Patrick Purcell versus the little grey man

Patrick_3My friend Patrick Purcell died just short of his 78th birthday last week. I’m still thinking about what I want to say about him personally, but his death has made me think about that of another friend of mine, about what they had in common, and about dealing with grief.

The other friend was Stephen Benton, who died in 2003, and to whom we devoted special issue of the Holography newsletter.

Editing the issue—looking through photographs, corresponding with colleagues, compiling lists of associated web pages—was difficult. But it was also therapeutic. With long-distance colleagues or people we don’t see regularly, it is not so easy to grieve. Especially with those people in our field who we meet at conferences, because we often have no-one local to talk to about them. So we don’t really have time to get over the loss. We just bury it and move on.

With Steve, I was lucky. The newsletter gave me no choice but to face up to his death and I also had Patrick to commiserate with. He had been friends with Steve much longer than I: it made a big difference having him to talk to.

We discussed at the time how sad it was that professors like Steve—a true inventor and scholar, someone with a real gift for inspiring people and helping people—were being replaced by what I call ‘little gray men’. (Patrick was too much of a gentleman to ever use such a term). These were ‘professional academics’: smart but uncreative men (usually) with little or no passion for their subjects or interest in teaching. They can be identified by the fact that instead of having two or three themes in their research that they follow throughout their lives, they would ‘follow the money’, jumping on whatever funding bandwagon happens to be passing through. Other identifying traits include lack of imagination, arrogance, a penchant for collecting titles and awards, and respect for even the most rediculous authority. You can also throw in a general meanness of spirit.

When Patrick died, the the same thing happened again. I  felt the need to do something for him so contacted his colleagues, put up a memorial site, and offered to pass on funeral arrangements etc. I did this for Patrick, and to give his friends an outlet for their feelings. But I also did it for me. I couldn’t have done any other kind of work that afternoon, and the project has allowed me to be around him for a little while longer.

All of us here have also, again, been commiserating with each other, and having the same little gray man conversation. Like Steve, Patrick was the opposite of the little gray man: he followed his interests regardless of the prevailing fashion. He made time to help others. He inspired. The people he met were changed by him. And, for both of them, it wasn’t just one or two close friends who felt this, but most of the people they came into contact with. In my case, it was Steve who made me believe that I should start a PhD, and Patrick who made me believe I could finish it. I owe them both.

When I moved back to the UK, it was the thought of the little gray men that scared me most. Though they are not quite as plentiful as I feared, they are nevertheless around, sucking the life and creativity out of the people around them as they try to build their empires.

I can only hope that, by having known people like Patrick and Steve, I will try harder and do better myself, and so encourage the people around me to do the same.  A tall order, I know.

Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.