On the Passing of a Colleague

I read on Facebook today that a professional colleague had died a few days ago. She was a bright, warm person with whom I had interacted when I was actively involved in software engineering research, and through professional organizations (e.g., the CRA Board of Directors). It appears that she was gravely ill but didn’t tell many people. Thus, her passing was a surprise to many. It is a sad loss, for she brought some light to us all. I had not seen her in years, but her passing diminishes my world no less than had I seen her a few days ago.

Reflecting, death of someone we know is perhaps more often a surprise than not. An accident, a crime, an acute medical incident…. Seldom do any of us get to pick the time and manner of our deaths, except perhaps the self-destructive and rare cases of heroism. Each of us eventually passes. Each of us is dying right now — that is an inherent part of living that we should accept. Some people fear death, and that means they fear life. To really live in the here and now is what gives meaning, and what causes others to miss us when we’re gone.

I’ve written about a recent family loss here. I have written the obituaries of several icons in security who I was privileged to know, such as Gene Schultz, Jim Anderson and Harold Highland. Someday, perhaps someone will write mine (although I have provided a perfectly good pre-written one). It is never possible to capture the full essence of someone in one of these short collections of mere words, although we try by recounting some list of recognitions or telling an anecdote about an interaction. With that we may express our sense of loss, and perhaps, respect, affection, and sometimes awe; simply listing biographical facts is not satisfying as a way to commemorate a full life.

What we note about people is what they accomplished, sometimes against great odds. Yes, there are those around them who loved them, and will love them still, but for the majority of us, we look back at the things great and small that were done for others…and for us. Do we remember the person as someone who made the lives of others better? Did they provide warmth and kindness, great and small? Did they help guide us on a better path? It is those things that stand out for all of us. The icon of those who leave our lives is that of what they stood for — and acted on.

For those of us left behind, it should be a reminder that our own time is limited. Are we using our time as we wish? Are we treating others around us as we really want to? Are we completing those tasks we wish to be finished, or are we spending time on things that really don’t matter? There’s a great commercial from Thailand that is making the rounds of some of the social media sites now that is touching and instructive. It nicely conveys the message that what we do now can make a difference in the future, sometimes even for ourselves. Others remember us for what we do, and that is really who we are.

Last week, a former student visited me. He brought me a bottle of expensive, limited edition Irish whiskey as a gift. I was not expecting anything, and I was really quite touched at the thoughtfulness. I made some comment about saving it for a day when he could visit with some time free to share a glass or two from it. His reply was something along the lines of “We don’t know what days we have; Don’t leave a bottle uncorked and undecanted for one that may not come.” I can appreciate that wisdom.

So, I have decanted a dram. A toast to Mary Jean, and to others who have made a difference. We miss them because they added value to life and to the world around us. And another toast to those who are adding value to our worlds right now who are still here. Let’s remember to tell them that while we can, not after they are gone and are deaf to this world. To celebrate that principle is a last gift from Mary Jean and all the others who have passed on: appreciate the here and now while we can.

And then let’s get on with making the world a better place for those who follow after us — while leaving no bottle on the shelf, unopened, in the process. Consider this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.” (I have a few other quotes related to this in a post from 4 years ago that may be of interest.)

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Crossing the Bar

Today, I lost another part of my history. My aunt died at age 93. We knew it was coming, so it wasn’t a surprise. She was in a lot of pain towards the end, so some people call that “a blessing.” Perhaps. Life is a blessing, although we don’t always see it that way. If there is something that comes after this life, perhaps it is a blessing too, although we may not realize that now.

She wasn’t an aunt by blood, but by family. She outlived 3 husbands, and her second husband was my father’s twin brother.

Elsa lived in Rochester, NY for a while. She met Bob Jobe while in college, and they were married only 3 months when he was called up for service in the Army in WWII. Her new husband did not come home from the war. She would have been in her early-to-mid 20s then, probably in 1942 or 1943.

My paternal grandfather and grandmother lived in Rochester, NY. They moved there, from Canada almost directly across Lake Ontario, early in their lives. My grandfather worked at Kodak, and had met George Eastman. Markus and Ila had 3 sons: Norman (b. 1916), and fraternal twins Howard and Raymond (b 1918). Norman was the oldest, and Howard and Ray were fraternal twins. Norm went on to be a school teacher (and taught some of the first computer courses in high school in NY State!). My father was always good with math, and Ray with electrical things and radio.   My father went to the Miami University of Ohio, where he finished his degree in accounting and finance in 3 years. He then went to work at Rochester Products, as a quality control inspector.  My uncle Ray became an electrician at Kodak and was taking courses part-time, apparently at RIT. When WWII came along, both enlisted in the Army; my father had a deferment because he had a skilled position making parts for planes, but didn’t feel it was right because he saw married men being drafted.  Perhaps because he was color-blind, or maybe because he only had 3 years of college (even though he had his degree), he was given an enlisted position and sent to an anti-aircraft battalion in Europe. Meanwhile, Ray’s background and probably some good scores on the aptitude tests resulting in him being made a lieutenant in the Signal Corps. I know my father was deployed in various places throughout Europe, and his company participated in the liberation of one of the concentration camps (he did not talk about it with us until he was in his 70s). Ray was deployed (I believe) in Asia but I don’t think he saw any combat.

When WWII ended, my father came home and took a job in Rochester.  Ray left the Army in 1946 but stayed on for two years in Korea as an advisor to the Signal Corps there, leaving before that war started. He returned home, possibly because my grandfather died in 1948. (Tragically, he died on the day my mother and father were going to be married; they postponed the wedding a month). Ray then used his GI benefits to complete his education at Ohio State, getting a degree in electrical engineering and in business administration. He went back to Kodak, this time as a project engineer, and worked there for six years.

Before meeting my mother, my father had met Elsa and they dated a while. At some point, Elsa and Ray met, and apparently really hit it off. They were probably married around 1950?

My aunt Elsa was a remarkable woman. A child of the end of WWI, she grew up to be extremely independent. She read a lot and was quite intelligent. In another day she might have gone on for an advanced degree, but that wasn’t an option in the mid 1940s — not only because of WWII, but because that wasn’t something women did then. She ended up getting a job with Kodak, first as an executive secretary, then after moving to California she was a film tester with a great deal of autonomy. That was unusual for a woman in those times — she tested film and cameras for Kodak. They gave her test film and sent her all over to photograph things so they could see how the film behaved.

10-66 Elsa-Ray posing-27
Ray and Elsa in California in 1966


In 1958, Ray and Elsa moved to live in California, in Portola Valley, to be near my uncle’s new job with Lockheed in Palo Alto (possibly at NASA Ames?). He worked on advanced (and at the time, secret) supersonic aircraft and even spacecraft in California. I wish I knew more about him, but he died too soon. And this was in the days before everyone put everything on Facebook. (It was even before the Internet.) When they moved to California and bought the land, there was no Silicon Valley. My uncle designed the house and built most of it. It still stands, on the top of a tall hill, not far from Stanford University. My aunt lived there for 50+ years, my uncle only for about 8.

While building the house, my uncle fell off the roof and fractured some vertebrae, but luckily didn’t damage his spinal cord. I remember him and my aunt coming to visit when I was around 8 years old. He had a back brace on. I don’t recall him ever without it. He brought me some puzzles, and (I think) a book on ciphers. I thought it was “The Codebreakers” (David Kahn) but the dates don’t match. I remember that something he gave me or told me about got me interested in cryptography at that early age, and it never left me. I remember talking with him about science and space exploration. How I wish he had lived longer so I could have talked to him about my career.

10-66 Elsa-Ray posing-14
My sister, Ray, and me in 1966

He was ill then. He developed bladder cancer at some point, and was misdiagnosed. After they found it in 1962 or 1963, it spread despite surgery and radiation. He died 10 days before my 11th birthday, at the age of 48, in 1967; he was buried on my sister’s 9th birthday. That was not a good year for us, for many reasons. It was especially tough on my father although I don’t think I quite understood how wrenching it was, because he kept it all in. Losing a sibling must be difficult, but to lose a twin… My father was a child of his times and didn’t let his feelings show that often, as that “wasn’t something men do.” Someday I need to write some things about his life, because he had so many struggles.

Elsa, of course, was devastated by Uncle Ray’s death. My Uncle Ray had been the love of her life. I don’t know how long they were married but it might have been as much as 18 years. And he was the second husband who died prematurely.

Shortly thereafter, Elsa made a promise to my sister and myself, based on a conversation she had with my uncle before his death: she had put money aside in special accounts for us, to be used for our college expenses. So long as we made good progress and good grades, we would have all our books paid for. This kept up while my sister and I both completed undergrad, then masters, then Ph.D.s for each of us. That small amount was a great help because we really didn’t have much in the way of financial resources. And then, at some point after graduation, she gave us what was in the accounts — which looked like near the amount they had started with. She also gave us great moral support over the years, encouraging us to go out into the world and explore.

When I finished my BA and was going to go spend weeks in Europe with my sister, backpacking around, Elsa gave me a 35mm camera to take with me — an almost new Pentax automatic, very state of the art. Her only condition was that I had to use it, and she had to see the pictures some day. I still have boxes of great slides from those years with no projector, and I don’t think my daughter will ever want to see them….

While at Lockheed, Ray (and Elsa) met another person there with great stories to tell. John Roscoe was a widower or divorcee with a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland (his dissertation was published as a 6-volume set!), and was a former Colonel in the USMC. He had worked for Admiral Byrd in Antarctica — there are two geographic features there named for him: Roscoe Glacier and Roscoe Promontory. I found a short bio online, and it has quite a bit more on him.

When my Uncle Ray died, it was a big loss to all their local friends and colleagues. Apparently, John was a good friend who helped Elsa through the ordeal, and … they got married a little over a year later.

Elsa retired after several more years working at Kodak in California but kept active in the community, the Sierra Club, and spent a month every few summers in Polynesia as a helper at an archaeology dig. She volunteered for various other things too, including the U.S. Geological Survey Volunteers For Science. John had several heart attacks in the late 1990s, and his mobility greatly decreased, but he and Elsa continued to travel and follow their pursuits. John died in 2007 — Elsa’s third husband, gone, too.

The last few years were tough on Elsa, as the years advanced. She developed illnesses that sapped her strength and led to pain, but they didn’t really dim her cheer and curiosity until a short while ago.

I was able to visit her in October on one of my infrequent trips out to California. She was thin and frail and clearly not well, but she was wonderful to visit with. I spent the afternoon with her, but she was clearly fatigued by it. The times I called her in the months after that she sounded weaker, but was still so happy I had visited.

We heard a few days ago that she had taken a turn for the worse and was in hospice care. My sister and I spoke Sunday night about trying to connect with her on the phone one last time. But Monday morning we received word of her passing.

My last uncle — my father and Ray’s older brother — died last year, in August, at 96. My father died 6 years ago, at 89. My mother died earlier than she should have, in 1996, but my daughter bears her name, and has a little of her quick wit, so she is still with me. There is no one of my line before me still alive, and only a few cousins left from my parents’ generation. There is no male in any close branch of the family to keep the Spafford name — and the Y chromosome — going, although there are many distant cousins I have never met.

The death of my Aunt is a sad event, but not grievous. She was a wonderful woman with a full life, and I hope she had no regrets at the end. She will be missed by many people. But her passing is also another frosty gust of the winds of time, which I notice more each year. When I was young, my mortality was never even a brief thought. Now, I wonder how much more time I will have for a few of those things I want to try — or try again — and time to regret the things that didn’t quite work out? I joke about how people will remember me… if they do. I have no glacier named after me, or theorem, or building, or scholarship.

I think of Elsa. She was vital well into her 9th decade. She died without having children, yet, there are many who will remember her for some time to come. She made a difference. Perhaps that is the best thing to say about someone — they made a difference: the world was better they were here. That was true of Elsa.

I seem to recall that the Australian aborigines believe that uttering the name of people who have died, or showing their likenesses or anything they have made awakens their spirits and keeps them from the Dreaming — the time of peace after death. So, they erase all instances of the name and never utter it again, and sometimes destroy everything made by someone who dies. The quicker that person is forgotten, the sooner the spirit finds peace.

I’m sorry, Elsa, but we’re going to hold you in our hearts a little longer. Dreamtime will come, but for now, we remember you.

[Edited 2/19/12 based on my sister’s comments]

[Edited 2/20/13 based on info from Carrie S.]

Remembering Spaf

With a birthday coming up, and several friends having recently passed on (e.g., been dereferenced), I thought maybe I should write up my obituary for future use. After all, I know my story better than anyone else! So, feel free to use this when the need arises.

And if you have any missing bits to fill in, send them to me — I’ll update this in place.

This is not quite to this level of awesome or to this or to this but I may have a few weeks yet to get there.

Original post 3/14/12; Last update 2016-08-28.


Eugene H. Spafford, noted curmudgeon, died on <date>. If Spafford’s last wishes were honored the medical examiner will officially list the cause of death as “Jello, while interacting with Bambi and Trixie, two performers with Cirque de Soleil, and their pet llama, Julio” — not because it bears even a remote resemblance to the truth, but because it will provide more lulz on Wikipedia.

Although many people believed he was an alien being (after all, the definition of “human” can only stretch so far), Spafford was born in western New York State to poor but proud parents. His birth changed their lives: they continued to be poor, but were never proud again. Two years later, his sister was born, thereafter affectionately referred to by their parents as “our only child.”

Spafford had a largely unremarkable childhood, frequently spending time as the neighbors’ imaginary friend. His parents took him and his sister to many notable and historic places around the country, but unwary strangers would invariably untie him and he would find his way home. In later years he was known to recount some of the happiest moments of his childhood such as having other children finally talk to him (5th grade), and first being allowed to play in the yard without his leash (7th grade).

By the time he had reached high school, he had shown unusual talent for math, science, composition, and getting beaten up for having unusual talent for math, science, and composition. Nonetheless, he was named as “school mascot” by acclamation for several years running — until the other students found that despite this status, they could not get him thrown on the bonfire at other schools before football games. It was in high school that he got the nickname “Spaf,” in part because no one bothered to learn his first name.

It was in high school that Spaf discovered girls. Actually, he had known about them for some time, but it was at this time that he first discovered that the majority of them did not actually have cooties. His attempts to be noticed by the women around him usually succeeded, but only accompanied by finger-pointing and derisive laughter…a pattern that continued through the rest of his life. He fell in love at least twice, but the objects of his interest generally did not return his affections because they had taste and standards and nearly normal vision…another long-standing pattern.

Upon graduation from high school, Spafford took a few years off school to work to support his family. At least, that is what he always claimed, and the court records are sealed.

Then, Spafford returned to school and completed his undergraduate degrees at SUNY Brockport in 3 years of classes, probably because the faculty voted to resign if he stayed for 4. He awoke in another state after his graduation party, with a note from his family pinned to his clothing, written in crayon, wishing him luck in Atlanta, where they had arranged for him to be admitted. Much to their dismay, “The Ramblin Wreck” was a university and not a psychiatric hospital (although, frankly, that wasn’t always obvious). Thus, he attended grad school at Georgia Tech, where he again showed an unusual talent for math and science, as well as amazingly poor luck with females of any species, living or dead. After outlasting a department head, dean, two presidents of the university, and several roommates, a clerical error resulted in him getting a Ph.D. despite no faculty member actually serving as his advisor (NB. almost true!).

As a condition of his immediate and permanent departure, local officials used a rumor of a large trust fund and vast quantities of tequila to introduce a young woman to Spaf, despite her reluctance to date outside her species. After a period of deception, and prolonged hypnotherapy, they were married.  (This artifice lasted for nearly 3 decades, but the hypnotherapy finally wore off, she discovered there was no trust fund, and they divorced. Their union did result in one outstanding child; his wife insisted there would be no more, however, because she did not want to endure the trauma and the shame a second time.  She, of course, was referring not to childbirth, but to the conception.)

After a short post doc while his thesis committee waited to ensure that the checks cleared, Spafford moved out of state and was hired by Purdue University in 1987 before the stories (and authorities) caught up with him. He spent the remainder of his career there, trying (in vain) to get people to behave nicely online, be kind to each other, and to adopt wearing of bow ties. When informed of his passing, his Purdue colleagues (those who didn’t respond “Who?”) began to chuckle — no doubt from fond and amusing memories, although the mutterings of “At last!” did seem a little fervent.

Noted for his work in security (primarily as a risk), Spafford was frequently asked to travel long distances to speak — usually requested by whomever was in his near vicinity at the time. A talented programmer as well as researcher, he wrote many large software systems that, (perhaps) regrettably, are in languages for which no compiler or manual exists. This matched his propensity for giving presentations that were in languages unfamiliar to his audiences…and humans, in general. He helped scores of students get their Ph.Ds. — usually by serving as an example of what not to do. He received several “lifetime achievement” awards from professional societies in not so subtle attempts to get him to retire immediately and go away.

It was often observed that Spafford didn’t pay attention to boundaries and frequently crossed them…this was usually noted by others when talking about the fine line between genius and insanity, although it was usually vague on which side he was being placed.

In later years, he had medical issues that interfered with his work. Doctors, when not performing unsanctioned experiments on him, conjectured that it was all side-effects of the frequent alien abductions (performed on him, not by him). Consulting veterinarians were similarly puzzled, both by etiology and his species. The diagnoses were all different, but the recommended treatment was always the same: lobotomy. This was never done, because the insurance company refused to cover it, despite the frequent and generous offers of family and colleagues to take up a collection.

Spafford had a near encyclopedic knowledge of useless trivia, bad jokes, and stupid movie plot lines that he often shared spontaneously — this led to him spending a great deal of “alone time.” Besides his hobbies online, he enjoyed gardening, good whiskey, and target shooting — which might explain many missing neighborhood pets and the vigorous growth of the tulips in the back yard. As a lover, he was known to make women swoon…or would have been known, had any of them overcome the nausea at the thought so as to assent. And, he is memorialized in several dictionaries: the words “athlete” and “Spafford” are found together… usually in a sentence under “cognitive dissonance.”

In his final years, Spafford spent a lot of time reminiscing about his childhood as an imaginary friend, and wondering what his life would have been like had be been born human.

In accordance with his wishes, his remains have been freeze-dried, adorned with a bow tie, and mailed to a random address as one last bad joke. He is survived by a daughter, sister, niece, nephews, the contents of several petri dishes with biohazard labels on board some UFOs, and basically everyone who is reading this. I mean, you can’t read this if you didn’t survive, right?

Donations can be made … oh, who are we fooling? Just go blow the money on chocolate and a good whisky.

Ulysses & Henry

I feel my advancing mortality more each time school starts up again.   Every autumn I find the stairs a little steeper, the distance from building to building a little farther.   Each year the students are the same age, and I see their eyes filled with hope, and ideas, and more energy than I can dimly remember having myself.   But each year, I slow a little more.  My vision fails a little more.  And the horizon of my dreams contracts, yet still remains out of reach.

This last year was supposed to be a year of sabbatical and renewal, but was a year of challenges, of ideas thwarted, and hurts endured: I lost more than I gained.  The morrow brings burden to this weary shell,  perhaps no greater than any other year, but certainly no less.  It is the labors of Sisyphus, while my efforts to bring some focus to the problems of security and privacy more resemble those of Cassandra than that son of Aeolus.

I was expressing some of this on one of my network sites; friend Corey then sent me a link to Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, which I have not read in over 35 years.   It is a boon to have friends, and especially friends who know classic thoughts to share.   Here is the last paragraph of Tennyson’s work:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Wonderful, and I understand it more than 35 years ago.   It also brings to mind the following, from Henry V by Shakespeare:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

And Daniel sent a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.”

So, tomorrow – perhaps not quite at the dawn – it will be once more into the breach … to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.  Perhaps not so much in the cause of St. George, but more in the spirit of Prometheus.  There is fire to be gifted, and I may yet grasp the rush and bring the flame, despite the curse of Zeus.

Thanks, Corey.

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