Monday, March 2, 2009

From José M. Delfino

I will always cherish the memories of my time with Fred Richards. As a graduate student, I became attracted by the scope and depth of his published work. By the end of my PhD thesis and following the advice of the late Gregorio Weber, a frequent visitor to our institute in Buenos Aires, I approached Fred by mail and was lucky to be accepted to join his lab (I still keep that early typewritten and handwritten correspondence).

Of my post-doc years at MB&B (1985-1990) I treasure the most the highly stimulating intellectual atmosphere of the place and the kind comradeship of so many people (including the unforgettable Thelma and Johnnie Mouning). One outstanding event in Fred’s lab was marked by the exhilarating exchange of ideas at group meetings. Here, Fred’s views punctuated the events, illustrating the crystal clear nature of his reasoning and his profound insight into every aspect of protein biophysics. I will always remember the electrifying feeling at sharing his enthusiasm upon some progress on the speaker’s project. In many respects –perhaps more than he had ever imagined- he bore a profound and enduring influence on my attitudes toward science and people. On the other hand, I always admired his superb organizational skills, his uncompromisingly high standards and his strict ethics.

In my work meetings with him I sometimes felt awkward at seeing him doze in front of me -not that this would not be justified by the merit of the material in my report, compounded perhaps to the language barrier- but all of a sudden at some point, he would jump from his seat, fix his eyes on me, progressively develop a wide smile and utter the most incisive question, cutting right into the core of the matter. He would then proceed to the point where he would squeeze from me all the details of the experiment. My heart would then pound strongly at his passionate outpourings.

In science, one should underscore his bold attempts into less-trodden paths, avoiding the pervading dogma, and exploring everything from sound principles. Among the many aspects of his personality deserving admiration was the wisdom of his counsel, the rightfulness of his statements (and his silences), his extraordinary ability to draw the best out of each one, and his attitude at letting each one of us to be the owners of our projects (the ‘lone wolf’ approach in the words of David Le Master), generously allowing us to pursue our own personal ventures. Noteworthy was his love and flair at designing home-built devices, a rare gift in these times of ready available kits (I treasure copies of his glass-blowing manual and electrical engineering companion booklet, which have been and will be useful in my lab, and even to my grown-up children at home).

From a number of anecdotes that illustrate his caring and generous nature let me evoke the following:

1. In late October 1985, I had just arrived in New Haven with my wife Raquel and two babies. After a few days spent in a Yale temporary housing, Fred came to check the place we had just rented in Prospect Gardens, not far from Kline Biology Tower. He immediately noticed that our place was unfurnished. Without word, he left and returned (so quickly to us) in his pick-up truck with a crib, a chest of drawers and other furniture, that Sally and Fred proceeded to download into our place (at first we naïvely thought that they lived nearby, but we later knew they had brought this present all the way from their own home in Guilford).

2. The expiration date of my US visa was approaching and I expressed to Fred my willingness to continue working on the project. In this circumstance, Fred immediately arranged for me a few months stay (paid from his grant) at the ETH-Zürich. This meant for me a bonus enriching scientific experience (and allowed me to have a brand new visa issued to return to Yale).

3. Right at the scheduled time for my return to Argentina, the country was suffering an economic turmoil that compromised my appointment. Upon telling Fred about this unexpected turn of events, he once again arranged for me overnight an extension of my stay at Yale until the time was fit for me to travel back home. Later I knew (Fred never said anything to me) that this was not so simple, because it meant for him borrowing funds for my salary from a different grant. By that time, Fred’s generosity at letting me grow and expand on derivations of his own projects, even donating to me equipment from his and others’ labs (always aided by the intercession of Johnnie Mouning) helped me to launch my own research.

In the years that followed, I always set as a priority to pay a visit to Fred (sometimes it happened that he was sailing, as he always did in the summers). On those occasions, I deeply enjoyed sharing with him the science, and his insightful comments and wise advice were always truly appreciated. On the family side, he always asked: ‘How is everybody at home? (or How is the crew doing?) How many children in the family now? At my answer stating that the family still kept the same size (my wife and six children), he felt reassured and drew his proverbial ear-to-ear grin.

In January 2008 Raquel and I (with two of our now grown-up children Santiago and Cecilia) were very fortunate to visit Sally and Fred at their home in Guilford. We had then the last chance of enjoying his enthusiastic chat on science –say, his concern for the energy conservation policies and his anger at the useless waste of natural resources. He then shared with us his latest progress on his wood-carving activity. On bidding him farewell he uttered his characteristic ‘Listen!’ to let us know his offer of lodge for my family and me on a future occasion.

It was an enormous privilege for me to have been a member of Fred’s lab. For sure, his example of life has set an imprint on those of us who had the fortune of sharing part of his life. May all these shared recollections serve as a tribute to the memory of the marvelous scientist and human being, whom I will always remember for his towering example and compassionate nature.

Giving his contagious curiosity and the breadth of his interests, he has most likely set sail again to a brave new realm. Thank you for everything, Fred!