Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Do you have a person who left such a rich mark on your life that it helped define its path? James was a integral player in a vivid couple of summers that led to my whole world today. He touched so many lives this way, and last Friday, way too early, we lost him. 

James and me at the party I hosted for the 11th anniversary of his 29th birthday. November, 2008

In 2003, I was a shy and nervous 18-year-old traveling alone for the first time, all the way to New Jersey, for the week-long course that preceded my first job in science as a plasma physics intern in San Diego. James was the administrator of PPPL's summer programs. We all assumed from his emails that he was older and gruff, and were surprised to find him young (early 30s), warm, and energetic. He welcomed us, teased us, and put us at ease before shuffling us off to our labs around the country.

The next year, while I had only been rated "average," he advocated for me to come to PPPL for the entire summer. I had an office next to his and thrived. Our cohort of students grew inseparable as we learned about fusion energy, ran amok all over Princeton, and became close friends with our leader. James became an uncle, a confidant, and advisor. While tears made him extremely uncomfortable, he allowed me to cry in his office once and encouraged me to press on through the situation. He never stopped cheering for me. 

Over that summer and the following one, when I and several of my intern buddies returned, Uncle Jimmy the former tennis pro and art aficionado patiently (sometimes exasperatedly) gave us tennis lessons, drove us up to MIT for a tour of their fusion facilities and Boston, and took us to art museums and out to Falling Water (Frank Lloyd Wright's house) in Pennsyltucky (on one epic ten-hour roundtrip day). He became extremely irritated when we moved a book in his office out of place or sharpie-d out a day on his wall calendar in the WRONG DIRECTION (he redid an entire new one), but he loved us so much. We loved him back, by covering his office in Post-It notes and filling it with inflated garbage bags. 

1000 sticky notes.

Teresa and me during Jimmy Tennis Lessons, summer 2005

Our tennis pro and John, summer 2005
John, James, Justin. Falling Water, summer 2005

Falling Water, summer 2005

Exasperated at us for some reason in the best student office ever, B346.

Yankees game, summer 2004. That summer, used this picture in every end-of-summer student presentation. You're welcome, Jimmy.

Andrew, the head of Science Ed, and James, wearer of Armani suits, at APS DPP 2004

James was an unofficial voice of recommendation for me when I applied to graduate school at Princeton, and moving from Washington to New Jersey was easier knowing I already had family there. He took me shopping for my new apartment and had dinner with my parents. Over the years, he met my entire family, loved them, and always, always asked about each one. He encouraged my mom to attend Plasma Camp for teachers at PPPL, which was highly enriching for her. He was impressed with mom's and brother's tennis skills. One fine day when my brother visited me, he and James played an intense game of ping-pong and then some intense games on the Wii. I forget who won. It was so much fun.

Autism Walk, Jersey Shore, Oct 2007
As great as James was with his summer students, he was just as good with the graduate students. He harnessed us for Science Ed outreach activities year-round. We judged Science Bowls, gave presentations in schools, and performed sweet demonstrations at Princeton and APS expos. He was one of the chosen ones who got swine flu that one year from one of the messy children (we all assume).

Me, James, and Sarah at APS DPP 2007.

James, Doreen, me, and Luc at APS DPP Expo 2008. 

A brilliant stage actor on the side, he had an unquenchable flair for the dramatic and silly. His impressions delighted (or horrified) us, and he was always up for crazy ideas, like when I wanted to play chess on a roller coaster. It took us at least five rides to time it correctly (it's hard to hide all that equipment and bust it out at the right time while, oh, riding a roller coaster).

The most nonchalant game of chess ever. 2007

Reactions!! 2007

Alissa and me with James after he starred in Leader of the Pack. January 2009

Through his many plays (he was a fantastic Boo Radley) and trips to museums in Philly, NYC, and Seattle (he stopped by for our November birthdays with Justin my senior year of college), he encouraged our cultural development outside of physics. The afternoon he, Kelsey, and I spent in Manhattan wandering around, visiting the Frick Collection and my favorite lunch place in all of NYC (Via Quadronno, Upper East Side, is one of my favorite memories of the City.

James, Karl, and Luc. Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, APS DPP 2006

The last time I saw him was June, 2012, when my parents, my cat, and I were driving off the East Coast out to the Southwest for my new postdoc life. James had left PPPL as his health started to deteriorate and was living in Maryland. We visited him, he made fun of my cat (who once almost clawed him to death--he CLAIMED), and I hugged him goodbye, having no idea that was the last time. We kept in touch, but oh how I wish we did a better job. 

Blurry, but I love it. June 8, 2012

His touch is still present in my New Mexico home--from the bright yellow flower on my wall, to my first pair of opera glasses and Hungarian vase on my shelf. He himself was an utterly beautiful gift from God. We lost him before the 20th anniversary of his 29th birthday. I hope to see him again someday. 

I love you, Uncle Jimmy.


D Baum said...

I loved meeting James! That ping pong game was awesome and super intense :).

Debi Miles said...

What a beautiful tribute to such a special person. You must be very special too. Thank you for doing this and sharing it with all of us who loved him.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I never had the pleasure of meeting/knowing James personally. Recently, I became friends with his sister, Julie. At that point in time, James was in the beginning of his failure to keep his medical problems at bay. I then became aware of the love & devotion she had for James. First by taking such good care of him while @ home, then by visiting him twice daily while in the hospital. She absolutely made sure he had whatever he needed or wanted. I could tell just by speaking with her about him, just how much he was loved by her and the entire family. I truly feel that I missed out on a wonderful experience by not having the pleasure & opportunity to know James personally. So when Julie informed me of this beautiful tribute, I knew I had to read it. Now that I have, it is apparent that it is my loss in not being lucky to have had known him. It seems that everyone that did know him, that they were left with a distinct honor and priviledge in having James be a part of their lives. A definite memorable mark was left on those who knew him. Rest in peace now, James.

Anonymous said...

***TYPO Third sentence, should have said, "At that point in time, James was in the beginning of his body's failure to keep his medical problems at bay. Truly sorry for the error.

Anonymous said...

This dude was great. Made the summer of 2004 at PPPL awesome. Great ball of energy. The world will miss him.

-Chris V

Anonymous said...

This dude was great. Made the summer of 2004 at PPPL awesome. Great ball of energy. The world will miss him.

-Chris V