25 March, 2021

Remembering Shawn Allin

Shawn at the Tikal Mayan ruins in Guatemala.
This will be the fourth blog post in a row that I've written about death, euthanasia, and/or suicide. Maybe you, the reader, will think this is a sign that I am focusing in an unhealthy way on these issues ever since Jasper's death last week. Well, maybe I am. It's been a difficult time for both Katherine and myself. Every time we reach over to pet Jasper only to find an empty armrest, it is a newly punched hole in our collective ability to be okay with how life is now.

However, this time I have an excuse. A few days ago, I received an email from someone asking me about my memories of Shawn Allin. Shawn was my friend, teacher, and mentor. His first day of teaching classes at Spring Hill College was also my first day of taking classes there. We hit it off immediately. Four years later, my final days at Spring Hill College were also his final days. Except instead of moving on, as I did, to places beyond the university, he died suddenly in his office, possibly of suicide.

Carpe Diem is near Spring Hill College.
I'm calling him Shawn now. It's weird because of course I'd call him Shawn now. We were friends. But when I met him, he was Dr. Allin to me, and when I think of him today, that's the name that pops up in my head. Still, I'll try to address him as Shawn here, as he undoubtedly would be addressed by me today, had he ended up living.

I knew only a small part of Shawn. I never visited his home. He never talked with me about his passion for motorcycles (nor of his apparently quite rad motorcycle helmet with satanic goat images airbrushed on it!). I never asked him about the rollerblades he used to travel on campus. We never discussed the obscure punk musical albums displayed in his office. The only times we had dinner together was when we both stayed late in the Chemistry building doing work of some kind. (I would help to analyze and graph data from his and his upper-level students' experiments.) But we did have lunch occasionally, and we would meet for afternoon tea at Carpe Diem. He would loan me countless books, which we'd then discuss later that week. We were close enough that when summer break came, he invited me to come with him to the badlands of South Dakota to dig for dinosaur bones

Shawn w/ Fr. Michael Williams
blessing Quinlan Hall in 2003.
But we never really talked about his personal hopes and dreams, nor the problems he was having after his divorce with his depression. I didn't learn about these things until after he died. Throughout the time I knew him, he kept his personal problems separate from his interactions with me.

Does this make me less of a friend? Or perhaps he had a personal rule not to fraternize too closely with students at the institution at which he worked? I don't know. I can't know. But he was certainly a friend to me, and I very much enjoyed his company.

The person who emailed me a few days ago asked me to tell a few stories about Shawn. I was given permission to also share those stories here, on my blog. These small stories come partly from the small sliver of his life that he chose to share with me, but also from the long discussions I had with others after his death.

Shawn's first class at Spring Hill was also my first class. This coincidence, alongside the fact that I was more of an adult than his other students (I was 21), meant that he ended up singling me out as an initial friend at the school. I remember going to his office after that first class and being amazed at all the cool knickknacks on his desk. There were mathematical structures, models of chemical bonds, simple physics machines…. But also there was a plethora of books.

Books were one of Shawn's things. He had a number of varied interests, and so obviously you might expect him to own books on several different topics. But he didn't just own the books in order to have the content at hand; he liked books for books' sake. Each book was treated extremely well. There were no marks within, no dog-eared copies. But you always could tell his books apart: he would emboss the title page of every book in his possession with his name: From the library of Shawn B. Allin. It was the only mark that you'd ever find in any of the books in his collection.

Shawn w/ Gregory Morgan at Rydex Commons
Nevertheless, within an hour of meeting him, he had already decided to loan two of his books to me. I was honored, especially as he gave a stern warning about how well to treat them. The first was The Panda's Thumb, by Stephen Jay Gould. I adored it. Gould was an excellent writer and Shawn was absolutely perfect in picking that first borrowed book to entice me to keep coming back for more. (After Shawn died, his family gave me his copy, which I treasure to this day.) The second was In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, by John Gribbin, which also enamored me. He had caught on quite quickly to my prior interests in quantum physics and skepticism, and chose perfectly to suit my interests. I stayed up half the night reading both books and returned them first thing in the morning before classes started. Upon their return, he smiled gently: "Eric," he started, in his distinct Canadian accent, "I anticipate this will be the start of a great friendship."

He continued to loan me books every week until I had exhausted the portion of his library that was suitable for me to read. (I turned down the motorcycle and punk rock books.) It was a tradition that lasted years, well after I had ceased taking any classes with him. In fact, I only took two classes of his in my freshman year. All of my interactions with him afterward were solely due to our friendship.

  • We toasted to the ill-fated Superconducting Super-Collider.
  • We discussed changes in our understanding of quasars, which were only just recently discovered to be different than how they were described in the books I had previously read about them.
  • We talked for hours about skepticism and its role in society; about Carl Sagan's excellent The Demon-Haunted World; and after he died, I attended several skeptic conferences like The Amaz!ng Meeting, where I met several of the authors whose books he had lent me.
  • In class, he would jump onto a chair to reach up high to the periodic table behind him and explain why it's grouped into four blocks, talking with a glint in his eye that showed his dedication to the topic.
  • He told me privately that my being a 21 year old freshman was a good thing, because my life experience is priceless: I appreciated college whereas so many other students did not.
  • Once, when we spoke of philosophical concepts that might not make sense, he argued that 'nothing' as a philosophical concept could only be the absence of properties, and could not properly be attributed properties in itself, as I was claiming at the time. (I have since come around to his point of view on this, but only much, much later, for different reasons than he was arguing.)

Gumbo Buttes of the Badlands.
I stayed w/ Shawn here to dig dino bones.
Despite being otherwise close to him, I didn't spend much time around Lynn, his wife. I'm not sure if he intended to keep these parts of his life separate, or if it was just happenstance. But every time I saw them together, he would use me to illustrate some point of his. I recall once that he had been having some friendly argument with Lynn, claiming that lots of people knew what buckyballs were. Lynn didn't believe him, so when I dropped by, he picked a buckyball model from one of his shelves and loudly asked: "Eric, tell Lynn here that you know what the name of this object is." I froze, stammering, and Lynn laughed: "See? No one knows what a buckyball is. You're just a bad judge of what is common knowledge."

1000 miles from Spring Hill College,
we traveled on this road in the Badlands.
Shawn helped to organize events that would help the students learn more about social justice. He set up a viewing of the movie Hotel Rwanda once in the main hall, and he'd often organize students around Amnesty International interventions. I can remember my fingers hurting after stuffing envelopes for hours; if I think long and hard, I may even be able to remember Condoleezza Rice's office address at the time. (My fingers hurt now just thinking about it.)

I suspect the divorce hit him hard. I can't say for sure, because he never talked about it with me. But a common friend of ours, Bill, was someone that he did confide in. I can relay a few things that I learned from Bill, though I learned these things only after Shawn died.

Covered w/ dirt for 65m years, but only
a few days in the sun bleached these bones white.
Another few weeks would ruin them.
Shawn had been dealing with bouts of depression for as long as Bill knew him. In 2001, these became more regular and more intense. He sought medical treatment for his depression, but it was sporadic at best. After the divorce (the summer before he died), Shawn spent three weeks in Marmarth, ND, with Bill. Bill has a place in Marmarth where he stays while he is doing fossil prospecting; I visited there in the summer previously with Shawn.

I wasn't there during those three weeks, but Bill says that Shawn was not only depressed, but also full of hatred. He was angry at his situation, at his marriage falling apart, and even at his fellow faculty. According to Bill, he had felt that he had found a home among like-minded faculty with a similar high level of standards, but for the previous year he had been very hard on his colleagues for not attaining the levels that he thought they should. Bill seemed to think that this feeling was borne more out of his depression than from how his fellow colleagues actually were. I can offer no opinion on this, because Shawn always hid this side of himself from me. But it was bad enough that he accepted a position at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL, and was planning to leave Spring Hill College at the same time that I was.

He never ended up moving there, though. He died suddenly, in his office, only a month or so after accepting the position at Monmouth.

This is after digging for a bit.
Had I known he was going to die, I would have prioritized
taking photos with Shawn in them, rather than just of the bones.
I don't actually know what happened. His death could have been accidental. Certainly, it seems strange to accept a position elsewhere, earnestly go looking for a new house, and then to so quickly decide otherwise. But Bill believed his death may have been intentional. Certainly, if it was suicide, it was not due to his rational thought. Shawn most certainly had depression and had had it for a very long time. I never saw that side of him; he kept his depression hidden in all of his actions as a teacher. But his closer friends, like Bill, knew, and I wish so much that he had just figured out something that could have dealt with these extreme emotions pharmaceutically.

I should also mention that another very close friend of his does not believe it was suicide. They were high school sweethearts a long while previous, and had been talking again after Shawn's divorce. Mere hours before he died, he sent a very normal-seeming email to her. This may be taken as strong evidence that what happened was an accident, and not intentional. If there was a suicide note, it was kept private and I was never informed of it. I also know that he had just filled a new prescription the previous day for pneumonia. Maybe it was an allergic reaction? But, if so, this was never stated to be the case publicly. On balance, I believe that it was likely suicide.

Near Marmarth, ND.
In those days, I didn't have a mobile phone. As such, I don't have any personal photos of his office, nor of his person. The photos you see here are all that I have of him. All are taken by other people. It's strange, looking back on them. I have aphantasia, and so have a terrible memory for faces. Nevertheless just glancing through these photos immediately brings me back.

Shawn was my teacher. I didn't end up going into science, like he wanted, but when he learned that I'd switched to a double major in philosophy and mathematics, he would debate me endlessly on philosophy of science, Bayes' theorem, and the limits of what we can know. We were both staunch atheists, but for some reason we never talked about it. This may be because I was a student at (and he was a teacher at) a Jesuit university, and he seemed to have personal rules about what is or is not an appropriate topic of conversation with one of his students.

Shawn loved tortoises.
I don't know a whole lot about his life outside of Spring Hill College. But I did know him as a friend and mentor, and he definitely inspired me in particular to do and be a better person. I do not think that I would be as successful as I am today if it were not for some of his influences. His push for social justice in particular helped me to realize the direction of where I ended up today.

I'd also like to share a few other aspects of Shawn that the person who emailed me might not be aware of.

Shawn published 31 times in various chemistry journals. Five of those have been cited multiple times, and one, on the Solvent Effects of Molecular Hyperpolarizability Calculations, has an astonishing 47 citations today, 8 of which occurred within the last year. (For reference, a mere 10 citations already puts your work in the top 24% of the most cited work worldwide; 47 citations brings you closer to the top 3–5%.) This means that the work that Shawn provided to the scientific community lives on to this day.

Our department was well represented yesterday at Honors Convocation and Undergraduate Research Symposium. Dr Allyn...

Posted by Spring Hill College Department of Chemistry, Physics, Engineering on Saturday, April 21, 2018

Shawn has been memorialized in a dissertation. At Spring Hill College, exceptional chemistry students continue to earn the Shawn B. Allin Memorial Award each year. He is remembered years later as being a huge positive influence (see page 12). Alyn Gamble wrote an excellent article about him in Volume 86 Number 10 of the SpringHillian. (If you only click one link in this blogpost, click this one. Gamble is an excellent writer, and their article about Shawn in the school newspaper was very well done.)

In the years since I posted in my blog of Shawn's passing, I've received several emails. Here are a few excerpts from them:

"I grew up with Shawn in Sarnia, Ontario and from what I can gather, he was as beautiful a person 'all grown up' as he was when we were kids.  I was shocked and saddened by the news of his passing.  Always had hoped that I would have the chance to connect with him again someday.  Your website gave me a chance to do that.  I hold him in my heart.  Thank you."

"I know that he valued teaching and treasured those times when he knew that his efforts mattered to students. … Treasure those times when his efforts mattered."

"Shawn was my first love and we dated all through high school and during our 4 years at the University of Waterloo.  I also dated Shawn while be worked at EcoPlastics in Toronto but when things didn't work out, he returned to school (University of Guelph) and I moved on with my life. … I broke my leg about 3 weeks ago and had been talking with him daily due to my limited mobility.  We spent a lot of time discussing his challenges and we reviewed, in great detail, his career decisions and his acceptance of the offer in Ill. … Shawn has told me lots about you and his other friends at Spring Hill.  He mentioned that you were a superior human being and that he enjoyed all of his discussions with you over coffee at Carpe Diem.  I now wish that I had kept all of the messages that he sent me so that you could read - in Shawn's own words - how much he liked you and appreciated you as a friend."

"Shawn was the Allin's pride and joy - a doctor - a professor - a brilliant man with so much potential - let them know about the gifts that he gave to you and about your friendship - that will give them comfort."

Shawn was 41 when he died. I will turn 40 later this year. Maybe this means it is appropriate that I remember him now, as I am the age that he was when he was still loaning me books and grabbing a drink with me at Carpe Diem. I can only hope to make a difference as much as he did in his 41 years of life.

I miss you, Shawn. Thank you for being my friend.

1 comment:

  1. Alyn GambleApril 03, 2021

    Thank you, Eric, for your words. I miss Shawn, too. He was a wonderful person, and is an example of the kind of educator I want to be. It means a lot to know that piece in the Springhillian was meaningful; it was painful to research and write. Thank you, also, for using my name and pronouns, though I wasn't using them back at the Hill. Sending you love and hoping this comment lets you know you made a difference in one person's life today.

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