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The Man Who Saw TomorrowThe Life and Inventions of Stanford R. Ovshinsky$

Lillian Hoddeson and Peter Garrett

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780262037532

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262037532.001.0001

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Last Days

Last Days

(p.267) 13 Last Days
The Man Who Saw Tomorrow

Lillian Hoddeson

Peter Garrett

The MIT Press

Abstract and Keywords

Ovshinsky’s life and work was celebrated at an early ninetieth birthday party on September 2, 2012, a joyous event attended by some 300 guests and family members, where many speakers paid tribute to his achievements. He had, up to that point continued to work on his ambitious gigawatt solar energy project, and also took a number of adventurous trips with Rosa and other family members. But his health had been declining for some months earlier, and after the party it deteriorated rapidly. He suffered excruciating pain and was finally diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer. It was too late for anything but palliative care in hospice, and on October 17 he died, surrounded by family members. Mourned by many, Ovshinsky was buried beside Iris in the Akron Workmen’s Circle cemetery.

Keywords:   Ovshinsky’s ninetieth birthday, cancer, hospice, Ovshinsky’s death, Workmen’s Circle cemetery

Stan’s birthday on November 24th had always been an important family event. To honor the tradition, and also highlight Stan’s ninetieth birthday, Rosa planned a huge celebration. Rather than wait until late November, when many of those to be invited would want to be with their families for Thanksgiving, she decided to hold the party over Labor Day weekend, when the warmer weather would also allow having the party outdoors. In May, Freya Saito and Georgina Fontana began emailing guests to save the date of Sunday, September 2, 2012. Simply finding the addresses of Stan’s many friends and colleagues was a huge job. Full invitations went out in July.1

The Birthday Party, September 2, 2012

The evening before the party, Rosa organized a dinner at home for about twenty, including close family—Harvey, Dale, Robin and her family, Herb and his family, and Rosa’s family. (Steven and his son Pablo flew in later; Ben couldn’t attend the event because of knee injuries.) Also at the dinner were Harley and his wife Bicky, and the Russian scientist Alex (Sasha) Kolobov, who made a special trip from Japan. Although Stan had been suffering for some time, racked with back pain and struggling to walk unassisted, he seemed well and happy that evening. “He actually looked great,” recalled Robin. “He and Sasha sat together on the couch and talked and talked.”2 But on the day of the party, Stan was not in good shape. “I thought, he looks like hell,” Robin recalled. Irina, whom Rosa had asked to come to the house and help Stan dress, assumed that the dinner party the night before had exhausted him.

But Stan still enjoyed the party, which was a spectacular tribute. Attended by approximately three hundred family members, friends, and work associates, former and present, as well as a number of honored guests (including Senator Carl Levin and UAW president Bob King), the party started early in the afternoon with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The feast that followed included salmon, filet mignon, and at the end, (p.268) a gigantic birthday cake. During and after the dinner, the participants, and especially Stan, enjoyed a program expertly hosted by master of ceremonies Harvey Ovshinsky at the microphone.3

Speeches and tributes celebrated Stan’s life and achievements.4 Senator Levin emphasized the impact of Stan’s vision and passion on a world “in which science lights the way to a brighter future, in which justice and fairness prevail.” Hellmut Fritzsche recalled how, at the time he first met Stan and examined his threshold switch, he had been “flabbergasted, astonished, puzzled, and curious about the materials covering the two crossing wires which formed his device.” After mentioning many of the distinguished scientists who regularly visited ECD, he recounted a dream that he said he had had of Stan talking with Einstein, who expressed his admiration and insisted that his difficult work on relativity had actually been much easier than Stan’s work. Harley Shaiken recalled first meeting Stan and Iris at age fifteen when he had attended a meeting to organize a Detroit chapter of CORE, and he also told how Stan had introduced him to books and ideas that had changed his life. Joi Ito extended the tribute by telling how Stan had shaped his values and future career. Shorter tributes from family and friends reflected on other aspects of Stan’s life and work, many of them touched on in this book.5 There was laughter and music, and a parade of six grandchildren holding ninety balloons, accompanied by a bagpiper.

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Figure 13.1 Birthday party: Harley Shaiken.


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Figure 13.2 Birthday party: Hellmut Fritzsche.

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Figure 13.3 Birthday party: Joi Ito.

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Figure 13.4 Birthday party: bagpiper and grandchildren.

(p.270) Stan looked happy as he sat in his chair and listened for most of the evening. Occasionally he rose to thank people, and he was cordial even to those with whom he had had strained relationships. In retrospect, many signs were apparent at the party that Stan was in extreme physical pain. His own speech, which he delivered in a weak and raspy voice, was mainly limited to thanking Rosa and a few others. True to his style, he promised to keep working to make the world a better place. Later, with Harvey’s son Noah helping him to walk, Stan left the party.

Within days he would have to be taken to the hospital because of his agonizing back pain, and it would be downhill from there. He never went back to work afterward. Still, for many days, as Irina recalled, Stan would relive his memories of the many people who shook his hand and congratulated him at his wonderful early ninetieth birthday party.

Last Trips

Stan’s health had already suffered in the months before his birthday party, when a sequence of illnesses and mishaps had occurred, foreshadowing his decline in the weeks afterwards. He had seemed strong and happy when, in late winter of 2012, Rosa brought him to New York for a urological procedure at Lenox Hill Hospital, where Robin worked. “He did very well. He was in for a day or two, and then he recovered at my house,” Robin recalled. She viewed Stan’s agreeing to stay with her as a sign that he was in good health, and she was pleased to see that he could go out for a couple of hours with Rosa, even with a leg catheter. “They walked from Fifth Avenue to Lexington Avenue, which was kind of a lot for him.” It was a sharp contrast to his visits with Iris in her last years, when they would stay in a hotel and take cabs. But Rosa “wasn’t that into cabs just for short rides,” so they walked when possible, not only to the doctor’s office but also to several restaurants.

In May, however, Robin got a much less hopeful view of Stan’s health when she accompanied him and Rosa on a trip to the Pacific Northwest. Junior high school students at the Louis Riel School in Calgary, Alberta, had invited Stan to talk about his work; he told Rosa, “This is my civic duty. I have to go.” Knowing that Stan loved trains, she suggested that they follow the school visit with sightseeing, taking the spectacular two-day Rocky Mountaineer train ride through the Canadian Rockies. She thought taking this luxurious train with its glass-topped observation cars would be an exciting and easy way for him to see the mountains and glaciers. They would take meals on the train, stay over in a nice hotel on the way, and afterward spend a few days (p.271) in Vancouver. Robin had never been in the Canadian Rockies, so she eagerly accepted when Rosa invited her to join them on the adventure.

The trip began badly however, when Stan fell in the Detroit airport. Fortunately, Irina managed to grab him and he did not get hurt. He fell again the first night in Canada, hitting his head on the bathtub of their hotel in Calgary. “Luckily,” Rosa commented, “that bathtub was fiberglass.” But Stan’s talk the next day was a high point. The school children had turned his visit into a school-wide study of energy, and to express their appreciation, their hosts presented Stan and Rosa with white cowboy hats, a Calgary tradition.

When Stan and Rosa met up with Robin the next day she was alarmed to see Stan “leaning on Rosa, huffing and puffing, barely able to walk.” So they could see the mountain lakes and glaciers, Rosa had planned for them all to drive on the Icefields Parkway to Jasper and stay overnight before boarding the Rocky Mountaineer. But when they reached Lake Louise, which is about a mile above sea level, Robin realized that Stan’s weak lungs couldn’t handle the altitude. With some difficulty, they managed to rent a portable oxygen concentrator, and with that Stan could walk with a cane. Robin and Rosa were still anxious, but Stan insisted, “I want to continue. We’re going to be on the train, it will be fine.”

On the way to Jasper the next day they saw bighorn sheep on the side of the road, Robin recalled, and Stan was able to enjoy the drive. In beautiful Jasper, they stayed at a hotel on a small lake “and elk were coming right up to our cabin.” When they finally boarded the train, “We were like, phew, we made it, because it was just one day of train ride, and then you stay in a hotel, and then another day of train ride, and you’re in Vancouver. And I figured, okay, by then we’ve got good medical care, if we need it.”

As it turned out, they hadn’t made it. After settling for the first day on the upper level of the train to enjoy the beautiful scenery, Rosa and Robin took the stairs to the lower level for breakfast while Stan used a small handicapped-accessible elevator. But during breakfast, “all of a sudden, I hear this commotion outside,” Robin recalled. Stan had gotten back in the elevator, while Rosa used the stairs. Missing a sign warning people not to put their hands on the edge, Stan caught his finger and sliced it open. “He was bleeding like a stuck pig, he was in agony, screaming,” and there was blood everywhere. “Amazingly, the steward for our car was an EMT-type guy, and he did an amazing job,” said Robin. By this point they’d been on the train for about two hours, and Robin knew that Stan’s hand had to be taken care of immediately. The train made a special stop “in a little nowhere town, but they had a clinic with a very well-trained doctor from South Africa, and he sutured Stan up.” Then they hired the only cab in town (for $600) to meet the train at its evening stop.

(p.272) The next morning, they had to decide whether to board the train again and go to Vancouver by train or fly from a local airport. Taking the flight, however, required waiting, and Robin thought that staying with the train, which had first-aid staff, was a better choice. Stan also preferred to stay with the train because he did not want to ruin the trip for Rosa. So they did. On the train he and Rosa wore the hats they were given in Calgary, and this time the ride went well. Robin recalled, “We saw bald eagles,” and Stan was treated as a minor celebrity, which seemed to please him. “But the minute we hit Vancouver, we had to go to the emergency room, because the stitches weren’t really holding.” “That’s it,” Robin insisted. “We’re going home.” When Robin told Stan that he had to see a hand surgeon, he “was really depressed,” she recalled, but “I didn’t care at that point, I just wanted him out of this degree of vulnerability, and Rosa did too.” She told Rosa, no more trips for Stan.

During June, Stan saw a hand surgeon, and with physical therapy for his finger he recovered enough to forget Robin’s travel ban. Well before the trip to Calgary they had purchased tickets for a trip to Scandinavia. Stan had been nominated for a European Inventor Award based on his work on improving the NiMH battery for use in cars

Last Days

Figure 13.5 Stan and Rosa on the Rocky Mountaineer wearing their Calgary hats.

(p.273) (see chapter 9). He was eager to attend the award ceremony in Copenhagen and also wanted to attend the annual meeting of E\PCOS, the European Phase Change and Ovonics Symposium, to be held that year in Tampere, Finland, two weeks later. It was a meeting at which Stan, the acknowledged father of the technology, had often delivered the keynote speech. To cut down on the amount of airplane travel and also to enjoy some sightseeing, Rosa had suggested spending the intervening weeks on a cruise seeing the Norwegian fiords. They invited along a number of family and friends—Rosa’s daughter Angela, with her husband Jim and their children Lolo and Norah, Steven and Pablo, and Rosa’s friend Genie. (Robin could not come because of work commitments.)

When the time drew close, Stan finally admitted that he was not well enough to attend the Copenhagen meeting because the stairs in the auditorium would have been too much to manage. Mike Fetcenko agreed to accept the award in his place. Stan insisted, however, that he wanted to attend the meeting in Finland, so they decided to take the cruise and then the flight to Finland. The cruise was a special occasion for the

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Figure 13.6 Rosa and Stan on the Norway cruise.


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Figure 13.7 Family on the Norway cruise. Back: Lolo and Steven; front, left to right: Pablo, Genie, Stan, Rosa, Norah, Angela, Jim.

family, and everyone got to have time alone with Stan. Steven, who had brought along his bassoon, would play for him in his room. Stan enjoyed the spectacular scenery and being with his family, but he was not well and had spells of extreme back pain.6 Rosa phoned Robin, who said it was probably an osteoporosis compression fracture, and Rosa’s son-in-law Jim, a radiologist, thought so too. Stan and Rosa decided that he was not well enough to attend the Finland meeting; they left the cruise at Bergen, the last port, and flew home directly.

These aborted trips before Stan’s birthday party were signs of more serious health troubles ahead. After they returned from Norway, Stan had continuing excruciating back pain that forced him to use a walker. Still, he went to work every day and managed to keep up his normal activities until about a week before the September 2 birthday party.

After the Party (September 3 to October 17)

The party was a high point for Stan, but afterward things went from bad to worse. The next day, Labor Day, he stayed home with Robin, Steven, and Natasha, while Rosa went to lunch with her family. At one point, Robin recalled, “He started to scream in pain. Howl.” He told her, “I’ve been in pain since the cruise!” “We’ve got to get you back to the orthopedists. They’re missing something,” she said. He was diagnosed as having an (p.275) osteoporosis compression fracture, as Robin and Jim had thought, and he continued to be treated for pain.

Over the next two weeks, Stan suffered persistent, terrible back pain. He was in and out of the hospital, but test results were inconclusive and he was sent home with more pain medicines. Finally, on September 16, a CAT scan yielded the correct diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer. “It was everywhere,” Robin said, “all over his bones.” That explained both the pain and the debilitating weakness that had caused him to fall so often. A cure was impossible, but the doctors felt that they might be able to give him six months to two years. Meanwhile, because they were failing to control the pain, Robin found a palliative care nurse. Stan loved her, and “she adored him; they had profound conversations,” Robin said. Stan’s doctors decided to use radiation just to alleviate the most painful areas of his spine. Robin came back for three-day weekends for the next several weeks.

The cancer diagnosis came as a shock to Rosa, and all the more so when she learned that for years other family members had been aware that Stan had prostate cancer. He had decided against being treated twenty-five years earlier, refusing surgery as well as radiation or chemical therapy. Yet he continued to have his PSA (prostate specific antigen) checked and would panic to learn each time that it was rising higher. “Then remind me why you keep checking this result,” Robin said, “since you’ve decided that none of those options are going to be done? And finally he stopped.”7

Rosa was angry with Stan for not telling her about his history of prostate cancer. Had she known, she would have insisted on treatment. At one point, he admitted that he had made a mistake. “I’m paying the price,” he said. “Are you going to punish me for it too?” That made Rosa very sad, said Robin, “and she never said anything about it again, to my knowledge.” Once it was clear that Stan would not recover, they arranged hospice care, as Harvey and Cathie (who taught hospice and end-of-life care) had suggested. Hospice helped Stan and Rosa come to terms with the situation. Robin observed Rosa passing through the standard Kübler-Ross stages, including denial and anger, “roughly one a day.” Stan also passed through them, but “not as logically as she did.” When Rosa reached the stage of bargaining, “she started to do literature searches about experimental therapies. She was calling me; I said, ‘Rosa, the diagnosis is extremely clear, and it’s extremely advanced, and there are very, very few, really if any, choices right now.’” Rosa soon reached the stage of acceptance, coming to peace with Stan’s death before he died. “And that was amazing,” Robin said. “And he did too.”

Saturday, October 13 was an important day. The hospice nurse told Rosa that Stan had no more than a week to live. The prognosis was another shock to Rosa because (p.276) only two weeks earlier the oncologist had said Stan might live several more months. It was up to Rosa to tell Stan that he needed to prepare for his final days. “It’s not good news,” she told him. “It’s time to talk about what’s most important to you.” “I want to live,” Stan said. “Yes,” Rosa said, “I want you to live with me for many years to come, but we need to prepare for the worst.” He spoke then about Dale, concerned that his son would have enough money and be watched over.8 Even this close to the end, Stan was thinking about the future.

Stan had never been much concerned with his own death. “I’d rather talk about life,” he would say. “The end of life is not nearly as important as being in life. The process of living means expressing yourself to the fullest. I think it’s the process of living, of putting meaning in life, that is the important part.” Stan always said he wanted to die with his boots on, and even this close to death he struggled to press on with his work. He wanted desperately to bring his gigawatt project to fruition; anxious to keep this “setback” from interrupting the research, he wanted to see Dave Strand and talk about the progress being made at Ovshinsky Solar. During his last visits with his children, however, Stan apologized for spending so much of his own money on Ovshinsky Innovation. “I wanted to leave you more,” he said. They tried to reassure him: “You left us plenty,” Harvey said. “More than you’ll ever know.”

Late that afternoon, Stan suddenly sat up and said to Rosa, “I want a date with you.” The two would often go out to dinner on Saturday evenings, sometimes to a Buddy’s Pizza place a few miles away. “I want Buddy’s Pizza,” Stan insisted, and when Rosa told him it was impossible to go out, he said, “Let’s order it in.” Rosa asked Harvey to pick up Stan’s usual: double sliced tomato, double pepperoni, double anchovies. Ben, who had flown in a week earlier, joined them. Harvey recalled, “It was a wonderful meal. He ate at the kitchen table with us, and we talked, and we listened, and we were all together. It was lovely.”

Then Stan “went to bed, and never got out of it. And he never ate again,” said Robin, who was sad to have had to miss the pizza party because of an important meeting in New York that day. She remarked about something she had read in the hospice brochure they received: “They talk about a kind of an arousing, an awakening, a last time. And that was it. And I missed it.” From then on, Stan was “weak, incontinent, and bed-bound, but pain-free. He slept a lot, but between, we could talk. Dale flew in from Florida on Monday, and Herb came to visit. Stan was awake, and I remember we were all just sitting around the bed. It was nice. We would stroke him or talk to him, and someone was with him all the time.” In the middle of one of the last conversations with his children, he struggled to raise his arm. “He could barely talk by then, so we didn’t know what he wanted,” Harvey said, “until we realized he was pointing at the (p.277)

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Figure 13.8 Photocopy of the drawing of Stan’s father Ben.

framed drawing of his father on his bedroom dresser. My brother Ben understood and brought it over for Dad to hold. He just reached out, touched the image of his father, and quietly, tenderly kissed it.”

Stan wasn’t fully conscious most of the time from then on, but there were some significant exchanges. At one point, Rosa asked Stan, “Do you see me?” And Stan answered, “I see you everywhere. I look for love.” He asked Harvey, “Is Cathie okay?” “Does Cathie understand?” Harvey tried to assure him, “Dad, she does. We all understand.” There were also several mumbled fragments that suggest what was in his “drugged, almost delusional mind during the days when he was actively dying,” said Robin, who wrote down as much as she could make out. “Department of Energy,” “All those Nobelists. I never got the chance.” “What is all this, sounds like the VOIG3.” And “such a beautiful spot.” “I got somewhere. A journal published what I said.” “Freya, get me the summary!”

At some point on Monday, Robin said, “I think we need some Schnapps.” The idea was to toast to Stan’s health. Stan said, “Great idea,” and they had some of the good Russian vodka from the freezer. Stan toasted in Russian, “Nostrovia!” “It was a wonderful, wonderful moment,” said Robin. “And then he and Herb started singing Yiddish (p.278) songs together. It was wonderful.” Dave Strand came by on that Monday too. Stan smiled and seemed happy, even though he was hardly conscious, Robin recalled, when Dave said the experiments were going very well, “which was hardly true, I think.”

By Tuesday Stan was mostly mumbling, but at one point he woke up and started to talk clearly. He looked at Rosa, who was lying on the bed with him. “She would crouch facing him,” Robin said. “She wanted to see his face more, and he wanted to see hers. He asked her, ‘Can I talk to you?’ And she said, ‘Of course.’ And he looked around at the rest of us in a slightly hallucinatory way and said, ‘With all these people around? I don’t want to talk to you with all these people around.’ So we all left. And she told me later, he said, ‘I really love you. Do you love me?’ And she said, ‘How can I not love you?’ Those were his last words.”9

On Wednesday, October 17, Stan’s last day, they played calming music that Steven had selected for him. (Steven, who couldn’t be there because of his performance schedule, called often and had asked Rosa to download music from iTunes.) With the music in the background, “it was very beautiful,” said Robin. “It was fall: the windows were open, it was very sunny, and there were yellow leaves all around, falling. It was like a metaphor. Stan could see the scene from his bedroom windows.” By late Wednesday afternoon when Herb and Selma brought Chinese food over for dinner for the family, Stan “was just barely hanging on. His breathing was slow, his blood pressure was so low, everything was low.” With her hand on his chest, Robin could feel him cooling down. Feeling his pulse through his thin chest, she could tell it was getting irregular. Herb compared what came next to “a scene out of a movie.” When Robin told Stan that Herb had come, “it was as if he was waiting for him to arrive.” Stan flinched as the door opened. “I said, ‘It’s your brother Herb, he’s here to see you.’ And I started to feel the pulse getting a little more irregular. She called in the others. “Herb kissed him and held his hand, and within two minutes, he was gone.” Herb recalled the first thing Rosa said: “It was the best five years of my life.”

Then Rosa, Herb, Robin, Stan’s three boys, and Irina “each kissed him goodbye, and let Rosa have some time alone with him,” recalled Robin. “Irina was the first to leave the room. She was very choked up. And, you know, we all were, and we touched him or held onto him, or hugged each other, or whatever.” When they eventually left the room, at the head of the dining room table was a glass of vodka, with a piece of dark bread on top. Irina told them that it was a Russian tradition, a tribute, when the father or head of the household died. It had to be left there for nine days, the period when the spirit of the one who died remained in the house. Robin found it very moving.

“And then,” Robin continued, “we did sit down and eat the Chinese food that Herb and Selma had brought. It was a little difficult, but we knew we needed to, and we were (p.279) very grateful to all eat together.” Later that night, Stan’s body was taken to the same Jewish funeral home they had used when Iris died. Rosa “was crying so much,” Irina recalled. Robin said, “I feel good about the way he died. I feel good that we were able to help him to have that comfort, and that he knew how much he was loved.”

After Stan’s Death

The family had already made most of the decisions about what to do after Stan’s death in the hours of sitting around talking during his last days. They decided not to have a memorial, partly because everyone was exhausted and also because they’d already had the commemorative speeches at his birthday party. Robin remembered Rosa saying on Monday or Tuesday night, “What else are we going to do or say?” The others agreed. “Like Tom Sawyer, he got to be at his own funeral,” Robin remarked. “He got to hear his eulogies. What could be better?”

As Stan and Iris had planned, he was to be buried next to her in the Akron Workmen’s Circle cemetery the next Sunday. Before then, Rosa started hearing from many ECD people who wanted a way to say goodbye to Stan without having to travel to Akron for the burial. At the last minute, she decided to have a viewing on Friday. It was advertised with less than twenty-four hours’ notice, mainly by word of mouth plus a single email from Dave Strand. Rosa and Irina went to the funeral home beforehand to decide whether to have an open or closed casket viewing. As Irina recalled, Rosa worried that Stan would not look good if the casket were open, and she began to cry when she saw him because he did not look like himself. His curly hair had been made to lie straight. “Just give me water; I will make his hair curl,” said Irina, who then fixed his hair so that he looked as though he had just fallen asleep. Irina had also brought along the Swiss army pocketknife that he liked to carry and one of the coins that said “Energy” on one side and “Information” on the other. She put these into his pockets, adding a few other items: his handkerchief, the little pin he never forgot to wear in his lapel, plus some notepaper and a pen.10 “He looked totally normal, in his three-piece suit. He looked great, no makeup, no nothing,” Robin said. At least a hundred people came to see Stan one last time.

Meanwhile, Harvey heard from a friend about online virtual memorials. He showed Robin a few samples. She didn’t like any of them, but the suggestion led her to find a beautiful site called “Forever Missed,” with pages for tributes, stories, photos, and documents. Irina recalled that in the first week after Stan’s death, Rosa “was looking every night.” On Saturday, the family commemorated Stan by eating at Buddy’s Pizza. Vicki, Rosa’s daughter, arrived from San Diego on Saturday, as did Steven from San Francisco, (p.280) so that they could come along on Sunday to attend the burial. Robin recalled that in one of the very first conversations that she had had with Stan about Rosa, after it was clear that he was going to try to make a life with her, he had asked, “How am I going to tell Rosa that I want to be buried next to Iris?” Robin told him that she didn’t think Rosa expected anything else, “because I don’t think that you’re going to be together fifty years like you were with Mom.”

On Sunday, they all drove behind the hearse to Akron, where the burial took place about 1 o’clock, without any prepared speeches or ceremony. It was a sunny fall day, and the cemetery was beautiful. They each threw in a few of the red and white roses they had brought from the viewing and placed stones from near the lake on Iris’s and on Stan’s parents’ graves. “It was hard to see them lower him next to Mom, and to see her stone again,” said Robin. “It was really hard.”

Robin later designed Stan’s stone according to some handwritten notes she found after his death, asking that he be buried with the amorphous materials symbol from the Institute of Amorphous Studies flag. She found other instructions, most of which had already been followed: “No religious anything, no service, no Jewish stars, no prayers, everything he had done for Mom.”11 Robin decided to use the amorphous materials symbol at the top of Stan’s gravestone, just as Iris’s has an iris at the top. Steven suggested adding a rose to symbolize Rosa.

While his father was dying, Harvey wrote a press release and arranged for the obituaries. Dozens of newspapers, social media sites, and even NPR celebrated his life and mourned his passing. Most of the obituaries were thoughtfully written, especially those in the Wall Street Journal and Crain’s Detroit Business. But the New York Times notice appeared to have been written years earlier and included a number of errors.12

No matter what their relationship had been, those who had interacted with Stan a great deal felt the loss. Irina, for example, felt empty. She remembered her conversations with Stan “about everything, like in the springtime, if we walk to institute, and some tree is blooming, and talking about how beautiful it is. He is a gentleman, a very wonderful man.” Irina especially missed the times when he asked her to sing Russian socialist songs, “and we’re singing together, and sometimes he’s singing in English, I’m singing in Russian, the same song.”

The burden of clearing the house and the Institute of all the books, papers, furniture, and other belongings, so that the properties could be put up for sale, fell on Rosa. Her friend Genie came from Greece for an extended stay so Rosa would not be alone in her grief, and she helped Rosa go through the papers and household things. “We all owe her a great debt,” Robin said. Among the many objects in the house that (p.281)

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Figure 13.9 Stan’s gravestone.

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Figure 13.10 Inscription on Stan’s gravestone.

needed to find another home after Stan’s death was the oscilloscope in the basement attached to one of the first threshold switches, still displaying the familiar cross pattern that he first observed in the storefront. The device went to the Detroit Historical Society.13 As Hellmut noted, it was “not the original oscilloscope, but the switch had been switching on and off for all these forty-seven years, 120 times per second. And you walk past it, and you see the switching cycles absolutely stable and steady after all these years.”

When the house was finally sold, the family was happy that the buyer was planning to live there with his children, for they had feared that the house would be torn down and the property subdivided. It turned out that the buyer had just won the state lottery and could well afford to keep the property intact.

In the months that followed, Rosa continued to find surprises from Stan. Irina turned up many love notes he had written to Rosa on the cardboards from his laundered shirts. Every time she returned from a trip she would find one at the front door. “He would write some special message for her,” Irina remembered, “like ‘Tingela, welcome home, from your man, Simcha.’” One surprise that Rosa found a few months after Stan’s death (p.282) was part of a birthday gift he had given her on December 15 the year before. He had worked with Robin to select the present, a lovely piece of modern cloisonné Chinese jewelry with an image of his favorite bird, the heron. The printed card read, on one side, “Who stole my heart?” On the other, “Oh, it was you.” And Stan wrote on it, “Happy Birthday Dear Heart. My Izon. Your lover, Stanford” (izon means “wife” in Chinese). He had placed the card inside the box behind the jewelry, but when Rosa first opened the gift, she didn’t read the message inside. She found it shortly before her next birthday.

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Figure 13.11 Oscilloscope still displaying the “cross” after Stan’s death.


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Figure 13.12 Packing up at the Institute for Amorphous Studies.

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Figure 13.13 Stan’s birthday gift to Rosa.

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Figure 13.14 Stan’s card.



(1.) The fact that Rosa started planning the party in May argues against the notion some have expressed that she planned it as a memorial for Stan to enjoy while he was still alive. No one in the family, least of all Rosa, suspected that Stan’s death was imminent.

(2.) Sasha and Stan had been talking since Sasha’s arrival a few days earlier. Sasha recalled an intense scientific discussion at the Institute about the role of lone pair electrons in chalcogenides. “He was so excited. His eyes were shining so bright.” Sasha was impressed by how sharp Stan’s mind still was, how he grasped Sasha’s points before he could even finish a sentence. Sasha asked Stan to be co-author of the paper he was working on; Stan agreed, and it became his last, posthumous publication. Alexander V. Kolobov, Paul Fons, Junji Tominaga, and Stanford R. Ovshinsky, “Vacancy-Mediated Three-Center Four-Electron Bonds in GeTe-Sb 2 Te 3 Phase-Change Memory Alloys,” Physical Review B 87, no. 16 (2013): 165206–1-165206–9.

(3.) Harvey had stepped in several days before to help “executive produce” the event, after receiving a call from Stan: “We’re desperate, we need your help. Rosa can’t do this alone.”

(4.) Some of the speeches can be found on Forever Missed, Stan’s memorial website, http://www.forevermissed.com/stanford-r-ovshinsky/#about.

(5.) The talks by Senator Levin, Hellmut Fritzsche, and Harley Shaiken were entered into the Congressional Record 158, no. 121 (September 11, 2012), https://www.congress.gov/crec/2012/09/11/CREC-2012-09-11-pt1-PgS6103.pdf.

(p.353) (6.) Irina noted that Stan’s back pain had started before the Canada trip, and his physician had suggested doing an MRI in May. But when they returned his finger was the primary concern, and they never did the MRI.

(7.) Prostate cancer usually grows so slowly that men with it most often die of other causes, and Stan, like many in his situation, didn’t want to risk losing his sexual potency.

(8.) Robin said she had “found reams of notes of my mother’s about various people they had consulted about Dale. And Stan supported him his whole life, fully and comfortably.”

(9.) It was clear to Rosa that Stan was still troubled by not having told her about his cancer and was asking her to reassure him that she had forgiven him. Robin added, “That was part of the confirmation to me, that they really, really did have a deep love, that those would be his last words.” Irina noted that Stan had started to trust only Rosa, and reacted to her presence until the end: “If she’s coming into the room, when he’s already in this coma, if he just saw Rosa, he’d start to smile, just for her.”

(10.) The pin indicated that he was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

(11.) For the viewing, they had “paid a fortune to have ivy brought in and festooned on all the pews to cover up the stars of David,” Robin recalled.

(12.) These errors in the New York Times included saying that Steven and Robin were Norma’s children. “I was so angry,” Robin said. “And they had the wrong city for the company. And how about calling him Stanley on the front page?” The Times corrected some of these errors a few days later. Links to this and other obituaries can be found on the Forever Missed website (see note 4 above).

(13.) The rare books from Stan’s collection went to the Joseph A. Labadie Collection and the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library of the University of Michigan. His papers went to the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan.