Thursday, November 22, 2001

Remarkable Thanksgiving Phone Call

Event: Thanksgiving 2001 [November 22]
Updated: 15 July 2014
Cornucopia basket

Three of my sons were with Birgitta and me that Thanksgiving Day. The nation was still in shock following the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. My oldest, Nick, was visiting from Colorado, my next oldest, Jim, who lived nearby in Los Alamos and my youngest, John, then a high school senior, from Provo.

I had just finished telling the story of my miraculously successful doctoral dissertation defense, which had take place in February 1964, when the phone rang. It was Sherman D. Brown, one of my professors at the University of Utah, who on my doctoral committee and in attendance at that very defense! One of the last times we had talked was my phone call to him in August 1965 and his following letter of warning and counsel

Here, for the record, is a letter I wrote to Brown in March 2002 in response to his note about attending my mother's memorial in Salt Lake City, which I did not attend.

On March 25, 2002, I wrote to Sherman Brown

Los Alamos, NM
March 25, 2002

Dear Sherm,

Thank you for your kind note following my mother’s memorial in Salt Lake City. I’m sorry I couldn't be there for that occasion and that I missed seeing you. I attended Mother’s funeral and burial in Corona del Mar, California, the following Wednesday. This was the preferred service that Mother wanted me to attend if I had to make a choice—which details had been worked out between her and my brother months earlier. I would have attended both services, but the day after Mother’s passing, my wife, Birgitta, was taken seriously ill and admitted to ER for emergency surgery the following day. She was in hospital all the next week. Nevertheless, she insisted that I attend the service in California, so I reluctantly left her in the care of hospital staff and local friends. My oldest son, Nick, drove down from Colorado to pick me up and we both drove to California in his fragile pick-up truck.

I am reminded now of your call this past Thanksgiving. It was a synchronistic moment, because my oldest two sons (Nick and Jim) and my youngest (John) were visiting at that time. In response to a question Nick had just asked, I had been recalling long ago events at the U of U during the time (early 1964) when I defended my doctoral dissertation. It was a strangely dark period in my life. You were there.

You may remember that I was actually then working for General Atomic in La Jolla, California, having completed my course work and research the previous summer of 1963, but not yet having completed the dissertation and other administrative requirements. GA generously allowed me to come to work earlier than scheduled, since my wife, Betty, was in her final weeks of pregnancy with son, Steve, and I didn’t want to move her to a new location too close to delivery time (which turned out to be mid-October). My new bosses were generous in making that exception, but made it very clear that they hadn’t hired a “graduate student.” I was given two weeks to write my dissertation and submit it to the University after reporting to the laboratory, which I managed to do with the help of the company’s secretarial staff at about the time Steve was born. You were there when I came back to SLC in a state of exhaustion and depression to defend my thesis. (Come to think of it, was this not the last time we actually saw each other?)

Perhaps you remember kneeling with Cal Wood and me in prayer the morning of my dissertation defense? Cal was my best friend in those days and also a member of the physics faculty. He had invited me to stay with him while in SLC. Earlier, when he first learned I was coming to the U of U to make my defense, Cal had called me in California to invite me to make a “dry run” before the physics department the day before. I was in no condition to accept making such a presentation and warned him so. But he dismissed my reluctance, thinking, I suppose, that I was being falsely modest and shamed me into accepting. Well, the dry run was a disaster and Cal felt humiliated before his peers. He could hardly bear to speak to me afterwards. Ivan Cutler was also at that fiasco and, I think, was equally perplexed. Do you remember what happened a few hours after our prayer that following morning during my actual defense before the faculty thesis committee (of which you were a member)? It was something I’d never experienced before or since and, I believe, the result of a special priesthood blessing the night before by T. Bowring Woodbury and aided by Cal who had performed the anointing.

So, for you to have called me on this past Thanksgiving, at a particular moment, spoke volumes not only to me, but also to my two oldest sons. Nick exclaimed, “You see, Dad, it’s not over yet!” Perhaps I mentioned something about this to you at the time of your call? I say this because I remember your saying something about an experience of an early Church leader that seemed relevant to you. (I forget the particulars of who it was you mentioned and the circumstances that came to your mind.)

You generously asked to know a little about my life these days. Birgitta and I have been married for 8-1/2 years (since Oct 93). I went to Sweden where she then lived to propose to her. We had met through a mutual friend in 1976 while she was the US on a visit and performing in a concert at a large church in Pasadena. (She was a professional opera singer.) We then corresponded for many years and became friends. But that is a long story, which we will be glad to tell you all about if we ever get together and you are still interested.

Recently we bought our first house, having decided to spend our retirement years in Los Alamos. We both now work part-time as school bus drivers to make ends meet. When the work is there, I work as an engineering consultant for Hot Section Technologies, a little company in California for whom I was once chief engineer before moving to Santa Fe. But 9/11 has all but shut HST down, since it repairs jet engines for commercial airliners. I worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for the first two years of our marriage, which is why I moved to Los Alamos from Santa Fe. Birgitta has also been building a small practice teaching singing, which she loves to do as much as performing. It is amazing to me what kinds of wonderful sounds she can coax from her students.

Have you ever been to Los Alamos? It is an artificially created community 15,000 to support the National Laboratory, but functions much like a college town, except that the “students” cover the entire age spectrum. In looking for a way to make more of a contribution to this community, since we have decided to stay here, I have got myself on the primary election ballot to run for a seat on the county council. (Los Alamos is not a city, but a county municipality). But I am now having second thoughts about staying in this particular race. I think a lower profile position, such as on the planning and zoning board, might be more appropriate.

To give you an update on my family. My oldest child and only daughter, Katya, 46, lives in Tennessee with her husband. She has 5 children by a previous marriage and two grandchildren (you know what that makes me!). Her youngest, Annie, 20, is still living at home. All the other children are grown and gone. Two of her older children, Cassandra and Joshua, have been on LDS missions, and her daughter Annie wants to be next.

Oldest son Nick, 44, is married (but separated) with a son, 5, and lives between Greeley, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is trying to get a project launched with a local Indian pueblo involving turning horse manure into premium fertilizer by means of a proprietary process of his invention. (The pueblo owns the Santa Fe Downs, a local racetrack, which has been shut down by the county for having an environmentally hazardous mountain of unprocessed horse dung.)

Jim, 43, lives in Santa Fe and works as maintenance man for a wealthy estate owner. He would prefer making his living as a glass-working artist, if he could figure out how to market his creations effectively.

My fourth child, Ivan, who was born in SLC when I was in graduate school and named for Ivan Cutler, would have been 41 this year. He died by suicide in 1996 in Santa Fe at age 35. We were all shocked, and it took me a long time to recover. Despite the shock, the family came from all over the country to Santa Fe to spend a week together in Ivan’s memory. This included all my children and their mothers (Betty and Lawrene), except my youngest and his. Betty, Lawrene and Birgitta got along beautifully and developed a deep connection. It was an extraordinary healing week for us all. We spoke to each other in a different way than ever before and I’m sure we will never be the same. At the end of that sorrowful, but wonderful week, Nick observed that Ivan had, after all, given us a gift by his death of bringing us together and breaking barriers that had been keeping us apart. Nick at that time was living with his wife and son in Hawaii, but resolved to move to the mainland to be closer to family.

Steve, 39, lives with his wife and three children in Virginia where he works for the Franklin-Covey organization. His mother, Betty, whom you may remember, now lives with them in her retirement. Betty is the mother of my first 5 children.

Michael, 35, lives in Manhattan, NY, where he works as a free-lance graphic designer. His mother, my second wife Lawrene, lives near Seattle.

My youngest, John, 17, lives with his mother, third wife Barbara, in Provo, where he hopes to graduate from high school this year—if, that is, he can maintain his school attendance. (John is gifted intellectually and musically, but unfortunately finds attending classes of not much challenge.) Barbara, a direct descendant of first LDS bishop Newell Knight, is a concert pianist and professor of music at BYU. Perhaps you met John and Barbara Allen at my mother’s memorial?

A few months before my Ivan died in 1996, I visited Ukraine for 3 weeks to get acquainted with my closest relatives on my father’s side. My father died in May 1964 (two weeks before I received the Ph.D.) never knowing what had happened to his family after leaving his country in 1920 following the Russian Revolution and civil war. But he never lost his yearning to find out about his family and he instilled that yearning into his two sons. Seventy-five years later, in the summer of 1995, my brother visited Melitopol, my father’s hometown now open to foreigners after the fall of the USSR. There he found two of our father’s nieces (Yevgenia and Yelena) still living (both of whom have died since my visit) and three subsequent generations of their descendents. They were where they had always been since Dad left so long ago. Yevgenia (for whom I was named—Yevgeny in Russian means Eugene) and Yelena had always wondered what had ever happened to their “Uncle Kolya.” Now they knew and were thrilled. [by his have developed such a large family]. My daughter, Katya, was named after their mother, my father’s only sister and sibling, Ekaterina. Since my visit, my brother and I have established an on-going email correspondence with the two oldest male cousins, one from each [surviving] niece’s line. And we, together with other family members, are supporting one of their young grandsons in his pursuit of a degree in computer programming at a well-known Ukranian technical institute. Furthermore, my granddaughter, Cassandra (Katya’s oldest girl), now a senior at BYU, was able to visit the relatives last summer, herself, on a scholastic and missionary internship to Ukraine, which she had applied for and won.

In an earlier letter you asked about my relationship with the LDS church. It is cordial, but unofficial. I shall remain outside. Some of my children (Katya and Steve and their families) are active members. The others are not. Birgitta and I were invited to sing in the local ward in earlier years and we have made some good LDS friends here. The local stake president, a physicist at LANL, and embarrassed by the process of my second excommunication in California in 1992, invited me to join the Church again. He told me that such a thing [my excommunication] would never have happened in his stake. But I declined. Birgitta and I normally attend the local Christian Church (an outgrowth of the Campbellite Church from which Sydney Rigdon originated) and occasionally the local Episcopal Church.

Thank you for your expression of friendship, Sherm. I miss you, too. You were always one of my favorite people during some of my most happy graduate days at the U of U. I hope you and your family are well.

Best regards,

Eugene Kovalenko

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