Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Tribute to "Old McDonald"

Many people knew my grandfather as Dr. Frank McDonald, who made many contributions to the world of physics and specifically the science of cosmic rays. He was chief scientist at NASA, the science advisor for Ronald Reagan, and played a large part in the Voyager spacecraft program. It is beyond poetic that the last thing he did was to give a lecture to a group of his peers.

From the "Encyclopedia Astronautica"
McDonald, Frank B American scientist, at NASA 1959-1989. Served as project scientist on nine NASA satellite programs, NASA Chief Scientist 1982-1987.
Frank B. McDonald began a career with NASA in 1959 as head of the Energetic Particles Branch in the Space Science Division at Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Thereafter he served as project scientist on nine NASA satellite programs. In 1982 he became NASA Chief Scientist, serving until 1987 when he returned to Goddard as associate director/chief scientist.

In other circles, he was known as "Frank", "Grandpa", "Granddad", "Old Mcdonald", or "EIO". (The last two were I think his favorite titles). He was an amazing patriarch, who showed love through actions more than words, and who led by example. As I sat with him in his hospital room this week, I talked to him about the lessons he taught me and the rest of our family.

Cherish Your Family
Grandpa and Rene created a huge, crazy (in a good way) blended family. You always knew that family functions would be large, and were never quite sure who you might get to catch up with. As I talked to my cousins and my sister these past two days, there are two distinct memories that are fond for all of us. The first is the annual trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This actually started as a trip each year to Woods Hole in Massachusetts for a conference that Grandpa attended. Eventually it morphed into what is now our annual OBX trip. This trip entails 20+ family members in one or two houses. It can be hectic, but we all look forward to it throughout the year. Dinner each night is assigned to a particular family, and we eat as a group. With little ones, this means taking turns, keeping kids occupied, and varying levels of chaos, which Grandpa observed and seemed to soak up. I can see him right now, reading the Washington Post in the living room, grandchildren and great-grandchildren literally running around him. I figured out this year that he must have turned down his hearing aid at times like this because he seemed not at all bothered by the craziness. Grandpa would take an evening walk down to the beach when the sun cooled down to spend time with us. He loved the ocean, and loved being there with his family. The Outer Banks trips won't ever be quite the same, but I think all of us will feel just a little bit closer to him there.

Family dinners (especially Christmas Eve) are another thing that we were all so fond of. You knew the food would be good (his carrot salad was my personal favorite), and that there would be good company and good wine. Dinners were usually so big that we had to spread out to several rooms, and "the cousins" nicknamed the porch "the cool room". When Grandpa was a bachelor living in Greenbelt, dinners meant races to the elevators, trips to the trash chute, and cooking Goldfish crackers in the Easy Bake oven.

My sister, kids, and I were fortunate enough to attend a dinner he had for one of his colleagues a few weeks ago. Grandpa was holding court in the kitchen as usual, giving instructions and creating an amazing meal. His family dinners set such a precedent....amazing food but also the company and the feeling of warmth and family. As we prepare for a dinner tonight in his honor, I know that continuing this tradition is one way we will honor his memory.

Make Your Friends Feel Like Family
For as long as I can remember, family functions with Grandpa meant people other than our family would be included. He didn't see family as biology, but as people who are important in your life. Rogeilio is one of his scientific colleagues, and in an email yesterday his wife Paola described our family as Grandpa's "wonderful constellation". There are two definitions of constellation befitting our family " An arbitrary formation of stars perceived as a figure or design", "A gathering or an assemblage, especially of prominent persons or things". Rogeilio and Paola are part of that constellation, as are Fuji from Japan, Harm from South Africa, Ken from Australia, Vladmir, Nadia, and Yulia, and many others. Grandpa made his international colleagues feel like family. They spent holidays and celebrations with us, and I know that they feel his loss as much as we do. 

His friend and colleague Harm wrote this:
We deeply mourn together with you all. Frank was indeed a special scientist and an even more special family man. He drew all of us into his sphere, and we all benefited from his loyal personal friendship. Frank knew how to do his science not by himself, but with and through other people.

Shoot for the Stars
Grandpa did this literally in his work, but also helped his children, grandchildren, great grandchildren achieve their dreams. He provided moral (and lots of financial) support. He was quiet about it, and didn't place demands or expectations. He just wanted to see us all succeed. In our own time, each of his grandchildren obtained a college degree (some more than one), and owe much of our success (and smarts) to him. Even when he thought you were crazy (like when I ran a marathon, and when my uncles got motorcycles), he would tell you, but didn't make you feel any less loved. At that dinner a few weeks ago, he told me he wanted to make sure my children signed up for whatever music lessons or activities they wanted this fall. Here he was again looking out for the next generation. 

Grandpa's scientific legacy was widespread, and as we talked to him yesterday Rene commented that he would get the answer to all his scientific questions. He was an amazing man, who showed love and humility and showed us all what family means. We will miss you Grandpa, but I know you are proud of each and every one of us and I hope we will carry on your legacy in a way that you deserve.

"Right On"