Tomorrow, my dad will be honored at Trinity University in San Antonio as a distinguished alumnus. We’re flying the whole family down to celebrate with him, but I wanted to take a moment to celebrate him here. Since I live on the web most of the time, and few of you know his story, I wanted to tell it.
The Trinity blurb is remarkably apt and pithy:
His occupation is hard to describe: mainly a scientist - at the intersections of the social and environmental sciences - but also a research program manager, provider of technical assistance, and institution-builder - with one foot in the world of research and one foot in the world of practice.
That’s about right. I remember learning the words “sustainable development” from him around the time he taught me to swing a baseball bat, which means late 1970s. My dad drew me into libraries in the 1980s, where I made first contact with networked computer systems, as I helped him find books and images for speeches he gave. His work picnics were places where I stepped on the feet of people who dated back to the Manhattan Project, which is part of being a national labs kid at a place like Oak Ridge.
My dad has gotten a lot of notice in his own fields, but the biggest thing, the thing that makes others realize that he’s a pretty towering guy, is when the Nobel committee formally recognized him as a co-laureate in the 2007 Peace Prize shared by the IPCC and Vice President Gore. His career is remarkable, and he’s not showing any signs of stopping.
Here he is after doing me a favor - chairing the first Science Commons meeting we ever hosted, at the US National Academy of Science. Thanks, Dad! We also co-wrote one of my favorite papers, on open access and sustainable development.
He’s also a pretty normal guy who hangs out in sweatpants at home, likes salty snack treats, and is the first to get silly with my 3-year-old son. One of my favorite pictures of him (which I need to scan) is him, tie askew, in the California sun and wind, sometime in the early 1980s, on a road trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the whole family. His tongue is out, his eyes are serious, he’s intent on something. And he’s entirely there, in that moment, no attention elsewhere. That’s my memory of Dad childhood: silly, present, smart, dignified, and generally speaking, hittable with a water balloon.
Dad grew up in the brown lands just after the dust bowl and the Depression - the Texas high plains always stand out in his stories. He graduated from high school in Canyon Texas in the mid-50s and was ready to go.
(the eponymous canyon, Palo Duro, also known as the grand canyon of Texas, Photo courtesy Destination360 - pretty, but not sure it’s for me either)
He worked more jobs than you can imagine (my favorite remains a summer gig as a hotel nightman), he met my mom in college and they married almost immediately. He served years in the Army, he pulled up the family and moved to India to watch the land react to the green revolution in real time, and in that moment, saw the future of development and the coming crisis of sustainability. We live in a very green place now in East Tennessee, something I think reflects all the way back to those dry places for him.
I am unbelievably, joyously lucky to have grown up with him. He fed me books that I wasn’t supposed to read - Dune in 4th grade stands out - and taught me how to think, how to structure my thoughts, how to find liminal spaces and how to work inside them. I owe much of my career to those skills, and thus, to him. He taught me - he keeps teaching me - every day.
My son calls him Pop, my wife calls him Tom, and my mom calls him “hey you.” But to me and my sisters, he’s just Dad.
And Dad? Congratulations. You’ve earned it. We are so proud of you that it hurts.