Remembering Mike Hawley

My brother Mike passed away early yesterday morning. It’s heartwarming to read all the kind words from people posted on social media. One common thing is that Mike often challenged you go the extra step in whatever you were doing. It could feel aggravating if you took in the context of, “hey – I just made this cool thing and it’s not good enough?” but what he was trying to do was say, “wow! That’s is really cool! I’m so excited by it that I can see the possibility that it holds.”

Mike has always had a great affect on me from the very beginning. One of my earliest memories was in kindergarten. We’d had an “assignment” to learn how to tie your shoes and I had forgotten to practice. I was in tears before school when I remembered and Mike patiently took the time to teach me.

Mike was an explorer for sure. As a kid, he routinely took bike trips to the limit of a kid’s range – some around 15 miles to Jockey Hollow. He was active in scouting and created the Kowabundee Chicken Patrol and went on camping adventures including down the Alagash river. In high school, he was part of a group of intellectual hell-raisers who published an underground newspaper, routinely absconded with “useful” chemicals and wrote a tome called “The Honors Physics Consortium Poetry and Songbook”. They printed several copies and went as far as making phony card catalog cards an embedded a copy in our local library where it was shelved until a fire destroyed the collection. In and after college, he and some friends planned trips to canoe down the Mistassini River in Quebec and then in a later year down the Yukon river in Alaska.

As has been mentioned, he was an accomplished pianist. He shared that trait with my mom. My mom thought everyone should have piano lessons and barring that, everyone within her reach. I lacked that particular talent. Interestingly enough, right around age 14 Mike was getting bored with piano. It was too easy, apparently. My mom caught on and introduced him to the music of Liszt. That woke Mike up and he brought Lizst’s piano works to his teacher, Heidi Grob, who had to tell him that she couldn’t teach him Liszt since she couldn’t play it. Keep in mind that not many people can play Liszt, but Mike was determined. Mom found him another teacher, John Quinn, who helped Mike reach further.

The downside to having a talented brother practicing piano at all hours is that it was hard to fall asleep while he practiced. Fair’s fair though – I play trumpet and I’m sure I drove him nuts with my practicing too. I didn’t realize how much of a heartbeat it was in our house until he went off to college and it was missing.

The three of us all worked in high school at Murray Hill Bell Labs (home of the transistor!). All of us were into coding and writing software. Mike made friends with people in the UNIX group and he learned C and did a bunch of work on data searching and retrieval. I recall him writing a tool called “hmm” that was the way of entering information. I remember most that I/O coverup – as it churned information, it would print “hmm” and a series of dots followed by “ok” when it finished. He worked on a scrolling calendar program for the Blit terminal – a smart terminal with a 68K processor and a legal sized screen. which led to him spending a year working at IRCAM in Paris on music composition software on an imported Blit. There was some discussion as what the proper pronoun should be for the Blit. I think they settled on feminine. Mike also played one part of a two piano piece for Pierre Boulez before returning. He described it as “your basic banging on the keyboard with cheeseburgers” and that he and the other pianist had a signal to jump to the end and play the last chord.

Mike continued his exploration and innovation for years. He built schools in Cambodia and named one after our mom. One of the things that was interesting about having an overlap in careers is that I kept running into people that knew Mike. Every place I worked, I bumped into someone who knew Mike in some capacity. And that was one of Mike’s aspects: it was almost as if he collected people. I recall a conversation with him that started off “I was having lunch last week with the Librarian of Congress…” for example. It wasn’t without it’s benefits, however.

When Adam Savage was doing his stage show “Brain Candy” with Michael Stevens, I knew that Mike and Adam were friends and I pinged Mike about the show in Worcester. Mike also knew the producer of the show, got a ticket and joined my son and I at the show and afterwards we met Adam (who is a lovely person).

The past couple of years, I’ve been trying to host Thanksgiving dinner because our families have drifted apart a bit. It’s not surprising: we all live very busy lives. This past year, we managed to all get together and it was a joy.

We had nearly all the Hawley men of my dad’s line in one place.

Mike was so happy to be there with Nika and his son Tycho and my dad was thrilled to see all of us together. I spent most of the day cooking (which I love), but I did find some time to snap some selfies.

No, there’s no family resemblance at all.

Where I’ll end this is that Mike hosted a dinner for close friends earlier that November for his anniversary with Nika. Again, I snapped a selfie.

Before the dinner, Mike introduced me to all these people that he knew in medicine, publishing, politics, industry, music, and software. Invariably, he would introduce me as his “smarter brother”, which I really appreciated. And if you’ve made it this far and if you’ve known Mike, you probably know that in addition to collecting people and introducing them to others, he could make you feel like the most important person in the room when he talked to you.

We lost a good one, yesterday.