James wasn’t famous. Even among his peers in the technology industry, he wasn’t well known. But he liked it that way. Those people that did know him, liked him, a lot. He was very introverted, even to those who knew him well. If he was having a bad day, you’d never know it. He was as even-keeled as they come. Unless of course you sparked up a conversation about technology. His passion for technology was only ever eclipsed by one thing, his wife, whom he met only a short time before his death.
James died on August 14th, 2008. He had recently purchased a motorcycle, despite the concerns of those around him. To his credit, he was a safe of a motorcycle rider as they come. He always wore a full-face helmet. He even wore a fashion-faux-paux reflective vest in hopes that drivers would see him better in less-than-perfect weather condition, despite its horrendous appearance. However, it was all for naught.
James was riding his motorcycle along I-94 on his way back to work after lunch. He worked for Cray, the company that brought the world the super computer. Traffic came to a sudden halt. James was able to stop in time. However, the vehicle behind him, driven by a distracted driver, who had already had her driver’s license suspended, did not stop. News reports initially stated that he was not wearing a helmet. The truth was that the force of the impact was so vicious that it removed his helmet. He died instantly.
It has taken me five years to write this. Five years to come to terms with his death. Five years to be able to write this without tears welling up in my eyes. I know I owe it to James to have written this sooner, but we all deal with grief differently.
Like so many of today’s 30-something programmers, network engineers and IT professionals, I was on IRC in the mid-90s. This was long before commercial applications of VoIP, Skype, video conferencing, and even instant messaging, although ICQ was just around the corner. IRC was the only real-time chat medium at the time. It was in 1996, on IRC that I met James. He went by the nickname brick, and later jld. We were both big fans and advocates of FreeBSD and James ran the #FreeBSD channel. It wasn’t until 1998 though, that James and I became very good friends and started speaking nearly every day. We bonded over my installing X Windows for the first time. He walked me through it, step by step. He even helped me get my sound card working. X Windows was still very raw at the time. The entire process took many hours over several days. In addition to learning how to install X Windows, I also learned something about James during that process. I learned that he was a selfless and incredibly generous person who would do anything for his friends. This was the first of many times that James taught me something new. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Over the next decade, James introduced me to many more wonderful things, including digital SLR photography, C and C++, encryption, decryption, digital encoding, Ogg Vorbis, flac and ray-tracing to name a few. His actions also, indirectly, led me to meeting my wife, Heather. Because of this, and many other reasons, James holds a very special place in our hearts. It’s not by accident that our first-born son is named James. While we didn’t name our son after James per se, it didn’t escape us that our son shared a name with one of our most favorite people. Our son was born eight months before James died.
In early 2007, James met his soul mate, Michelle. Around that April, it was clear that James was smitten. He started spending more time with her and less time online. Our conversations went from still nearly daily in early 2007 to about once a week by the end of 2007. Between Michelle and work, he was rarely online in 2008. Once in a while he would hop on instant messenger and we’d catch up. It wasn’t strange however for him to go weeks at a time without getting online. It wasn’t until December that I found out about his death. I wrote him a tongue-in-cheek email on December 2nd asking him if he was still alive. Sixteen days later Michelle replied to me that James has passed away four months earlier. Heather and I were absolutely devastated. I took it upon myself to inform the rest of the people that James and I knew mutually who did not yet know. Like me, they just thought that they hadn’t heard from him because he was very much enjoying married life. After the shock had subsided a little, we reminisced about how wonderful James was. There was a very strong consensus that he would genuinely be greatly missed. Our normally joyful and festive Christmas was sombre and subdued, while we struggled to come to terms with the hole left in our lives.
It was a cold winter in 2008. There was lots of snow. I used the time shoveling the snow off the driveway to think about James. I could be alone with my tears outside. I didn’t have to hide them. It was my sanctuary. I often took a lot longer than required to shovel, moving slowly and deliberately, so I could be alone with my thoughts longer. In the four winters that have passed since not a single time has gone by that I haven’t thought of James, while shoveling the driveway.
James made everyone around him laugh and smile. He made a genuine impact in many people’s lives, for the better. Other than my mother, my wife and my children, perhaps nobody has impacted my life more than James did. The world needs more people like him, not fewer. You are missed, my friend.