Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Jay Keyser. It is my bittersweet privilege to preside over this afternoon’s events: bitter because Morris is gone; sweet because, unlike Mark Antony’s Caesar, we have come to praise him.
I knew Morris for over half a century. In this company that is no distinction. Louis Kampf knew him for 60 years, Noam Chomsky for 70 years. Sylvain Bromberger was even more fortunate.
Musing about longevity, I surprised myself with the realization that I knew Morris longer than I knew my own father. It is also true that I learned as much from him.
Over the course of those years Morris and I shared many personal moments. I was sleeping on the third floor of the Halle family’s home on Waverley Avenue—Morris and I had been working together and I stayed the night—when he knocked on the door at 2:30 in the morning to tell me that my father had died. I remember helping him find a nursing home for Roz when it became impossible for the two of them to live together because of her infirmities. We found a place in Belmont. Every day, except when the weather made it impossible, Morris would walk to Harvard Square and take the bus to visit her. Occasionally, I would go with him. He would push her wheelchair around the grounds, keeping up a constant flow of cheerful conversation even though she couldn’t answer. Our friendship was built on moments like those.
My thoughts drifted to longevity because Morris once told me that he always thought of himself as living on borrowed time. To escape from Latvia, his father had booked a flight to Finland. It was canceled and they were forced to take a train to Russia. They hadn’t known the airport where they would have landed had been commandeered by the Nazis.
That sense of borrowed time stayed with him his entire life. When the century turned, he told me that the biggest mistake he’d ever made was to think that he would be alive to see that happen.
Morris had gone from not enough time to too much time. Why was that? I think I know the answer. A few years into retirement Morris told me that he never learned to veg out. The only thing he wanted to do was linguistics. He found that harder and harder to do as time went on.
I once asked him why he had chosen linguistics. He told me the reason was that he saw things that other people hadn’t and he was driven to write them down. I can’t think of a better illustration of that than a paper on the morphophonology of the Latin verb that he delivered on the occasion of the celebration of his 90th birthday at MIT.
I was astonished at his mastery of the Latin verb. It was as if he were a classical philologist. I was even more astonished at the beauty of his solution. It was, in typical Hallean fashion, a startlingly simple reanalysis of a morphophonological morass.
That was the last paper he ever wrote. He was 89 years old. From then on, his interests focused on his family. Morris once told me that one of the greatest delights of his life was seeing that his three children, David, John, and Tim, genuinely liked one another. That was a source of enormous comfort to him as, indeed, it should be to his sons as well. I would like to leave the boys with that thought.