Bill Brace (1926 – 2012): 3 Ways He Changed My Life

Before the start of 1984 AGU run over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco: Bill Brace, Howard Pratt, Steve Bratt, ???, Art Montana, Tim Grove, Brian Evans, ???, Dave Olgaard, Brian Bonner, ???

Yesterday, I and a couple hundred relatives and friends attended a memorial service in Concord, Massachusetts for Bill Brace.   It was a wonderful celebration of a life lived to its fullest: world-renowned geoscientist, runner, rower, adventurer, naturalist, wood craftsman, husband, father, grandfather, friend and human being.  Only a small percentage of who he was and what he did could be captured in the obituaries in the MIT press and Boston Globe .. but please do have a read.  It was great to see many old friends yesterday, and to swap Bill stories.

What I want to remember here is how Bill played a major role in 3 things that changed my life:  choosing MIT for grad school, meeting my wife, and finding my first job (hint: the photo here has something to do with the latter).  Read on … it’s kind of a funny set of stories …

Choosing MIT for Graduate School.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the last of 5 schools I visited in 1979 before making a decision about where to pursue my PhD in geophysics.  Frankly, I was a bit terrified and intimidated by the place, including its cadre of world-class geoscientists.  Perhaps MIT would not be the best fit.  While attending the department’s weekly “beer hour”, I saw the famous professor Willam F. Brace walking toward me.  What would I say to this god of rock mechanics and chair of the department?  Please don’t ask me about the elastic modulus of Westerly granite!   Bill immediately and effectively defused the situation by saying, “Steve, I hear you’re a runner”.  We talked about our running experiences, about the group of runners in the department, and about Bill’s experience and plans for leading student and faculty running adventures in the mountains of New England.  I committed to MIT shortly thereafter.  And run the roads and trails of New England we did for 5 years.

Meeting my Wife, Amy.  This one is a bit more indirect … But Bill was the person who recommended I join the Cambridge Sports Union to bolster my fitness and compete in team events.  Sometime later and across the state at Smith College, Amy chose a topic for her Master of Social Work thesis:  “Obsessive Compulsive Traits in Marathon Runners versus Recreational Runners”.   In early 1983, she contacted a friend who was a CSU member to get a list of club members who had run the Boston Marathon.  I was the first of tens of people she interviewed and tested.   By the end of that, she knew a lot more about my history, habits, fears, dreams, politics, religion, and sex life than I did about hers.   She found my obsessive-compulsive traits to be attractive enough to agree to a first date.  The rest is history!

Getting my First Job and Setting My Career Direction.  Just before Thanksgiving 1984, I somehow successfully defended my thesis. (Bill served on my thesis committee).  I had planned to embark on the academic career track, and had been offered a position by the University of Texas at Austin that same week.  Shortly after Thanksgiving, I made my annual trek to the American Geophysical meeting in San Francisco to give a talk.  Bill Brace had been organizing informal, annual runs of friends at AGU meetings over the years.  That year the run was over the Golden Gate Bridge and up into the rugged hills north of the bridge.  The picture above was taken before we started the trek.  I first met and talked to the guy left of me in the photo, Howard “Howdy” Pratt, at about the mid-point of the bridge.  He said that he was starting a seismology group at his company (the now humongous Science Applications International Corporation), and that Bill had said I might be a good fit.  He and Tom Bache (seismologist and former member of the US National Cross Country team) would be building a practice focused on using seismology to monitor nuclear weapons testing.  I told him I had planned go to UT, but he persisted to entice me (and Amy) to visit beautiful San Diego for interviews.  I was moved by the possibility of applying my academic passions to address problems of global, social and political importance.  I took the job, and once again, the rest is history.

There is so much more to say about Bill.  He left the planet a better place.  He left those he touched on the planet better people.  I regret not seeing him more often in recent years.  Why didn’t I buy a piece of  his  magnificent furniture?   But it was a great honor and pleasure to have known Bill Brace.  Certainly, my life now would be substantially different had I not known him.


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