In between touring for Shell Game, mourning Pittsburgh, trying to do some election work, I celebrated my husband Courtenay’s 95th birthday. Kee Young-Kim, chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago — where Courtenay taught and did research for 44 years — and her husband, physicist Sid Nagel — organized a wonderful celebration for Courtenay on October 30. Here are the remarks I gave, an inadequate summary of a remarkable man’s life.
Courtenay has been part of my life for 47 years. After all this time, I could talk about him for several days, the things I admire, the quirks I never really got my mind around, the past we’ve shared, the parts of his life I know only by hearsay, but I will try to be brief. I will focus on the things I’ve learned from Courtenay as well as some of the things he’s tried to teach me that I never mastered.
When I first started seeing Courtenay, I was attracted by his accent and his eyebrows – both reminiscent of the young Sean Connery, on whom I had a crush. But what made me fall in love was the way his face, indeed, his whole being, lit up when he was doing the work he loved. Physics was his passion. His zest for that world, those ways of thinking, was exhilarating.
These are some of the things I learned from Courtenay:
How to get ketchup out of a bottle – not with brute strength, but applying a physical law that means you slap the bottle in an upward motion so that the ketchup flows in the opposite direction.
I learned that if your electronics aren’t working, check first to see if they’re plugged in.
I learned to change fuses, and test electrical outlets, to clean carburetors and cylinder heads and to gap spark plugs – skills now obsolete. One of Courtenay’s hobbies was hot wiring but that one never attracted me.
He taught me to love dogs, to use chopsticks, to understand vectors. He gave me the courage to find a public voice, in writing and in speaking.
Like many of the scientists I know or have read about – Fermi, Cronin, Roger Hildebrand and others – Courtenay loved strenuous physical activity. Until arthritis claimed his joints, he was a tennis player, a downhill skier, and a boater, although he only really enjoyed taking the boat out when lake Michigan waves were 6 feet high or higher – in the face of physical danger, his face lit with the same joy as when he was talking about electron spin. He embraced the entire physical world, from the sub-atomic to the grand peaks and waves.
I sometimes sat in on his lectures; his face was filled with joy as he talked about electron half-spin, as it was when he tried to teach me non-Euclidian geometry, or special relativity. The day they moved the cyclotron from the central shop to Fermi Lab he called me to come watch. He had a boyish eagerness about all the different aspects of the field that had chosen him.
There were three different occasions on which I actually understood relativity, and I briefly shared his exhilaration, but I couldn’t keep hold of it, and now probably never will.
Courtenay served in the Royal Navy during World War II. At age 20, he was the radar officer on the HMS Apollo, which took Eisenhower and Montgomery to Normandy on D-Day Plus One. He also was the officer on duty when the coded signal came in from the Admiralty: He was the first person in the world to know the date and destination of the landing, as he translated the message and hand-carried it to the head of the fleet.
The BBC once interviewed him about this. The interviewer wanted to know what it felt like – the thrill, the awe, whatever emotion Courtenay could remember from that moment. Courtenay kept saying, “It was my job. I was doing my duty.” In his mind, that over-rode any sense of being special. The interviewer and he never found common ground and, sadly, the interview was never broadcast (although his war memories are part of the video archive at the Pritzker Military Museum downtown).
Courtenay has the highest sense of duty, and the highest level of integrity and morality, of anyone I have ever known. Certainly in his work he was ambitious and competitive, but only against his own standards, not against his colleagues or students. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see whether someone was gaining on him – he did the work because it brought him joy.
Outside the lab and classroom, he had other interests, like the board=game Go, which he played at a high level, but he also took his sense of duty and moral obligation to the public sphere. He was part of Jason, and wrote, with Steven Weinberg and Freeman Dyson, a crucial paper that kept McNamara from using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia.
In the 60’s, before Roe, he often spoke in public forums and on television to support abortion rights. When a student was stranded in Europe because he couldn’t get a visa for his French wife, Courtenay went to the State Department and got the matter untangled in short order. He wrote to Senators to protest the bills that eroded our rights under the Fourth Amendment.
His essential kindness also made him the person who visited sick friends in hospital, made sure they had the care they needed at home, looked after me, my friends and my family with unfailing generosity.
During his first wife’s serious illness, Courtenay cared for her and their three sons for a number of years. Juggling career and family took a toll, but he never complained and never regretted making that choice.
In fact, I have never heard Courtenay complain about any personal matter, great or small, either in his career, his personal health, or his private life. He never whined that he was dealt a bad hand, or had rotten luck, or was mistreated. You play the cards you’re dealt and you take what action lies within your power to heal yourself and the world around you –tikkun olam, the rabbis call it. Courtenay is not the least bit religious, but I look on him as someone who’s spent his life practicing tikkun olam.
I’m grateful that I’ve been granted all these years to try to learn from him. I tend to whine any time I stub my toe, but I look at my husband, and know I can do better. I probably will never master relativity or non-Euclidian geometry, but I can still get ketchup out of a bottle, and I can still become a more moral, decent person.
Thank you, my dearest one, for all you’ve given to me and to the world around you.