My Friend Gary

Remembering Gary Chapman

Posted by Peter Lewis | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 18-12-2010

Gary Chapman, a teacher and writer whose views helped define debates on the ethics of modern technology, died Dec. 14 while kayaking in the highlands of Guatemala. He was 58 years old and lived in Austin, Texas.

The cause was a heart attack, according to an emergency room physician who was a member of the kayaking team. But that cannot be. Those of us who knew Gary, and knew the size of his heart, suspect that he was simply so full of life that he floated away.

Gary was a Distinguished Lecturer at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He was also the founding director of The 21st Century Project at the University of Texas. The Project specializes in the social implications and trends of new developments in information technology. Its projects range from open government to reform of mental healthcare.

Before coming to Texas in 1993 Gary was executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a public interest group formed by researchers and scientists at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and Stanford University to raise awareness of the potential risks of computer technology in weapons systems. The group gained international prominence for its opposition to the Reagan Administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as the “Star Wars” space-based anti-missile system), and soon expanded its efforts to influence public policy on nonmilitary issues including privacy, electronic voting systems, critical infrastructure, and telecommunications policy.

He was a nationally syndicated columnist on technology issues for The Los Angeles Times, and later wrote a column for The Austin American-Statesman. His writings also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Boston Globe, Technology Review, and other major publications. Although he was not trained as a computer scientist, he was a member of the selection committee for the Turing Award, administered by the Association of Computing Machinery and often described as the “Nobel Prize for computer science.” In announcing his appointment to the Turing selection committee, the ACM described Gary as “the leading thinker on the social implications of technology.”

I could go on and on about my friend’s many professional accomplishments and honors, but such lists create only a partial portrait of this extraordinary man. Here are some other things you should know about Gary:

He was deeply in love with Carol Flake, his wife and life partner. The only time I can remember him showing anger was when someone wronged her.

He and Carol were planning to meet at the Guatemalan Mayan ruin of Tikal on Dec. 21, the winter solstice, to witness the full lunar eclipse.

He was a talented artist, and was an art major in college before switching to political science.

He got drafted during the Viet Nam war. In boot camp, as a raw grunt, he refused a drill sergeant’s order that he said demeaned his fellow grunts. An officer ordered him to obey. “Sir, no SIR,” Gary said, displaying the integrity that was his hallmark for the rest of his life. “That’s an illegal order.” It was a test, and Gary was the only soldier in his barracks to refuse to comply. The officer plucked Gary from the group and, citing his display of character and leadership, recommended him for advancement.

He became a Green Beret in the Army’s Special Forces, and yet he was gentle and soft-spoken.

He was so soft-spoken most of the time that when he did erupt, it was memorable. Gary’s obituary in The New York Times recounted this tale: “Eric Roberts, a computer science professor at Stanford, recalled that at a C.P.S.R. board meeting on the Stanford campus in 1988, Mr. Chapman banged his fist on the table to make his case. “Just at that moment we had an earthquake,” Professor Roberts said, “and we all thought, ‘He commands forces greater than we know.’ ”

As a Special Forces soldier Gary saw the worst that men are capable of doing, and yet he was compassionate and optimistic and never lost faith in the essential goodness of humanity. He saw the hypocrisy of politicians and the venality of corporate executives and the incompetence of bureaucrats but never became cynical.

His eyes got wide with wonder when he saw or heard something that delighted him. And when he told you about it, his eyebrows shot up and his eyes widened even more and he laughed, and you couldn’t help laughing as well.

Dave, his favorite dog, made him laugh. He loved his dogs: Joey, Dave, Zippy, and Molly.

He would drive hours to talk to a group of farmers who were confused about a new plan for rural broadband access. He volunteered whenever needed to help bring computer technology to kids in East Austin and other economically deprived areas.

He was an extraordinarily talented cook. He appreciated fine wine. But he was not a wine snob.

He loved kayaking and loved being on the water. His friend Grant Thomas remembers a kayaking trip on the Guadalupe River when they stopped for lunch. “Another guy and I grabbed a couple of cheap beers, and here was Gary with a bottle of wine,” Grant says. Gary pulled out a corkscrew and a portable wine glass, the kind that comes in two parts. He screwed the stem into the bowl and popped the cork. “We couldn’t help but laugh and say, ‘That’s class right there,’ ” Grant says. “That’s how Gary was.”

He loved shooting at sporting clays and owned a custom-made Italian shotgun. But he didn’t hunt. He loved birds and nature. He and Carol made their home just a short distance from the river.

He built a shed for his collection of kayaks. Like everything else he did, it was classy.

He loved music. He somehow got Buffalo Springfield to play for his high school prom in California. He used to drive several hours round-trip from his Army base up to Ashbury Park, N.J., to hear a new group called Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.

He loved music, but was a lousy dancer opinions about his dancing ability varied. Couldn’t sing, either.

He and Carol loved Italy. They loved going to their favorite hotel on their favorite lake in northern Italy. They loved going to the outdoor opera in Verona.

But they also loved going to out-of-the-way bars in New Orleans to hear the music. Gary had an encyclopedic knowledge of bands and singers and songwriters.

He had an encyclopedic knowledge of just about any topic you could think of.

As his friend Jack Nokes says, Gary was brilliant and humble. “He was the smartest guy in the room but acted like he was just like everyone else,” Jack says.

We invited Gary to join our men’s book club just before a meeting. The book was Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal,” and all the other guys in the group — professors, lawyers, doctors, writers, captains of industry, alpha males all –were enamored of it. Gary hadn’t read the book, but after we were done gushing he joined the conversation and for the next hour helped us dissect the arguments and implications of it, and basically shredded the author’s thesis on philosophical, scientific and feminist terms. It was a bravura performance.

Gary lifted almost every conversation to a higher, more interesting or more entertaining level.

He was prematurely gray. His hair was already going white when I first met him in the 1980s.

He suffered from tinnitus, a constant ringing in his ears. It drove him nuts. Being around the roar of falling water gave him some relief.

He never quite grasped the concept of a firm handshake. It drove us nuts.

No matter what he did, he always did it well. He always concocted the best costume for our annual Mardi Gras party. And he always made the best mix tapes for the Mardi Gras party dance music.

Gary said he used to think of success in terms of prestige or power or money. But recently, he told Carol, he came to realize that success, for him, was making a difference in the lives of his students. He loved working with kids and agonized over whether he was reaching them. He devised games and exercises to help them learn. One of his students, a tough kid from a tough part of Houston, was probably the first in his family not just to go to college, but to graduate from high school. He struggled with college work. Gary told him, “I’m probably not going to give you a grade better than a C, because you don’t have the writing and reading skills that other kids have who had more resources growing up than you, but if you work with me, I promise I’ll make you a better student.” The kid showed up whenever Gary had office hours, sometimes to go over schoolwork, but most of the time just to talk. By the end of the semester he was writing better, and more important, excited and proud to be writing better. Gary was delighted to give him a B.

Gary spent hours writing letters of recommendation for his students, writing and rewriting, not satisfied until the letters were perfect.

He had an early flight on the morning he left for the whitewater kayaking trip to Guatemala. But, Carol said, he got up at 4 a.m. to finish a letter of recommendation he had promised to write for one of his students.

Gary wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I applied for a teaching job at Stanford, where he had taught years before, before he walked away from a Ph.D. in political science to take his job with Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

I got the job, and afterward asked the director of Stanford’s graduate journalism program why I was chosen over the other candidates. “It was the letter of recommendation from Gary Chapman, your friend at the University of Texas,” she said.

Kathryn and I had dinner with Gary and Carol just before he left for Guatemala. I’m grateful I had the chance to thank him for his help. Which, of course, he shrugged off with his aw shucks humility.

The other guys on the kayaking trip said Gary was stricken while paddling on a relatively quiet stretch of river. He was there one minute, as full of life as any man can be, and gone the next. It was a beautiful stretch of river, his fellow kayakers said, the kind of place that seems almost sacred in its beauty and peacefulness. A few minutes earlier, they said, Gary was as happy as they had ever seen him.

Heart attack? More likely, he just found himself in a place that was so close to heaven on earth that he just paddled on through.

Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Gary went to the river because he lived deliberately. He learned what life had to teach, and he became a great teacher. He loved Carol deeply and passionately. And she loved Gary. We all loved Gary.

And now, in death, he is teaching us about life, especially the most important lesson of all: Love is the most important thing there is.