Sunday, March 29, 2020

When COVID-19 Becomes Real in Your World, How Do You React?

For the past three weeks I’ve stayed atop all the developments of the pandemic that is fueled by the coronavirus called COVID-19 by faithfully viewing TV news channels that report true facts calmly without hysteria, frankly rather than with duplicity, and with practicality rather than delusion. I’ve been proud of Bryan and College Station and Brazos County civic leaders, who acted early and wisely to contain activities that put our community at risk. And I’ve been blessed by friends as angels calling to check on me, bringing me thoughtful things they know I would be out of, and Skyping, Facebooking, IMing and texting daily to share their love. It’s been painless and has only reinforced love for me so far. But that all changed early this morning when the impact of the coronavirus landed safely in my Mayberry backyard, in the death of TAMU Mathematics professor Jack Bryant.

I became aware of the passing of our county’s first victim of COVID-19 only by the name when it was announced. When I saw it, I immediately flashed back to my days as an engineering undergraduate student, and he had been my instructor in what had to have been the most challenging of all the math courses they required, Math 308, Differential Equations, known to most as “Diff EQ,” and named by me as “Difficult Equations.” Derivatives made sense; integration was evil. I made a D and I was so proud of that D. It meant I hadn’t flunked! But I never once forgot that I had a tremendous instructor, Dr. Jack Bryant. Even when I was living in “D-land,” I didn’t blame him or his teaching. In fact, he was a great teacher.

Despite his seemingly unique appearance, this man had the most logical mind, strong voice and gracious manner. As in my lifetime, I’ve been (perhaps unfairly) characterized before as a “Typical Chemist” (code for “nerd”). Similarly, Physicists and Mathematicians are often described as having hair that might not always be combed, a proclivity for t-shirts, sweat shirts and hoodies. In fairness, that’s true of many, but not all, Math folks. Let's face it, science is creative and that means thinking outside the box and intelligence has nothing to do with hair, wild or perfectly coiffed.

After graduation and an engineering career, when I returned to Aggieland to work in academe, I had the responsibility for fundraising for the College of Science. It was part of my job to introduce prospective donors to key faculty members and to help them find common ground and interests in funding and then get out of their way as they forged their own friendships and funding ensued. At the time, the Mathematics department head (long ago deceased) was a truly off-the-charts personality.

That Department Head’s attitude veered from Wally Cox as Mr. Peepers to wild-eyed mad scientist in five seconds flat if you happened to trigger his temper. Simply saying hello could do the trick. Then you had his number two deputy, Assistant Department Head, as the calm, easy-going type who had a joke for you, a smile, and he would out-talk the dean out of funds destined for another department without his even knowing it. He was the good cop to the department head’s bad cop. And all the faculty members were supposed to function normally under the rather rocky steering of bright but unpredictable "leaders."

And yet in the Math department were these wonderful professors who taught and did research and had wonderful, normal, happy lives, though they lived quietly and far under the spotlights usually cast on others in the college. Their headquarters was, at the time, Milner Hall that was freezing in the winter and stultifying in the summer, and that was on a good day. Today they’re in the newer Blocker building. No matter where they were, you could almost count on seeing Jack Bryant any day on campus and he’d be walking to his next destination no matter how far.

He walked everywhere and he was easily recognizable, most comfortable with his early silvered hair below his ears, that hip 1970s look up north and out west for sure, and he had a devotion to Converse basketball shoes and a Polo shirt in the warm weather and a sweatshirt over it when it was cold. And he was one of the kindest people you’d ever want to meet. A brilliant man who didn’t have any trouble discussing any topic with anyone. He was a tad shy though, so if he looked slightly to the right or left of your eyes, he was just thinking on both sides of his brain, and you still had his full attention.

His career began in Wichita Falls where he graduated from high school in 1953. He earned his undergraduate degree from the A&M College of Texas (as we were called then) in 1958; a B.A. in Math and in 1962, he earned his M.S. degree, also in Math. He then enrolled at Rice University in advanced mathematics studies in 1961-1965. He received his doctoral degree from Rice on June 5, 1965. Jack’s dissertation topic was “Theorems Relating Convolution and Fourier Series.” As are all dissertations, new and groundbreaking work was expected and achieved; his graduate advisor was Richard O’Neil, another renowned mathematician.

In September 1964, Dr. Bryant was hired to teach Mathematics at Texas A&M, and in 1990 was named Professor Emeritus. During his career at A&M his research was supported by NASA and others know far more about his areas of expertise than I. He addressed students by their last names, preceded by Ms. or Mr., the way you’d expect in a northeastern school, and it was nice that he actually knew our names as there were close to 40 of us in the class at the time.

Like any Aggie who remembers a professor who stood out in their minds as memorable, the memories become associated with the way we were progressing in our goals and dreams on our own ways to graduation, careers and life beyond Aggieland. He loved A&M and this community enough to not only want to come back but to make this his permanent home. And although Prof. Bryant’s granddaughter was quoted (in the KBTX story online tonight) as saying that her grandfather would not have wanted to be “that kind of statistic,” the fact is he is the first person whose name I knew and whose passing hit home in a personal way. Today’s kids would say, “This just got real.”

COVID-19 today is a real thing in our community. We have tremendous city leaders and county officials who are proactive and in these times of sorrow, loss, lockdown, shut-in, we are finding reasons to reach out together via virtual means via Facebook, FaceTime, IMs, Skype and Zoom.

We are not to fear, we are not to panic, we are to stand ready and stand together, reaching out (at a socially safe distance) for our friends, neighbors, and loved ones, to let them know we know they’re here with us and we are here for them, too. Everyone can do something, even if it is “Just to pray” for the safety and security of all first responders, emergency personnel, health care workers, and teachers who face online challenges, self-employed people and those whose financial stability has been upended with no warning. There is no “Just” in prayers—every prayer helps.

Our childhood passes away from us every day. We lose family members, mentors, neighbors and friends of a lifetime, in our lifetime. Prof. Jack Douglas Bryant will not be remembered as a statistic, the “first” to die in our county from COVID-19. Instead, he will be remembered as a fellow Texas Aggie, a bright Math prof, and a kind and gentle soul.

May his family be comforted at this time of sorrow and loss. As we all prepare to transition from this life into another eventually--now, or down the road--it’s about the amount of love we can share while we’re here that can make an impact. The number of “I love you’s,” and “I appreciate you’s,” and the “Thank you’s” can always be increased, exponentially in fact. The way kindness begets other kindness…it’s exponential; it has to be. And someone can likely find a way to put that in an equation. I won’t integrate it, but I will find its derivative….it’s called love.

Rest in Peace Dr. Bryant. Amen.

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