I joined Caltech in 1986. Having just landed from a flight from France, I recall the unsettling feeling of finding my marks in a place and city I had never been to. Just a day after I arrived Allan called me into his office, introducing himself with a warm smile and such a laid back open attitude that I instantly knew this was a man I could count on whenever I needed help. My PhD journey at Caltech would be ok… little did I know that Allan’s watchful presence would extend much beyond my PhD.
As a good mentor Allan knew when pushing for excellence was needed. During my first year of discovering the good side of Californian life I vividly recall being called to his office one day to be told “I did not bring you all the way from France for you to get a B in that electronics class”, and a small voice in my head telling me “I did not move all the way from France to be reprimanded by that professor”. My respect for Allan and the fatherly authority which emanated from him was enough to ensure that this single short burst of reprimand was the only recalibration that was ever needed towards the successful completion of my studies.
Allan of course had a passion for sea and sailing that pushed him to commute day after day 50 miles each way at very odd hours through the hellish LA traffic. It did take a few years for him to assess that I was far enough on my way to success, to finally ask me to go sailing with him to Catalina together with my girlfriend (now my wife Anh). I recall the first time I stepped on his boat asking basic questions about rigging and sensing the pride he had in explaining the some of the intricate details of the workmanship and construction process which took him many years to complete. What a fantastic demonstration of following through one’s dream! While mooring in Catalina Island’s Emerald bay sharing and tasting whiskeys, Allan related the story of what led him to build this boat and his long life dream to sail it around the world. Flashing a book with worn out pages one sees on manuscripts read and re-read hundreds of times, he narrated the story of this young man from Britany, France who had preceded him in the sixties: building that exact model boat while living in a camper car, and then setting off to worldwide adventures making friends and discovering different cultures. This book guided him, and is a great reflection of his never-ending eagerness to make meaningful friendships everywhere he went (even if his sailboat hardly ever sailed beyond Catalina). I thereafter sometimes wondered if my own Britany origins and love for sea played a part in my being selected to study at Caltech! For sure him bringing me to California had a defining impact on my life… I owe him, and Chris Brennen big time.
Through the years following my PhD there were several opportunities for us to catch up again, witnessing him being honored on multiple occasions, the pain of losing Pat, the joy of finding Annette, and whenever practical squeezing in a sailing trip to Catalina… Every time I travel through or set foot in LA I am instantly reminded of the nearby presence of my Californian father. Allan has taught me how to balance friendship and work, to follow one’s dreams with the hard realities of responsibilities that comes with being a family man. He was curious about everything, down to microdetailed technical understanding. Every time I would update him about a facet of my job he would never be contempt with the superficial and stubbornly drilled deeper until he would either run out of questions but mainly run me out of answers.
This morning, as I stand dumbfounded about the news of his passing away, I cannot help but to be profoundly sad… and happy knowing we will one day meet again and set off sailing amongst the breezy white clouds of eternity.
Yan Kuhn de Chizelle – May 2020