working during the day: a tenacious aspect of Fred that probably has a lot to do with his many successes.
Fred is probably most infamous for the famous "Every time I fire a linguist the performace of the recognizer improves" quote, which Jurafsky+Martin's textbook says is actually supposed to be the more innocuous "Anytime a linguist leaves the group the recognition rate goes up." And in Fred's 2009 ACL Lifetime Achievement Award speech, he basically said that such a thing never happened. I doubt that will have any effect on how much the story is told.
Fred has had a remarkable influence on the field. So much so that I won't attempt to list anything here: you can find all about him all of the internet. Let me just say that the first time I met him, I was intimidated. Not only because he was Fred, but because I knew (and still know) next to nothing about speech, and the conversation inevitably turned to speech. Here's roughly how a segment of our conversation went:
Hal: What new projects are going on these days?
Fred: (Excitedly.) We have a really exciting new speech recognition problem. We're trying to map speech signals directly to fluent text.
Hal: (Really confused.) Isn't that the speech recognition problem?
Fred: (Playing the "teacher role" now.) Normally when you transcribe speech, you end up with a transcrit that includes disfluencies like "uh" and "um" and also false starts [Ed note: like "I went... I went to the um store"].
Hal: So now you want to produce the actual fluent sentence, not the one that was spoken?
Apparently (who knew) in speech recognition you try to transcribe disfluencies and are penalized for missing them! We then talked for a while about how they were doing this, and other fun topics.
A few weeks later, I got a voicemail on my home message machine from Fred. That was probably one of the coolest things that have ever happened to me in life. I actually saved it (but subsequently lost it, which saddens me greatly). The content is irrelevant: the point is that Fred -- Fred! -- called me -- me! -- at home! Amazing.
I'm sure that there are lots of other folks who knew Fred better than me, and they can add their own stories in comments if they'd like. Fred was a great asset to the field, and I will certainly miss his physical presense in the future, though his work will doubtless continue to affect the field for years and decades to come.