“Fantastic!” — A Remembrance
Last Sunday, my father Walter Nance passed away at the age of 88. Walter taught me to play chess when I was about 7 years old, and I can still remember how excited I was when I beat him for the first time when I was 9 years old. He was a pretty strong player for someone who had never played in a rated tournament. After I started getting into tournament chess, he also gave it a try and earned a rating in the 1400s, if I remember correctly.
But he didn’t stick to tournament chess for very long. In his late thirties and early forties, his academic career was taking off, and in 1975 he received an offer to be chair of the Department of Human Genetics at the Medical College of Virginia, a position he held for the rest of his career until he retired in 2001. That was the end of his chess playing days, because he was far too busy being a department chairman to spend weekends playing chess.
The last time I can remember talking with him about chess was in 2006, when I won my queen sacrifice game against IM David Pruess. That was my career masterpiece, so of course I told him about it and he asked me to send him the moves. After he played through the game, he said that he kept thinking I was going to lose! He couldn’t believe the sacrifice actually worked. Fantastic!
The collage of photos above captures several of my father’s interests. In the upper left photo you see chess and photography: he took lots of great photos with the Nikon, and I’ll copy one below. The second one shows my sister and him looking over our family genealogy — a natural hobby for a geneticist. He also passed along his love of gardening to my sister and me. He did a great deal of traveling, both for his professional life and then after retirement. I really admired his adventurous attitude. If something looked interesting, he and his second wife Mayna would just go and do it.
I think that Walter had particularly strong emotional ties to two places. He grew up in China for eight years before World War II, and he retained a strong interest in Chinese culture throughout his life, especially Chinese food and art works. My uncle Carter said that Walter was a genius because he managed to convince the government to pay him to visit his boyhood home five years in a row! Actually those trips to China and Mongolia were working trips for him, paid out of grant money from the National Institutes of Health, but I think he was also deeply satisfied anytime he could visit the place where he grew up.
The other place that meant a lot to him was Sewanee, Tennessee. That’s where he went to college, at the University of the South, and it’s where he moved to after he retired. I should perhaps mention that he and my mother, Carol, got divorced in the mid-1980s and he remarried in 1992 to Mayna, who had also spent some of her childhood in China. She was the daughter of a family friend, and he had worshipped her throughout high school but she was a year older and “out of his league.” Given his fond memory of the China years, and his devotion to Sewanee, I think that marrying her 45 years later and moving into her father’s old home in Sewanee was kind of a dream come true for him. The “Sewanee” picture at lower right in the collage above, where he is standing on a bridge with Mayna, represents the happiness he found in retirement. I think he was truly at home there more than any other place.
Two days ago some of Walter’s former students organized a Zoom meeting to share their memories. I am so grateful they did that, and I learned some new things about him. Over and over in the Zoom memorial, his students and colleagues said things like, “He changed my life,” or “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.” Every faculty member in that department was hired by him. Every Ph.D. student, even if their advisor was officially someone else, was also a student of Walter. It was like a big family.
One other thing that several people mentioned in the Zoom meeting was that his favorite word was “Fantastic!” I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I remember hearing that word from him a lot, as a child and later. You got a good grade on your report card? Fantastic! You got a job offer? Fantastic! You played a queen sacrifice against an International Master and won? Fantastic! You want to get together and watch the total solar eclipse? Fantastic! It’s a word that captures his openness to life’s experiences.
In the end, I have trouble feeling any regrets or sadness at his passing. I think he lived the kind of life he wanted to live, left his mark in many ways and on many people, did not leave many dreams unaccomplished, and was not fazed by any obstacles he encountered. What is there to regret?
On my last visit with Walter, in August, I was surprised and impressed with how upbeat he was. Dementia had robbed him of most of his short-term memory, so that he really didn’t understand why he was in an assisted-living facility or what was happening with the pandemic. Nevertheless, I think he had come to accept: this is where I am now, and I’ll just make the best of it. He was never a bitter or cantankerous old man. He was a delight to be around (except for the fact that he would forget everything you said). For me, that last visit was a great final memory of him. I’m fine with letting him go now to the land of the ancestors.