Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Eulogy delivered by Mark Chignell and Shumin Zhai at Gene’s funeral, August 19, 2013

Mark Chignell: It is with heavy heart, but happy memories that we offer up a few words on this sad occasion. Today we lay to rest a son, a friend, a colleague, a father, a husband and a very unique person. When I first met him he was a twenty-something electrical engineer from UCLA in my Human Factors class at USC and he had an opinion on everything. He was very clever and very intense. He moved to Toronto to work with me when I got a job there and I was honored to supervise his Ph.D. He was the backbone of my lab for several years and I can still remember the soulful trumpet of Miles Davis playing in the lab when he was working late.

Shumin Zhai: Thank you all for coming to this very special although tragic event. We all feel this should not have happened to someone who is so young, so full of ideas, energy and indeed life, someone with such a lovely young child Theo and a wonderful wife Jill, and loving parents, as well as many friends like us who admired his character, intelligence, and wit and viewed him as an important part of our lives. Like you I am still in shock and find it incomprehensible. But let’s not dwell on the tragedy and let’s remember what an amazing person Gene was.

Mark: Gene could be very stubborn, and he loved to argue. He was also a loyal and decent person who was devoted to his parents, as they were to him. I believe that Gene would have made an excellent university professor but his career led elsewhere. He had a very successful research career at FXPAL and it is fitting that FXPAL closed at 2pm today so that his colleagues could be here.

Shumin: As a close friend for 20+ years, many images and episodes come to my mind whenever I think of Gene. One of the first things that come to my mind is Gene’s character. He is someone who I felt I could always trust and considered him a true friend in every sense of the word, and I am sure it is a feeling shared by many others. Because of his character I enjoyed every moment I fortunately had with Gene even when he was blunt and direct, or if we disagreed about something. Gene had my deepest respect because how sincerely he treated people and his friends and how loving he was towards his wife, son and the other family members.

Mark: We both admired Gene’s great taste in the arts, music, photography, food and wine. Gene was also a chess player, and a jazz lover. He loved to make outrageous puns. As a photographer he was an artist, originally specializing in black and white but Jill persuaded Gene to switch to color for the sake of the baby photos after Theo was born. Gene was also a loving family man. My son Ken is the same age as Theo and when they were babies Gene gave me a copy of the lovely book Goodnight Moon, which I read to Ken many times.

Shumin: Gene was full of charisma, humor and wit. His witty remarks often stuck in my head for a long time, some for many years and some forever. (Shumin continues): Of course, a big part of Gene’s life was about his work. Needless to say he accomplished a great deal in research, ranging from his pioneering work in creating unique tablet experiences, much of it is still to be adopted in the commercial world, to information retrieval with deep human factors considerations. He is one of the creators and leaders in a field now known as HCIR which combines Human-Computer Interaction and Information Retrieval. You can see Gene’s wit in the acronym HCIR. In fact Gene is well known as HCIR_Gene in twittersphere.

Mark: Gene was an excellent researcher and he was extremely competent at many things. He could often finish a project in the time that most people would take to start planning it. In recent years he became interested in genealogy and not only did he research the family tree for his own family tree but also for Jill's. Shortly before his untimely death he was at a conference in Utah on genealogy, picking up tips that he could use in his own research on the topic. Gene never stopped living life to the full, right until the end.

Shumin: Gene’s character also comes through in his research life. I have always been impressed by how well Gene could identify other people’s good work and how he appreciated his colleagues’ strength and capabilities, even if they were much less experienced. And indeed I have already read others making similar remarks on the web about how he easygoing and supportive he was towards graduate students and younger researchers he met at conferences.

Mark: Gene was more than a student and a colleague. He was also a good friend, and I'm sure many of you were also enriched by his friendship. Gene did not suffer fools gladly, and he probably wasn't the most diplomatic person you or I have met. But he had a heart of gold.

Shumin: Although his life was far too short, Gene had a great and remarkable life which will continue to inspire many of us in this world. This was what I told him last Thursday when I had a fortunate private moment with him in the last hour of his life. I told him he should be proud of his life.

Mark: We know that Gene had so much more to give, but we hope that in spite of the grief and the regrets that we can also celebrate Gene's life and find support and comfort in sharing our memories of him

Mark and Shumin: Gene, rest in peace. We will miss you.