A TRIBUTE TO THE REVERENT ROBERT WESLEY PIERCE, Ph.D., M.S., B.S.
The wild philosophical poet Dylan Thomas wrote what I want as my own epitaph.
“Do not go gently into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day.
Rage! Rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men, at their end, know dark is right”
It is a brief literary piece that encapsulates my own thoughts on dying. It is an apt epitaph for Robert Wesley Pierce. His mind was such that there was so much left he could do at the moment of his death.
Bob was my student, but he was also my friend. A friendship that never faltered for almost 50 years, from the time a young fresh-faced boy with an almost constant smile and a never-ending string of stories: never-ending, never-ending ..., asked to work with me on the taxonomy of a group of micro-organisms called coccoliths.
Bob's M.S. work was on rocks made from chalk found in Jamaica: and there he went to make his collections. In doing so he followed in the footsteps of some great figures in the history of geology: for chalk had fascinated many a scientist in earlier times – including me, for one of my earliest papers was on coccoliths from chalky sediments. As the end of his Masters degree approached we decided he should continue in academia and work towards a Ph. D. He was fortunate, albeit deserving, in obtaining a special scholarship to work with a colleague of mine in England for a year – Maurice Black of Cambridge. Maurice was a world renowned specialist in coccoliths, and Cambridge provided Bob not merely an opportunity to become a super-specialist in his field but to be engulfed by the history and philosophical knowledge at one of the world's greatest centers for understanding the Humanities. Pursuing not only his science but engulfing himself in the very essence of a university life, Bob blossomed!
After the year abroad Bob returned to LSU to continue with his Ph. D. Program and together we worked on the bottom sediments of the modern Gulf of Mexico: his complete dissertation was published in the journal “GeoScience and Man”.
The years followed with a stint as an Assistant Professor at Auburn University, where another one of my students, and Bob's close friend Raymond Christopher, was an Assistant Professor. Finally, with thoughts of a growing family both Bob and Ray took work outside academia: Ray to the US Geological Survey and Bob into the oil and gas industry – as a Research Scientist with AMOCO in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He stayed with AMOCO until he retired.
Bob had a flair for talking-on-this-feet and was never boring in this regard: perhaps a little inclined to exaggeration on some of the finer points, for he was full of so much enthusiasm that his mind took over and he spoke what he was thinking. This was why he was such an excellent lecturer – and he was indeed!
Bob's interests were always about nature and humankind and he continually sought understanding of their relationships. Even at the beginning of our association he had a deep interest in all things human – from archeology and anthropology, to the relationship between science and religion. When he decided to explore the religious life it did not come as a surprise – although perhaps a disappointment to an old atheist like myself who asked him “Where did I fail!”. Bob however, knew well my deep respect for religion and my belief that it is a basic trait in all human beings.
Bob's belief system, and my lack of it, never caused friction between us: as a scientist himself he understood that I had no belief system that would contest his: science never holds anything as true and can only say some things are false or that we fail to reject the idea that something is true.
My own views fit this poem well for when our physical death takes place our atoms and molecules and ideas continue. They simply go back into our evolving Universe where they came from in the first place. We came into existence from our Universe – we exist in physical form for so short a time – we return to our Universe. Bob is all around us: we will breath oxygen that had once been in his body, we will speak a word we heard him utter, we will promulgate an idea he inspired.
I see three deaths. The first is the physical death we are witness to today. The second is the last time your name is read or spoken: for many this will be when the last person we knew dies, but Bob the writer will avoid this second death for a long time for his written work has significance. The third death is when the last ideas you expressed no longer have a place in human thought. This last death could give Bob the teacher, a very long life.
Finally, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore on the Brink of eternity.
In desperate hope I go
and search for him
in all the corners of my room;
I find him not.
My house is small
and what once has gone from it can never be regained.
But infinite is thy mansion, my lord,
and seeking him I have to come to thy door.
I stand under the golden canopy of thine evening sky
and I lift my eager eyes to thy face.
I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish
---no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.
Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean,
plunge it into the deepest fullness.
Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch
in the allness of the universe.
Live well, and as Gandhi said “live the life you want to see”.
Robert Wesley Pierce did that!
Professor emeritus, LSU
Fri Aug 9 13:25:09 MDT 2013