Michael Friedberg
Home Up


Friday, September 12, 2008 - the day that will live in infamy here at SSQQ.  This is the day that Michael Friedberg died of a massive heart attack at his home.   This is also the day that Gary Schweinle died in a horrible
electrocution accident.

The SSQQ Community was stunned by the news that we lost both Michael and Gary on the very same day.  Both men died just hours before the Hurricane Ike ordeal.  

A lot of people were too shaken by these untimely deaths to even know what to say.

As our group ages, the specter of seeing our friends pass on becomes a dark issue that lingers in the backs of our minds. However nothing will ever prepare us for the sudden events that took from us these two wonderful men who had so much life left in them.

When we lost our good friend Tim Green to cancer earlier this year, I thought to myself it is never easy to see a life cut short when the person is so darn wonderful. It never dawned on me I would have to face this tragic reality again in the same year.

I am so sorry to say this is just as much true with Michael and Gary.  Both men had so much life left in them.

Here is an email from our friend George Sargent about Michael:

Michael and his girlfriend Dee Medina.  Ironically, this picture was
taken at Gary Schweinle's wedding reception in July 2008

"I talked with Dee Medina yesterday late afternoon. I could tell she was down but otherwise doing well. Dee and Mike dated since the summer of '05. Mike had been going to the studio for many years and was versed at many dances. He and Dee were regular patrons of Wild West. Mike was a math professor at the University of Houston - Dr. Mike Friedberg. Dee said he loved hanging out with young people, such as his students. This probably explains why he loved the studio so much and why he looked more young than he actually was - 69 years young.

Mike's sister was in town. Dee and his sister were with Mike when he apparently had a massive heart attack. Neither they nor the paramedics could revive him. Ironically, Mike and Dee heard about Gary Schweinle earlier that day and were lamenting that sad story.   Mike was loved by a lot of people."

Here is a second email. John Bear, a colleague of Michael's at the University of Houston, sent out this letter.

Subject: Funeral Services Set Friday for Michael Friedberg
Date: Thu, September 18, 2008 9:47 am

Dear Natural Sciences and Mathematics Faculty and Staff,

"I regret to inform our college community of the death of Professor Michael Friedberg, a well-respected Department of Mathematics faculty member for 41 years. Mike, age 69, died unexpectedly at home Friday.
Funeral services are scheduled at noon Friday at Beth Israel Cemetery, which is within Woodland Cemetery at I-10 and Antoine (1105 Antoine at I-10).  

Because the funeral home is without air conditioning due to the hurricane, men do not need to wear suits to the service.

Mike is survived by a daughter, Lorraine Coats, and a sister, Roberta Russell. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions in his memory to the Michael Friedberg Scholarship Fund at the University of Houston. Donations may be sent to NSM Development Office, 214 Science & Research Bldg. 1, Houston, TX 77204-5008.

Mike joined UH in 1967, specializing in topological algebra with an emphasis in topological semigroups. He previously was an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee.

He earned a B.S. in mathematics in 1961 from the University of Miami and a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University in 1965. He also received an M.B.A. in 1984 from UH."

Note From Rick Archer:

Michael's time at SSQQ goes all the way back to the Nineties. I ran across an article from the September 2000 Newsletter that said a lot. To put things into context, Ben and Diane Liles were in a crisis due the premature birth of their son Cole (who is now Eight and doing Great!). Susie Merrill organized a fundraiser that Mike participated in.

Here is a brief excerpt:
"It turns out that the Intellects did not "click well" as a team. Mike Friedberg knew many of the answers, but he was so soft-spoken that most of the time his suggestions were ignored. Too bad.

For one thing, Mike knew that "Nantucket" was a better answer as the major fishing island of Massachusetts, but somehow "Martha's Vineyard" was submitted. Tsk.

Another time Mike was pretty sure that "Mickey and Minnie" was Janet Jackson's tattoo in an unmentionable area of her body, but was overruled for "Chip and Dale". David was almost incontrollable in his delight - anyone who watches the Disney Channel would have gotten that answer easily. I might add the "Playboy Channel" might have been an equally useful venue in answering this one. (But I am just taking other people's words for it.)"   (for the complete story, visit
Casino Night )

This excerpt from the 2000 fundraiser reminds me again just how smart Michael was (VERY SMART) as well as how gentle and unassuming he was.

I cannot honestly say I knew Michael well on a personal level. What I did know was that he was very bright and also quiet and private. He definitely didn't talk about himself very much. In fact, I was stunned several years ago when he told me he had recently had heart surgery! It's a good thing I was sitting down or I would have fallen over at the news!

The conversation came about when I saw him at the studio and realized I hadn't seen him for a while. So with my usual charm and tact, I went over to chew him out for being a stranger. Then I asked him what sort of stupid excuse he had for staying away so long... "oh, I had heart surgery..."

Well, that shut me up.

From that point on, Michael was a regular again at the studio. He particularly enjoyed coming on Wednesday nights because he loved taking Western Cha Cha and Western Waltz from Sharon Shaw. He also enjoyed seeing his friends as well. For example, Michael participated in several of the Hill Country Honky-Tonk Tours organized by Jim Colby and Marlane Kayfes.

As George Sargent mentioned earlier, Michael was dating a lovely woman named Dee Medina for the past three years. I can honestly say this lady was a wonderful influence in Michael's life because I have never seen him smile so much as long as I have known him.

You see, Michael was sort of a 'grumpy gus' when I first met him. He was a fixture in my Martian Whip class for several years. He wasn't a negative person, but I would hardly describe him as a rah rah type either. He was always extremely pleasant and polite, but when I first met him I thought there was an underlying sadness about him. That all changed when Dee came into his life. From that point on, I actually saw him laugh and smile. I completely approved. That's what a good woman will do for you!

In preparation for this story, I dug around for pictures. Neither of the usual places - Cruise Trips and Halloween Parties - yielded a single picture. That reminded me how I was constantly bugging the poor man to participate at the studio social events more. Every year I would ask Michael if he was going on this year's dance cruise. I would remind him of all those single women who would love to see a good looking guy like him on the trip.

You would think with bait like that I would get a bite. Not Michael. Every year he came up with some stupid excuse like having to teach his math class at the University of Houston. He actually thought his students liked him! Imagine that (I wouldn't understand). Or maybe it was the other way around - he liked his students. I couldn't stand all that sentimental nonsense about 'liking students'. Humbug. So I told him to tape a lecture just like everyone else, but he was old-fashioned and responsible. He thought his students actually appreciated how dependable he was and how he always came to class like clockwork. Plus he said they actually listened to him! I suppose they did like him a little, but I wanted him on the cruise! I wanted to see him have fun!  How could teaching a math class be more important than dancing on the Caribbean and playing dodge ball with hurricanes?

Plus every year I would pick on the poor guy about the Halloween Party. "Well, are you coming this year, Michael?" You see, I don't think Michael ever came to a single Halloween Party. Maybe I am wrong, but a review of seven straight years of parties didn't reveal a single picture.

I always gave Michael a hard time. I thought he was a handsome guy, but he had a very rugged face. I always told Michael he could do Freddy Krueger without the mask!  Michael must have had the same twisted sense of humor as I do because that got a rare smile out of him. Or maybe he was just imagining what he could do to me if he had a set of those claws available.

If forced to guess, I don't think Michael liked crowds. He was a private man. That's just the way he was. All the needling in the world from me didn't budge him one inch. And lord knows I tried. Much of our rapport revolved around me nagging him to do something and him resisting. For example, a couple of those cruises took place in the summer. No classes at U of H. What's your excuse this time, smart guy? That didn't work either. But I don't think he minded me teasing him because I am positive he knew I liked him.

And that's the truth - I liked Michael very much. I always enjoyed seeing him. I only bugged him because I really liked having him around. Michael made the studio a better place. Michael was a neat guy.

I will finish my story here. I have little doubt another anecdote will pop into my mind immediately after I publish the story, but I think you get the point - Michael Friedberg was a classy, thoughtful, very sensitive human being who was an important member of our community.

Michael will certainly be missed.

September 19, 2008 - The Funeral for Michael
Written by Rick Archer

The service for Michael was held
at the Beth Israel Cemetery, which is within Woodland Cemetery over in Spring Branch.  We were directed to a lovely open-air meditation area complete with extensive seating.  We had a roof, but there were only three walls.  As a result we were able to look out onto the beautiful grounds of Woodland Cemetery during the ceremony.  It was very peaceful indeed.  Whoever designed this facility had a touch of genius about them.

In all, I estimate there were 150 people present.  For someone as quiet as Michael, he certainly managed to garner quite a bit of love and respect!  I noticed many young people who surely were his math students over at the University of Houston.  That made me smile.

There must have been forty people from the studio who came to wish Michael farewell.  Indeed, there were so many people to say their farewells to this man that they ran out of parking spaces.  Many of us had to park on the lawn.  

The service was short and very wonderful.  Michael's Rabbi got up in front of us all to read a story about Michael's life.  I assume that the lady had interviewed the people who were close to Michael to create such a thorough account.  In fact, the praises of Michael were so deep and so heart-felt that I doubt this quiet, humble man would have felt comfortable hearing such tribute.  Isn't it a shame that some people like Michael are so modest that we have to wait till they are dead to say in public all the nice things we think about them privately?  Michael just refused to let people make a fuss over him.  He preferred to stay in the background and watch things unfold.

Indeed, I cannot begin to tell you how amazed I was to hear the various stories.  I felt ridiculous that I had to come to this wonderful man's funeral to learn more about him in 20 minutes than I had been able to ascertain in ten years at the studio!  Why didn't I know this stuff when he was alive? 

For example, I found out that Michael was an expert on the Civil War.  He had the ability to rattle off details like the dates of all the major battles (so can I, but I have to read from a book to do it).  Since it turns out my own father was also a Civil War buff, I would have loved to ask Michael to share some of his insights and theories on this controversial war ("and would the North still have won if Buford had not been allowed to seize the high ground at Gettysburg?").  It filled me with regret to think to myself it's too late now.

I also was surprised to discover Michael loved sports.  Again, here was something he and I had in common that I never knew about.  I felt crushed to learn so much about the man and not be able to talk to him about it!

The lady who read the story spoke of Michael's early days in New York City and how he moved to Miami when he was young.  He was a wizard at math from the very start.  He was directed into accounting, "a practical career", but managed to forge his own path and study math instead.  Apparently he got his doctorate at LSU and his first major teaching position at the University of Tennessee.  He began his professorship at the University of Houston in 1967. 

I didn't learn much about his marriage other than he was able to maintain a friendship after the divorce.  I did learn he had one daughter named Lorraine who grew up here in Houston and became an attorney.  I regret that I did not meet Lorraine, but I gathered that they were close throughout.

The Rabbi gave us marvelous insights into Michael's teaching career.  Now I had long sensed that teaching was a passion for Michael.  As you may remember from my story above, I always liked to tease Michael about his obvious dedication.  What I did not realize is that he was considered by his students and peers to be an amazing professor!   Obviously a colleague had shared the inside details with the Rabbi because Michael would never have revealed these things to me himself.  I learned that Michael was considered a "tough but very fair" instructor.  Michael produced so many outstanding students that they dominated the math awards every year at UH.  So UH had to invent new awards just so Michael's students couldn't win everything!  That got a smile from everyone around me. 

I also learned that Michael received an "Outstanding Professor" award in 2002.  The only problem was that no one in his family even knew about it till after the presentation.  Michael was extremely modest.  He kept this important information to himself for the longest time.  His own family didn't even know!  Good grief.  This tidbit opened up the tears for me.  I just couldn't stop shaking my head as I heard one story after another about what an amazing guy he was.

The Rabbi talked about Michael's love of dancing.  She got dozens of covert grins when she revealed that Michael abhorred dancing with "The Geriatric Set".  The man was 69 after all!  But he preferred to hang out with a younger crowd.  If this hadn't been a funeral, there would have been out and out laughter at that line.  

The toughest moment not just for me, but all my friends as well, came when the Rabbi talked about his relationship with Dee Medina.  This classy, lovely woman had been wiping tears away throughout the service and we all felt terrible for her.   The Rabbi talked about their wonderful times together... for example trips to Manhattan and LA and hiking trips.  The Rabbi was very impressed that Michael had talked Dee into going camping with him at Big Bend except there was one small condition... they had to stay at a hotel.  That sounds exactly like something my own wife would say!  Again, we had to use a lot of discipline not to crack up at that line too.

It was pretty obvious to all of us that Michael and Dee had a very special bond together.  That was very touching indeed.

Clearly the most important revelation of all was that Michael died with no regrets.  The Rabbi said that Michael died a happy man. 

That brought out the tears again, but good tears.  Rest in Peace, Michael Friedberg.  Hearing about your life was an inspiration to all of us.  It made us all proud to have been your friend.  Thank you very much for sharing your time with us.  You are a special soul indeed.


2010 - New Fellowship Dedicated To Memory of Popular Math Professor

Professor Michael Friedberg
and his daughter Lorraine Coats.

A colorful and well-respected University of Houston mathematics professor, whose sudden death in 2008 stunned friends and colleagues, will be remembered with a new endowed fellowship benefitting math graduate students.

The Michael Friedberg Endowed Graduate Fellowship in Mathematics will commemorate the late professor’s passion for teaching. Friedberg died at home unexpectedly of a heart attack in Sept. 2008 at age 69. He had been on the UH faculty for 41 years and showed no signs of slowing down.

“He was so dedicated to teaching, I knew he would never retire,” said Lorraine Coats, Friedberg’s daughter. “I always assumed he would die in front of a classroom.”

Friedberg earned teaching excellence awards at both the college and university level, and in recognition of his dedication to students the fellowship will be awarded to an outstanding graduate student who tutors undergraduates at the math department’s Center for Academic Support and Assessment (CASA).

 Friedberg was popular with students, but not because he gave out A’s, said Jeff Morgan, chair of the math department.

“He set high standards and expected a lot from his students, and they still loved him,” Morgan said. “They knew he had their interests at heart.”

He was a native of New York City, but Friedberg was a true Texan. He was an avid country-western dancer and loved his cowboy boots – he was even buried in his favorite pair.

When not cutting a rug, Friedberg was busy with local Mensa and Sierra Club groups. He was a lifelong learner with wide-ranging interests, reading and collecting dozens of books on Civil War history and even earning an MBA from UH in 1984.

“You wouldn’t want to play trivial pursuit with him, because he’d always win,” Coats said.

The $50,000 endowment was funded last month by a donation from Coats and a matching gift from UH.

Memorial gifts from Friedberg’s friends and family will be used to award the first $2,000 fellowship.


-----Original Message-----
From: P
Sent: Thursday, September 18, 2008 6:09 PM
To: Rick Archer
Subject: Michael

Hi Rick,

thank you for the beautiful write ups on our dear friends. i am in tears all over again. as you said, we are too shocked for words. it is just all too awful, i hate even trying to think of words.

about Michael.... i always felt Michael seemed sad too. i was never sure if it was just his natural expression/face, or if he was really sad, but a few things he said to me over the years made me think yes, he really was sad inside. i'm glad Dee changed that.

Michael and i were in your thursday martian class for YEARS before you busted us all up (you know i'll never forgive you for that). what comes to my mind is how he always wanted to know the mathematical explanation behind whatever move you were teaching.... used to drive you nuts/amuse the hell out of you.

i was so heartbroken hearing about Gary's death friday too. i didn't realize a heart could get "more broken", but mine did when i heard about Michael's death the next day. i'd bet all of our hearts did.

just wanted to share, and most of my memories of Michael are tied to martian. thanks for listening.


 -----Original Message-----
From: Pat
Sent: Thursday, September 18, 2008 6:10 PM
To: SSQQ Newsletter
Subject: Re: 2008 SSQQ Newsletter Issue Four: Regarding the loss of our friends

Rick,  Thanks for the tribute and update on Mike and Gary. Unbelievable!

You were looking for timeframe - I recall that Mike was in my C&W classes when I first started in 1997- 1998. I recall that he was very analytical and methodical about his dancing.  He had to have it explained in degrees. 

(Rick Archer's Note: Fortunately Mike came to the right guy to explain it to him.  When I learned, I was just as analytical.  Imagine my surprise when I found a student carved in my own image.  Mike was just as bad as me; he practically brought a slide rule to class!)

-----Original Message-----
From: SB
Sent: Friday, September 19, 2008 3:46 PM
Subject: Mike and Gary

Wow, what a shocker this newsletter was; I remember Mike in the Whip classes you and I taught together, and I, too, always thought he was so sad; I tried often to make him laugh and I continued to always speak to him and dance with him when I was there; I didn't know Gary, but what another tragic loss.

Thank you for letting all their friends know of their demise.....so sad.

-----Original Message-----
From: PJ
Sent: Friday, September 19, 2008 4:02 PM
Subject: Mike

I'm sorry to hear about Mike. I do remember him well from whip class. I used to give him a hard time too for not staying long...if any at practice or not coming to any of the parties. After a couple of years of knowing him he finally told me one night (probably after I pestered him about staying for practice) that he had some anxiety issues around groups. He said being in class was different than staying for practice. I didn't bug him anymore. What a sweet man, I was always happy to see him and felt he returned those sentiments about me.

I didn't know Gary but recognize both him and his wife from the pictures you posted. How sad, so unexpected...wow.

I imagine that you touched many with your thoughtful heartfelt writeup...certainly did touch me.


From: Lorraine
Sent: Sunday, December 07, 2008 3:39 PM
To: dance@ssqq.com
Subject: concerning my Father

Mr. Archer,

I am Michael Friedberg's daughter.

Of all things, my aunt informed me today that one of my cousins had found your website tribute to my father. I read through it and was very moved. I miss my father terribly-- your recollections and those of other SSQQ members brought both tears and smiles.

You are right: my father was a very private man. But he was also one of the most deeply caring people I have ever met. I have always believed that he felt emotions very intensely, just that he didn't let on to everyone. He was always my voice of reason; when asked, he gave careful, considered, and spot-on advice. But he also understood how headstrong I can be, so he always tempered his advice with "do what you think is best," delivered with a smile.

I know he loved attending SSQQ classes, whether he admitted it publicly or not. His very attendance for so many years is proof. My father did nothing he didn't truly want to do. And that's one of the things that was so special about him-- he seemed to know exactly who he was at all times. How many people can say that?

And yes, the University was a large part of his life. Please don't feel unique in being the recipient of University-related excuses for non-attendance. It took some extended negotiations on my part and on my aunt's part to convince him to schedule a substitute teacher so that he could be at the hospital when his first grandson was born on September 4th! As usual, my father was consumed with concern for his students. As it turns out, the feeling was quite mutual, evidenced by the cards and letters I have received from those very same students. I am so glad that he did take the day off (a true first, as I don't think he took the whole day off when I was born!)... and he spent the last week of his life getting to know his grandson.

I am very thankful that the SSQQ family extended their friendship to my father over the years. And I appreciate the donations that have been made to the memorial scholarship fund I'm establishing for him. Please don't think that my lack of acknowledgement for these generous contributions means that I am in any way ungrateful. On the contrary, I am singularly grateful and proud that so many people have so many positive memories of my father. The simple fact is that his death was so sudden and unexpected that I have been incapable of either processing it or acknowledging the kind thoughts and generosity of his friends and colleagues.

I hope you will post this letter so that everyone at SSQQ will know how glad I am that my father had a place to go where he could be with such caring friends. The words "thank you" are simply inadequate.

Best,  Lorraine


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