How I discovered what’s in a name

A tale of three languages, several nations, and thousands of miles.

By John Kehe

I am, if one can believe Internet searches, the only Edward Ordman in the world. This is surprising. My first cousin, a Michael Ordman in Massachusetts, and my distant cousin in England, also named Michael Ordman, are unrelated to the Michael Ordman I once visited in Jerusalem. My brother Dr. Alfred Ordman in Wisconsin discovered there was an unrelated Dr. Alfred Ordman in Canada when a professional inquiry intended for one was sent to the other by mistake.  Still, I am asked occasionally if I am the Edward Ordman, and one of those occasions resulted from a series of events that spanned a quarter of a century, a number of countries, and even involved The Christian Science Monitor. The story begins in 1986.

I taught mathematics and computer science for many years at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. In 1986 I went to some mathematical conferences in Japan and China. My wife came along, and she became very friendly with Gabriella, the wife of a mathematician we met at the conferences, a Hungarian teaching at the University of Cambridge in England. 

Skip forward to 1994. I came home late from the office one day. “Why are you late?” my wife asked. 

“They finally got the money for an endowed chair in mathematics,” I said, “and they put me on the search committee.”

“They don’t need a search committee,” my wife said. “They need that Hungarian from Cambridge.”

“He has tenure at Cambridge. No one thinks he’ll come to Memphis.”

“His wife would love Memphis. Get him to come and give a lecture here, and be sure he brings his wife with him.”

Omitting several side issues and subplots, it happened. He came to visit, with Gabriella, and while he lectured at the university, my wife showed her around the city. My wife had done her homework: Gabriella was a sculptor, and my wife had arranged with our art department to offer studio space to her and provided information on the local bronze foundry. The Hungarians had a son they wanted to send to medical school, and my wife set up an appointment with the dean of the medical school. 

The professor accepted the position and the couple bought a house in Memphis. Over the next few years, several other Hungarian mathematicians followed him to Memphis. My wife and I went to so many Hungarian parties that we felt like honorary members of that community.

Another five years passed. I had a Vietnamese student who finished his PhD in computer science. That lunar new year, my wife and I attended a local Vietnamese New Year’s party, and enjoyed ourselves so much that I wrote about it. The essay appeared in The Christian Science Monitor on Jan. 22, 2002, and that led to my writing many more essays for the Monitor.

About 10 years after that, we had a phone call from our Hungarian friends, inviting us to a party. “You must come,” they said. 

On arriving we were led through the room to a group of men speaking Hungarian. One of the participants in the conversation clearly was not Hungarian. Our hostess introduced me to him. “This is Edward Ordman.”

The man looked startled and delighted. “Are you the Edward Ordman?” he asked.

Well, I replied, I think I’m the only Edward Ordman in the world. But clearly, an explanation was called for. 

The man explained. He was a Vietnamese mathematician who had fled years ago from Vietnam in a small boat. While in a refugee camp in the Philippines, he applied for jobs in the United States – unsuccessfully. He finally found a job in Budapest, Hungary; settled there; and learned to speak Hungarian. But he still longed to go to America.

In due course, a Budapest mathematician who had worked for a semester in Memphis told him that there were several Hungarian mathematicians there. He inquired further. 

“I learned that Memphis was a good place for Hungarians,” he said. “But I did not know if Memphis was a good place for Vietnamese. I went to the Internet and searched for ‘Vietnamese’ and ‘Memphis.’ I found an article in a newspaper called The Christian Science Monitor, by a man named Edward Ordman. It said Memphis was a good place for Vietnamese. So I applied for a job here, and here I am! 

“But I did not know that I would meet the Edward Ordman,” he said. 

I was, of course, as delighted as he was. Any author enjoys being noticed, but few have a reader introduce himself so enthusiastically, after a journey from Vietnam, via the Philippines and Budapest, to Memphis.

I don’t know who maintains the remarkable online archive of The Christian Science Monitor. But whoever does that work should know that it is useful, and appreciated, around the world.

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