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.

13 thoughts on “Remembering Mike Hawley”

  1. Very sorry for your loss. Arguably one of the greatest, if not The greatest, intellects to come out of NPHS.

  2. This is a really beautiful tribute to your brother. Never really knew him but this reminded me of the extraordinary humor & creativity of you & your family. Truly sorry for your loss.

  3. I am so sorry Steve. I remember meeting him at your wedding and he seemed totally normal. I had no idea how extraordinary he was.

  4. That is a beautiful tribute. I often heard wonderful things about you but we never met. That was one of the coolest parts of being in Mike’s orbit – you met so many fascinating people and there were always more out there. I’m sorry for your loss.

  5. Hi Steve…
    I am a NP girl. Mike was in my class. He was a shy guy and I didn’t know him but to say hi in the hallways. A few years ago I had the pleasure of connecting with him on FB…that is when I learned about how extraordinary he was. I began to google him and would share what I found with my hubby….who would have loved to meet Mike and chew on ideas. But, unfortunately…that will never happen. I was so happy to see him become a Dad to sweet Tycho and follow his first years…the wonder and joy of his son. Your tribute was beautiful. Thank you for sharing these heartfelt memories. My sorrow and prayers to you and all the Hawleys. Hugs. Betsy Carbone (Hunt)

  6. So many stories to tell, but I’ll just leave this one…

    Mike and Nika took my wife and I on a trip to Bhutan and we signed on for a 10-day trek over the Himalaya. Mike and Nika had been there before and introduced us to people and places along the way. It was strenuous and each day we had lengthy hikes to get to our camp site for the night. About half way thru the trek was our longest walk to get to the campsite and we arrived just before dusk. The campsite was, well, a disaster to say the least. We learned that the “inn” was full, already and there was no place to put our tent or sleeping bags. All of the ground around the area was sticky, deep, ugly mud. The campsite was strewn with trash and thousands of empty beer bottles. We were exhausted. There was barely any place to even cook dinner. We considered hiking to the next campsite with headlamps, but it was way too far and that wasn’t really possible. Then my wife accidentally sliced her finger open on a rusty barbed wire fence, and that was about the last straw for me and I cracked. The hunger, the exhaustion, the despair and then the injury was all just too much for me, and I found myself devolving into my “worst” self, ever. Angry, upset, worried and helpless, I began spewing epithets like an unpaid construction worker. Mike took one look at me and saw all those emotions bubbling to the surface. I was immediately embarrassed to be acting so childishly and emotionally, but Mike never judged. He immediately eased the situation and lifted the mood. He had already made friends with some of the trekkers inside the hut and they welcomed us inside, where we ate some popcorn and had drinks. It turned out to be just fine and Mike had this way of making the best of a bad situation. He understood and acknowledged how I was feeling, but didn’t dwell on it and he never made me feel badly about it. He had seen me at my embarrassingly worst… and remained a dear friend despite that. I’ll always love him for that. What an enlightened being he was.

  7. Thank you so much, Steve… he made each of us feel like the most important person in the room… even as (I felt) he also filled a room with optimism and the delight of inquiry. The former is an echo of Maya Angelou’s famous advice about how people remember us… and I shall aways remember this about Michael, with his gentle, persistent and whimsical pursuit of the next grand inquiry, often in the midst of the current one. Welcoming an abundance of opportunity. So grateful.

  8. Steve,
    Your tribute captures Mike to a tee. I’m still laughing at the Kowabundee Chicken Patrol and fake catalog cards in the library. Mike was one the most nuanced, crazy people I ever met. I adored him along with countless other people. I mourn your loss.
    Warmly,
    Lynn

  9. Thanks for the family portrait. I recognize that Mike. And miss him a lot. Sending condolences to the Hawley family.

  10. Mike and I were friends in high school (honors classes, computer programming, etc.) and I reconnected with him a number of years ago (having followed pieces of his career over the years). In addition to all of his accomplishments and his crazy schedule, he always responded when I asked for advice about my son, who shared his passion for music, computer science, AI, philosophy and the arts. He advised us on both colleges and graduate programs. I am so happy our paths crossed and will miss him.

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