23 July 1962 – 23 October 1999
Comments by Randy Cassingham at his 29 October 1999 memorial service.
My life is better because I knew Jerry Olivieri.
I met Jerry well over a decade ago at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and we quickly became friends, even though we never worked on the same projects together. We were of like mind and interests, and both enjoyed deep conversation: Jerry was opinionated, and so am I, so we had plenty to talk about. I remember my shock when he told me, about two weeks after his first date with Valerie, that he was going to marry her. I hadn’t even met her yet! It was a quick decision on his part: he saw what he wanted, and pursued it without fear. I’d like to think I’m like him in that, too.
But in the hospital fighting his leukemia, he readily admitted to me he was scared. And that was Jerry too: no manly pretense — just cut to the chase, tell me what’s on his mind, and let me work to cheer him up. When he first found out the diagnosis of what had ailed him for so long, he wanted to give up without a fight. At least, that’s what he said. I knew that deep down he didn’t believe he had nothing to live for: what he wanted was someone objective to remind him of not only how rich his life was, but how enriching his presence was for others. In the last few months, we chatted fairly often by phone or e-mail, and one of the last e-mails I got from him showed that part of his character well. He wrote, “I am having a lucid moment and the only thing I can sense is that I have short-changed my best friend.” — what bothered him the most at that moment was my feelings! I could only hope I’d be as giving in such a situation as Jerry was!
A number of people have described Jerry as their best friend. And I’m one of them. He was always there when I needed him. As I was quickly rising up the ranks at JPL and was starting to be noticed by the gray-haired men who ruled from the top floor of “Building 180”, I confessed to Jerry that I was unhappy there. JPL was a great place to work, but my calling is writing and publishing. But he neither advised I take the safe route and stay at JPL, nor encouraged chasing foolish dreams. Instead, we talked it out, went over my plans — had a good conversation — and when I came to the decision to work toward leaving, he supported me, gave me advice, and frequently took me out to breakfast to get me out of my home office, where I was putting in 40 hours a week on my new career at the same time I was working 50 hours per week on the commitments I had to the old one. I wasn’t the only one. I know of two people in this room who have told me they have their Ph.D.s only because of encouragement from Jerry.
He took his own commitments seriously. Jerry was a brilliant and uncompromising engineer. One of his strengths was keeping humans in the loop: It’s relatively easy to design a machine. It’s a lot harder to design it well so that it helps people, rather than get in their way. He applied that to the space program as a whole. He would tell the people he worked with, “Our job is not to make the incredible possible. Our job is to make the impossible credible.” These kinds of tidbits helped people remember the big picture. We’re not tossing spacecraft up to make them fly, we’re making them fly to bring us knowledge and understanding. He took those visions to Orbital Sciences Corp. after he left JPL.
Jerry always kept his sights on the big picture. He loved his work, but he loved Valerie more. From his bed, he talked to me about her, not how he wished he were back at work. Jerry didn’t want to have children of his own, but when he got the chance to adopt Samantha, that became his life’s work. For a guy who didn’t plan on having kids, it didn’t take him long to become a doting father, and there were literally tears in his eyes as he told me of his love for Samantha, and how proud he was to be a daddy.
Among his talents, Jerry was an excellent writer: he wrote several magazine articles, and is the only published writer I’ve ever known to have never received a rejection slip from a publisher!
I didn’t get my Ph.D., but I did pursue my writing and publishing dreams, and Jerry was behind me all the way. I often got encouraging notes from him: he was following my career closely. In May of this year I started a new publication called HeroicStories, which consists of short stories written by regular people about someone who has helped them. Jerry certainly saw plenty of heroism around him, both in his life in general and at the hospital. And it was his goal to write on his experiences for HeroicStories. I certainly wouldn’t have been the first publisher to send him a rejection! But that wasn’t his only support for the publication: he was one of the first to subscribe to it on the Internet, and from his hospital bed, he wrote me what he thought of it. Even here, the engineer in him was showing clearly:
“HeroicStories is simply great,” he wrote. “People don’t seem to realize that the magnitude of heroism is the difference between what you have and what someone is willing to give you in a time of need. The actual per unit value of the commodity is unimportant. That’s why people sometimes don’t fully accept that their personal contribution may have been unusually important to others.” Even in the hospital, in pain, perhaps clouded by drugs, Jerry realized that what made the stories powerful wasn’t that someone had saved a life or given up something precious, but rather that a small gift of time, or effort, or self, can have profound, long-lasting effects on others.
And doesn’t that really sum up Jerry’s effect on us in life? Friendship wasn’t an effort to him, but it was precious indeed, and his memory will have profound, long-lasting effects on us. I know my life is better because I knew Jerry Olivieri, and I’ll bet yours is too.
Jerry’s system rejected his bone marrow transplant, given as treatment for leukemia. He died October 23, 1999, with his wife Valerie by his side. He was 37. This text was adapted for HeroicStories, and Randy’s story about Jerry appeared in the 2 November 1999 issue. The HeroicStories web site is here.