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THOMPSON: Two men and the fragility of human life

January 19, 2017 - 12:00 AM

 


OPINION


Two men. One, I knew. The other, I never met. While neither realized it, they made me think about the fragility of human life, and how one bad decision can ruin everything. That is why I wrote what you are now reading.

These two men's paths crossed tragically on Sept. 24, 2004. More on that, but first the backstory. I first met the one man, John Robert Schrieffer, who I came to know as Bob - a Nobel Prize winning physicist - on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1998. Some dates stick in your mind.

I was in Tallahassee, FL, the state capital, for a black-tie dinner. As head of the Southeast U.S. and Caribbean region of the world's oldest culinary society, the Chaine des Rotisseurs, it was my job to induct six new members into the Tallahassee chapter and give a brief talk.

It should have been a very happy time. After all, it was the holiday season, and nearly 100 members of the prestigious society and their guests were about to enjoy a glorious six-course dinner paired with exquisite wines.

But there was an unmistakeable sadness in the cool, crisp air that night. Just four days earlier, Lawton Chiles, Florida's governor, had died of a sudden heart attack. He was buried earlier that very day. Had he lived, he was to have been one of the inductees that night.

Anne Grete Schrieffer, Bob's wife and president of the Tallahassee chapter of La Chaine, decided to carry on with the dinner despite the governor's loss, a way of honouring the man, she said. A good decision, I remember thinking at the time.

That night I spoke about the pleasures of the table and about the long history of the society, founded in 1050 in Paris as a guild of goose roasters. Food and wine are passions of mine, and I delivered a 15-minute heart-felt talk extemporaneously at these events, so it sounded less like a history lesson. I had plenty of practice with about 26 formal dinners a year for the six years I served. I've always believed fine dining and great wine need not be stuffy and used these events to promote that philosophy.

Unable to avoid the elephant in the room that night - the beloved Governor's absence - I added a few minutes to my talk, acknowledging the personal loss everyone felt. Like many in attendance, I had known Gov. Chiles for some time, since my college days three decades before.

All things considered, the dinner was quite festive, which is what Lawton Chiles would have wanted. Chaine dinners are interesting not only because of the food and wine, but because those who attend are among the most interesting people you'd ever meet. My table mates were Bill Nelson, a former astronaut serving as Florida's senior U.S. Senator, Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, the President of Florida State University and his wife, Patsy Palmer, a policy advisor to Gov. Chiles,  ESPN college football commentator Lee Corso and his wife, Betsy, and Anne and Bob Schrieffer.

I had known Bill, the astronaut turned Senator, for awhile, and looked forward to hearing the latest insider news from Washington. Corso was in my sights, as well, because of his sense of humour and his knowledge of NCAA football. Truly, I knew it was going to be an evening of sparkling conversations. But I was most looking forward to talking to the Schrieffers. She owned one of the top women's boutiques in Florida, was a trained chef and foodie like me, and Bob was, well, a Nobel Prize winner in physics. Really? At first, I wondered if I could even understand him.

As I learned that evening, Schrieffer was a man of obvious brilliance and depth. He and two associates - Bardeen and Cooper - developed an explanation of superconductivity, a phenomenon that baffled scientists for decades. Their efforts are known widely today by scientists as The BCS Theory (taking the initials of each scientist's last name).

Bob and I talked some about physics, but we covered the plight of the Boston Red Sox, a more or less perennial malaise, and the troubles in the Middle East, also more or less a perennial malaise, among other far-reaching topics.

He was intelligent, but more, he was street-smart. And, he was clever, with a glibness that spoke, "I am a Renaissance man," but without pretentiousness. Also, he looked like everyone's grandfather...likeable.

Anne was from Norway and every bit Bob's match...a strong, educated and elegant woman. They had married in 1960, when she was just 19, and Bob was 30. A charming couple in every respect. Toward the end of the evening, I thanked Anne for her warm and gracious hospitality, and told her how much I enjoyed talking with her husband.

"He might well be the perfect man," I recall saying to Anne. 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 had garnered a few speeding tickets since coming to Florida in 1993.

I dined with Anne and Bob two other times, once a year later and again in 2001. But Anne's words that first evening stuck in my head and proved prophetic. Bob would get nine tickets by 2003, and lose his driver's license.

But that was not the worst of it...by far. On a beautiful fall day - remember Sept. 24, 2004 - on California's Pacific Coast Highway, Bob, driving with a suspended Florida license, would ram a van full of people. He killed Renato Catalos - the man I never met - 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.

On more than one occasion since hearing the tragic news, I've pondered how a man could go from having everything...to having nothing. 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.

His wife, Anne, would die broken-hearted in 2013. The Super Magnet program that he built from the ground up at Florida State University after being recruited from the University of California-Santa Barbara now bears another scientist's name. He was fired. He lived every day in prison knowing that he killed two innocent people...and every day since.

Why? I still shake my head when I think about his life. I try not to judge him, of course, but when I read the newspaper accounts of the carnage he caused that ill-fated September afternoon, it is difficult.

Renato Catalos, 57, a Filipino immigrant and American citizen, husband, father, brother and friend to all seven of the other occupants, was dead through no fault of his own. A family friend, Amparo Mangapit, a 77-year-old woman died a month after the accident from her injuries. 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 said, but no witnesses could attest to Bob's story. He later confessed, he had caused the accident...there was no tractor-trailer.

Bob is 86, and lives in Las Vegas. He has no ties with anyone in his past...not associates at Florida State University or the University of California-Santa Barbara. I'm guessing that he never attends black-tie Chaine dinners engaging table mates with delightfully sparkling conversations.

Renato Catalos is in a cemetery in Ridgecrest, CA, the victim of the careless actions of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. Bob - like all of us - will die some day. Regardless of when, the first line of his obituary is no doubt written and awaits the date: 

"John Robert Schrieffer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1972 for his elemental work on superconductivity theory, and whose career ended after being found guilty of vehicular manslaughter, died today."

The truth is, Bob Schrieffer really died with Renato Catalos on Sept. 24, 2004. One bad decision can ruin everything.


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