Eulogy for Morris Pfeffer

(I delivered this eulogy at my Dad’s funeral, December 4th, 2016).

First, I’d like to remind you of some of my Dad’s favorite sayings:

“Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money”,
“Work is the curse of the drinking class”, and
“Blessed are thoe who go around in circles, for they shall be known as big wheels”.

In response to political nonsense at work:
“When in panic, fear and doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”, or
“Ladies and gentlemen, take my advice: pull down your pants and slide on the ice”.

I noticed that today is also the day of Fidel Castro’s state funeral. I can’t decide whether this would have annoyed Dad, or amused him, so I choose to assume he’d be amused: “if I have to go, I’m taking Castro with me.”

One of the proudest things in his life was his rise, on the basis of merit, to a professional position from a working-class background. His father, Albert, was a trolley-car driver, and his mother was a homemaker. He was born following his own path. His mother told me that his favorite haunt as a boy was the Brooklyn library, especially after he found a way to climb through a window after hours. He told me that he knew from the age of 8 that he was going to be a scientist.

He was the first member of his family to go to college. After college, he defied his family’s wishes and attended graduate school at the University of Vermont and Syracuse University, earning a doctorate in biochemistry. He did a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory, and became a subject matter expert in pharmocokinetics, the study of how medications are absorbed and eliminated by the body. He worked at pharmaceutical companies, and finished his career at Bristol Labs. He enjoyed his work, and it was a source of great pride to him; it was an inner resource that carried him through many difficulties that he encountered in his life.

He was a very quiet and independent person, who rarely shared his thoughts with anyone. He retired in 1994, and spent the rest of his life reading books on history and physics. He was a devoted husband, deferring to Nancy in many matters, and stubbornly asserting his will in others. In the early evenings, over a beer, he could briefly become talkative, and tell stories of his childhood, his parents, and his workplaces. He once told me that he was an early developer of Narcan, a drug that blocks opiate receptors and immediately stops a heroin overdose. This drug is notable for simultaneously saving people’s lives and killing their buzz, which now that I think of it seems like a legacy that would have pleased Dad.

He fought a very brave battle, that lasted for years, against his final illnesses. In a single week in 2012, he had his bladder removed to treat cancer, followed by a complication that required him to have an emergency colostomy. He survived peritonitis and multiple rounds of chemotherapy; he eventually bullied his doctors into reversing his colostomy, in spite of his age and ill health. He was diagnosed soon after that with a 3rd degree heart block; not long after that, he suffered a gastric bleed on an airplane, and was diagnosed with an entirely new type of cancer. His final illness came as he was preparing for battle on this new front. He always said that he had a high tolerance for pain, and his ability to cope with pain and worry was incredible. When invited to sign a do-not-resuscitate order only a few months ago, he refused to do it, saying: “They’re not going to shuffle me off that easily”. He took to saying, “I intend to live forever: so far, so good.”

He never got depressed or gave up. He was an incredible example to me in the last few years, as I struggled with health problems of my own. But throughout my life, he was the person I most wanted to be like. His early family life, with a younger sister whose parents did not permit her to attend college, made him something of a quiet feminist. He was determined that I would have a career, and after some early thrashing around, I accepted what I felt was my destiny: I became, like my father, an applied mathematician.

I was happy to be able to tell him over the phone, just before he passed away, that everything I’ve become, I’ve done because of his example: a happily married woman, a career woman with interesting work, and an independent and skeptical thinker. He was a stubborn curmudgeon, but he could always make me laugh, and I loved him with my whole heart.

About carolynpjohnston

I am an applied mathematician and developer, with 20 years of R&D experience in the mapping and remote sensing industry. I develop algorithms and systems for extracting information from imagery, producing map data, and improving the accuracy of maps produced with the aid of remote sensing imagery.
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2 Responses to Eulogy for Morris Pfeffer

  1. Karen M Dyrland says:

    An amazing tribute to an Extraordinary Man!


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