Dr Gordon Reece, 1940-2017
21 February 2017
Dr Gordon Reece from the Department of Engineering Mathematics passed away recently. Monica Berry and Alan Champneys share this remembrance.
Gordon Reece who has died aged 76 after a short illness was an unconventional academic, even by the standards of the day. For him role of the University lecturer was not just about the push to publish and add to the research cannon; rather he was passionate about using his position to improve the lives of others. He introduced novel techniques to teach mathematics to engineering undergraduates, he championed staff development, believing that training brings better practice, and was an ardent supporter of the individual through his work as a union official. A colourful personality whose academic interests seamlessly blended with everyday life, Gordon was often heard on the radio talking about election forecasting or predictions of epidemics (especially AIDS), two of his research interests. He was a pioneer of computational fluid dynamics and also mathematical geology, yet developed simple methods of explanation using toys to demonstrate abstract ideas. A master of many languages, he contributed words to the Oxford English Dictionary, reviews and articles (eg to the New Humanist), as well as generosity and an unwavering optimistic outlook on life to all around him.
Gordon's parents were Jewish, arriving from Nazi Germany as refugees. Many of their relatives died in concentration camps. Gordon learned English and German, later became fluent in French and Hebrew, and could get by in many other languages. He was a lifelong socialist and humanist, and while still an undergraduate he was adopted by his local party branch in Worcester as their parliamentary candidate. He studied mathematics at Kings College London after which he found work as a teacher and lecturer while continuing with part-time study towards his MSc (awarded with distinction) on the theory of quantum mechanics. This led to the award of a funded PhD studentship in Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, to study computational fluid mechanics, after which he obtained a Research Fellowship in the same department, developing computer-assisted learning for engineering undergraduates.
In 1978 Gordon was appointed to the role of Lecturer in the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol and was promoted to Senior Lecturer a decade later. He was one of the first to introduce electronic notes and multi-media presentation to large-class teaching in an era where chalk and talk prevailed. He will be remembered by generations of Bristol engineering graduates as the mathematics teacher who was the purveyor of Mars bars, employed as a form of subtle bribery to incentivise students to ask questions. A serious and sensible question earned the questioner a Mars bar.
Departments of Engineering Mathematics were rare but not unknown in UK universities in the 1970s. Gordon's appointment came soon after the launch of a specialist degree programme in the subject at Bristol. For those students he introduced a novel teaching module in computational fluid mechanics using microcomputers, one of the first of its kind anywhere. During the 1980s and 90s every other UK Engineering Mathematics Department was closed or merged either with mathematics or engineering. The fact that Bristol's Department of Engineering Mathematics thrives today, in both teaching and research, is testament in many ways to Gordon's teaching, scholarship and citizenship. In 1989 he took on a part-time role as Head of Academic Staff Development at Bristol. It is hard to imagine that what is now a large part of HR was only recently seen as something to be managed by a half-time Senior Lecturer supported by a part-time secretary. Gordon was passionate about providing whatever was necessary for his academic colleagues across the University to thrive. Gordon contributed to University life in other innumerable ways, for example on Senate and as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Engineering. He was a member of so many committees and working parties that he kept a row of red plastic briefcases on his shelves, which would refer to as his 'red boxes', to carry the papers for each one.
In 1967 Gordon married Nesta Jones, daughter of the daughter of ‘the Welsh psychoanalyst’ Ernest Jones; lieutenant, close colleague and biographer to Sigmund Freud. He adopted her son David, and he and Nesta went on to have two daughters, Helen and Miriam (Mim). A devoted family man, he was immensely proud of his children. David is a policy expert funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation, with a connection to Lancaster University. Mim is a teacher of French and German and lives in Bath with her husband Nick and three young sons. Helen became an academic lawyer described as the “best in her generation in family law” latterly at the London School of Economics. She died last year at the age of 48, leaving a husband John and two children.
After Gordon took up his post at Bristol, the family bought a house in Berkeley, Gloucestershire but their aesthetic country existence was sadly not to last, ending with Nesta's premature death from cancer. Moving to Bristol, Gordon bought a house on St Michael's Hill, just round the corner from the University, which became his home for more than 30 years. Many will remember fondly the legendary parties held every year on Gordon's birthday. These were an opportunity for friends, family and colleagues to catch up, to discuss one of his many interests - in music, literature and the arts - or to put the world to rights late into the night, over all four storeys of the townhouse. He was a bon viveur, a lover of fine food and wine, although never ostentatious.
Gordon combined his lifelong interest in computers and politics to become an election forecaster, a practice which he claimed he started in the 1950s. He once explained he thought about the electoral system as an engineer would, seeking to establish the processes that were at work in translating inputs (voting intentions of people in different parliamentary seats) into the eventual output, the composition of parliament. He contrasted this with the prevailing method of the `swingometer’ which he saw as being all data and no model – something that failed to produce realistic results as soon as a third political party was on the scene. His predictions were usually more accurate than those of professional pollsters, which led to much press coverage. Indeed, he provided election forecasts for the Bristol Evening Post from the 1980s until the general election in 2015 and for many years he broadcast through the night on BBC radio Bristol as the general election results came in.
After Nesta's death Gordon increasingly sought solace in international travel, both alone and with the girls. He travelled extensively in Europe, the USA, Israel, China, India, and later especially to Malaysia. Gordon's style was to travel with nearly zero luggage, using night journeys to sleep, or set his sleeping bag under a hedge. This wanderlust continued up to his death. During those travels Gordon met Kim Lee and the two entered into a civil partnership in 2006. They were devoted to each other, and as Gordon’s mobility declined, Kim became his full time carer and companion. In 2015 they moved to central London to gain easier access to the cosmopolitan social life they enjoyed.
Gordon had the rare accolade of having lost and relearned the power of speech on three separate occasions. As a student, he had a meningioma removed that caused him to forget English, speaking only German for a while. Then in 1999 he suffered a severe brain trauma falling from a chateau in France. Although speech and languages returned, curiously for a long time he forgot the concept of the number seven. Third, in 2004 he was hospitalised with Meningitis, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. Following his return to health from the brain injury he found teaching somewhat troublesome but was instead offered and accepted the role of Bristol University branch secretary of the Association of University Teachers. He is remembered by those in the Union as a dear friend and comrade who, through his shared humanity, was able to show kindness to colleagues from all creeds and political persuasions.
In many respects Gordon was a maverick, but a deeply kind man who lived his beliefs through his tireless efforts to improve the lot of his fellow humans. Despite many setbacks in life he never showed any signs of bitterness. His friends and family will remember his cheeky grin and boyish sense of fun. Gordon is survived by Kim, Mim, David, Nick and John and his 6 grandchildren. His funeral will be held at Kensal Green Crematorium, in London at 11.15 am on Friday 24 February, and the family has invited all who knew Gordon to join them afterwards at The Mason Arms on the Harrow Road. They have also requested no flowers, but that those who would like to should make a donation to Amnesty International.
A longer version of this obituary will appear on the blog site www.engmaths.org where friends and colleagues are encouraged to leave comments and memories.