Sunday, January 18, 2009

RIP Paul Lawrence Burnham

Paul Lawrence Burnham (1939-2009), father, husband, aviator, historian, astronomer and engineer, has passed away. He began his life in Naples, Maine and graduated from Bates College in 1962 with a degree in history. He served in the Navy from 1962 to 1969 as a Lieutenant and pilot, marrying Linda Anne Harris in 1963. After leaving the Navy he returned to Maine to raise a growing family: Christopher (b. 1965), Michael (b. 1967), Jennifer (b. 1971) and Karen (b. 1979). He worked many jobs in and out of the Aerospace industry over the years, culminating in his work on the Mars Pathfinder mission which landed in 1997. Moving to California in 1985 he was hard hit by the industry downturn of the 1990s, eventually retiring to Arizona.

Throughout his life he maintained a number of diverse interests. Devoted to reading, he and his wife raised their four children (all of whom have college degrees) similarly. He was an avid amateur astronomer, joining the South Bay Astronomical Society in California and the Moonsighting Committee Worldwide from Arizona. He maintained an interest in model railroading and also history, where his speciality was the American Civil War. As he went into the hospital for the final time, he was re-reading a 1825 edition of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" that he had specially re-bound, as well as a book on the art of Edvard Munch.

The world needs polymaths to keep things interesting, and Paul was one of them. There was almost nothing out there that he didn't find interesting in one way or another. In our trips into the backcountry to find clear skies for astronomy, we often found many other interesting things. Monuments, ancient trees, bird and lizards, local history museums. Likewise, there was almost nothing that he didn't find worth reading; he introduced me to, amongst others, Hitchhiker's Guide, Cordwainer Smith, Isaac Asimov, Robert Service (when I was particularly disgusted with poetry as taught in high school), and Carl Hiaasen. He also valued diversity whereever he found it, reveling in the multicultural atmosphere of Los Angeles in particular.

He was always encouraging in our pursuits, from my brother's photography to my fencing. He had to be the best parent in the world to brag to; no matter what you were doing (engineering, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Wicca, D&D) he thought it was neat. He was happy to see me get a physics degree and follow him into engineering of sorts. If he was disappointed that I didn't stick with my original PhD-in-Astronomy plan he never showed it. He was also pleased by my branching out into sf critcism and editing, continuing the polymathic tradition of the family.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, and only narrowly survived. We were all lucky to be granted 12 extra years to spend with him. In those years we got to see 6,000 year old trees, a cat licking our dinner pot clean outside an abandoned mine, a narrowly-missed new Moon on Mt. Pinos, and had more conversations about more topics than you can imagine. If I'm now sad that he won't get to see my sister get her Bachelor's degree, my house in Texas, or more of his grandchildren, I'm still grateful for all the extra time we did have.

If you ever wanted to know how someone becomes an engineer who is also a literary critic (at least in the 'backwater' of sff), one need only look at the sort of parents who always took time to answer 'why' questions, never bullshitted around about stuff, encouraged us to read anything we wanted at any age, and always encouraged us to ask questions and find solutions. Quirky? --Yes. Perfect? --No. Successful? --Hell yes. Four kids with college degrees, good families (three grandkids), a paramedic/firefighter/gunsmith, photographer/salesman/entrepreneur, a historian/archaeologist pursuing her dream, and me. Polymaths (and generally nice people) all, helping keep the world a more interesting place.


John D. said...

You have my deepest condolences, Karen. If there's anything I can do to help, let me know.

Anonymous said...

In the never-stop-paying-attention spirit, isn't it remarkable that we have this word which only does one thing - but is perfectly built for the job ...

My condolences.

Karen Burnham said...

Thanks for that, guys. One of my wise friends told me that times like these are when all the cliches turn out to be true, and I found out that he's right.

I've really appreciated all the well-wishes, and so has my mother.