Writer, activist, father, brother, uncle, friend. Born Jan. 7, 1938, in Stamford, Conn., died Jan. 29, 2012, in Toronto of complications from cancer, aged 74.
Mahatma Gandhi advised us: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Whether opposing the Vietnam War or advocating peaceful uses of nuclear energy, Stephen Salaff lived his life convinced that one person’s actions could make the world a better place.
The son of Philip Salaff, an engineer/union organizer, and his wife Sylvia, a college graduate and the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who worked as lace cutters, Stephen had a sense of social justice nurtured from an early age. Extraordinarily bright, he demonstrated precocious mathematical and musical aptitude.
Though he was an accomplished flutist at age 18, his exacting standards prevented him pursuing a music career. “If I can’t become the best, I’d rather do something else,” he told his younger brother.
Stephen attended Columbia University and the University of London, where he received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics (and picked up a British accent). He earned a PhD in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley. There, he met Janet Weitzner, a fellow student and activist. They married in 1964.
His wife’s research took them to Asia. Stephen taught math at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he met student prodigy Shing-Tung Yau and took him under his wing.
“Without Steve’s help, I would not be the mathematician I am now,” says Yau, who is world-renowned for discovering mathematical proofs of string theory and is currently chairman of Harvard University’s math department.
Stephen’s proudest accomplishment occurred on May 27, 1972, when daughter Shana Angela Salaff was born in Toronto and named after journalist Shana Alexander and writer/political activist Angela Davis.
He revelled in fatherhood and often wrote letters to his mother-in-law, recording Shana’s every diaper change, every feed, and every milestone. He wasn’t your typical dad, Shana remembers, as he usually did things to the extreme: no sugar, no TV and a serious emphasis on education.
He loved to cook Asian food and learned from the experts. One could often find Stephen in the back of a Chinese or Indian restaurant, where he’d chat with the chef about cooking techniques and later reproduce that same dish in his own kitchen.
He could execute advanced yoga postures with joyful abandon. Later in life, Stephen became a freelance writer, producing hundreds of articles about atomic energy’s impact on the environment.
He was chief editor for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s book on peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Brilliant, tenacious and principled, Stephen lived a spartan life. He will be remembered for his steadfast work on the change he wanted to see in the world.
Jennifer Cho Salaff is the wife of Stephen’s nephew.