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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: How one decision can change a life and legacy

November 18, 2019 - 12:09 PM



My first “This, That and the Other” column - almost three years ago - was a true story about how just one decision - a tragic lapse - can change your life…and your legacy. What follows is the inevitable update…and ending…to that story.

You might think sitting down to dinner with a Nobel Prize winner in physics would be intimidating…or possibly boring. I first dined with John Robert Schrieffer almost 21 years ago…he won the Nobel Prize in 1972 with two others for the BCS Theory of Superconductivity. Bob was neither intimidating nor boring…more like fascinating.

He was - as you might suspect - brilliant. After all, Bob was in the same small, prestigious club as Albert Einstein. But Bob was nothing like what I imagined. I thought my evening would be spent with a meek, mild-mannered scientist who could talk only about one thing…physics.

Instead, Bob and I talked about - among other things - the chances of the Boston Red Sox ever winning a World Series, the perennial troubles in the Middle East, the relative merits of great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, how the 1955 Mercedes Gull Wing might be the sexiest car ever made, the cinematic genius of Alfred Hitchcock and lamented how Truman Capote could write “In Cold Blood” when he was 41 years old…and never pen another novel?

We enjoyed that evening and over the next three years…other dinners…and more sparkling conversations. We hit it off from the first moment…sharing a banter and sense of humour that was…well, eclectic. 

I asked him, for instance, if he ever secured a tough-to-get restaurant reservation with, “Don’t you realize I won the Nobel Prize in physics?” We both laughed…and did not care whether others might find it even mildly amusing. Bob was unassuming…but a true Renaissance man…so secure in himself that he would never flaunt it.

"He might well be the perfect man," I recall saying to his wife, Anne, at the end of the evening. She smiled, and said something I thought a little odd at the time: "Yes, if he just didn't speed he would be the ideal man," she said. "He simply drives too fast," she explained. "I worry every time he leaves the house."

Bob came to Tallahassee and Florida State University in 1993 after being recruited from the University of California-Santa Barbara to build FSU’s Super Magnet program…a fitting position for a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist.

I dined with Anne and Bob two other times, once a year later and again in 2003. But Anne's words that first evening stuck in my head and proved prophetic. Bob would get nine speeding tickets by 2003, and lose his Florida driver's license.

But that was not the worst of far. On a beautiful fall day - Sept. 24, 2004 - on California's Pacific Coast Highway, Bob, driving with a suspended Florida license, would clip a van full of people. He killed Renato Catalos and severely injured seven others. A woman passenger died a month later. Bob was speeding...doing 110 M.P.H. in his new Mercedes sports car when he caused the accident.

Renato Catalos, 57, a Filipino immigrant and American citizen, husband, father, brother and friend to all seven of the other occupants in his Toyota van, was dead through no fault of his own. A family friend, Amparo Mangapit, a 77-year-old woman, died a month after the accident. A son would need nursing care...for life. Others suffered broken bones, cuts and bruises. An entire family...forever changed.

Sadly, Bob lied about the accident. He swore that a tractor trailer had side-swiped his car and the Toyota van. It was a hit-and-run incident, he swore, but no witnesses could attest to Bob's story. He later confessed, he had caused the accident...there was no tractor-trailer.

I've pondered how a man could go from having having nothing. I don’t judge Bob…we all make mistakes. But despite a no-contest plea and deal with the prosecutor that would have meant eight months in Santa Barbara's County Jail, at sentencing the judge felt it was not enough of a lesson and sent Bob to state prison for two years.

Bob got out of prison a decade ago. The FSU Super Magnet program now carries another man’s name. Bob cut all ties with those he had ever known…even his fellow Nobel Prize-winning friends. The truth is for another decade Bob remained in his own prison…no bars and no guards…except those self-imposed.

Bob died recently…he was 88 years old. My heart goes out to the family he destroyed fifteen years ago. Even so, I will always look back at those dinners with Bob and smile...they were good times. His wife’s concern about Bob’s speeding going way back…proved prescient. Maybe we should all pay a little closer attention to the concerns of loved ones.

Still, we’re all human…even if we win a Nobel Prize.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

News from © iNFOnews, 2019

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