Eulogy for David George Crighton
Delivered at the Funeral on 20 April 2000 in Jesus College Chapel
As evidenced by your presence here today and the many hundreds of heart-felt messages already received, David was a deeply loved, greatly admired, remarkable individual - a man of enormous energy and warmth, whose flame burnt brightly until just days before the end of his life.
Two themes predominated throughout David's fifty-seven years work and fun; he enjoyed life in all its aspects. And he was happy working; especially when working to help and encourage others. These themes were already evident as an undergraduate at St Johns where friends remember that, with his long jet-black hair, he enjoyed going to the pub, playing darts and bar billiards and was occasionally seen jitterbugging with complete abandon.
He played chess for St Johns, cycled for fun - often cycling to and from Watford at the beginning and end of terms, while his contemporaries were driven in their parents' cars. Even then, he was known as a hard worker. I believe that David was not a workaholic, but throughout his life he was a workaphile, who actively enjoyed using his quick and resourceful mind to accomplish an enormous amount, and at the highest standard.
Living well, for David, included dressing well. He already dressed nattily as an undergraduate when he had a reputation for sporting the longest, sharp-toed winkle-picker shoes in Cambridge. He claimed that he did his best work when adorned with a tie, and it was frequently a college tie. He had tremendous affection for Jesus College and was extremely proud to be the Master.
In David's early youth, his uncle Brian, who is with us today, would take him for drives to neighbouring airfields, where David became fascinated by planes. This sparked his early interest in aeronautics, to which he was to make major contributions in later years. Nevertheless, it is said that as a young man he was slightly uneasy about flying. Determined to eradicate this unease, he learnt to fly while in the USA in 1968. We all know what followed: David loved air travel, and was known to pop across the Atlantic for a morning's meeting or visit Japan, his last big trip, for just a couple of days. A few years ago, he flew to Adelaide, Australia for just over a day. When challenged about the wisdom of this, he replied that it was wonderful: fifty hours there and back during which he could work solidly without being interrupted or telephoned.
David's great leadership qualities were already evident while he was still at school, where he was Captain of Rugby and Head Boy. I believe he was particularly proud of this last position, including it at the top of his CV, just under FRS, which was to come many years later. His remarkable abilities were recognised early on: he went from research assistant with Shon Ffowcs Williams at Imperial College to Professor of Mathematics at Leeds without going through the usual intermediate steps of lecturer, senior lecturer, and reader. David had an immediate impact. He totally transformed the department by revitalising those who were already there and bolstering their confidence, and by vigorously recruiting a large number of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows.
When he became head of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics in Cambridge, following two very successful and eminent heads, the organisation seemed abruptly to gain extra impetus. His vision and leadership drove expansion into exciting, new areas. Similarly, it has been said that when he became Master of Jesus he introduced his own distinctive style into the College almost overnight, encouraging students, increasing academic standards and of course contributing with delight to the musical tradition of the College. Fellows, staff and students grew to love him; as did we all. It is the loss of his much loved presence in our lives, together with the certainty that great contributions still lay ahead of him, that make David's early death so poignant.
While at Imperial, David met Mary West, a very accomplished pianist, whom he married in 1969. They had two children Beth and Ben, of whom David was deeply proud and whose closeness, especially during the last, difficult, year meant so much to him. Family ties were important to David: he was also a devoted and loyal son, who was extremely generous with his time and help for his mother, and he was a loving brother to his sister, Frances. In Leeds in the early 1980s, David met Johanna and began a love affair that lasted until his very last breath. As appropriate for a truly remarkable man, Johanna is truly remarkable in her own right. A strong, intelligent woman, warm and gracious, she has been constantly supportive of David and his interests and, in addition to successfully pursuing her own career, threw her energies into the role of Master's wife.
One of David's many special gifts was to encourage people to believe in themselves and achieve at a higher standard than before. This is a rare quality, but one which is also inherent in the most successful of musical conductors.
David had an enormously wide range of friends, colleagues and contacts; and was stimulating, entertaining and fun with them all. He seemed to know and remember everyone in academic life and well beyond. After a science afternoon a few years ago in the White House, David so impressed Hillary Clinton that she invited him to return for a special fund-raising occasion under her sponsorship. Perhaps she too was moved by David's eloquence and his special gift of persuading people, in his soft charming way, to share his vision. A consequence was his extraordinary ability to raise large amounts of money for innovative projects. As a chairman of committees, either Cambridge or international ones, he was always carefully prepared and loved to give service.
David also had the wonderful ability to make everyone feel special. On coming to see him he gave you his undivided attention and seemed almost always to have as much time as you needed. He treated everyone equally; he was on first name terms with students and staff; as he was with the Vice-Chancellor. Some of you may not know that David ran 3 or 4 miles several days a week and ten miles on Sundays, to finish off the week. This helped to make him a very useful member of a team which won for Jesus College the Sir Arthur Marshall Cup for the Chariots of Fire Charity Race. The Head Gardner, the Deputy Butler and a carpenter ran with David (who just happened to be the Master).
As we all know David loved music, and opera and Wagner in particular. His first of almost annual visits to Bayreuth was as an undergraduate in 1962 when he hitched across Europe and arrived with insufficient money to buy a ticket. He met a kindly horn player who invited David to sit by him in the pit. While David was to return occasionally to the pit in later years, he was generally able to afford better seats. David had a phenomenal understanding and encyclopaedic knowledge of Wagner and somehow found time, amongst all his other activities, to write regular and much admired articles for the international Wagner News. His prodigious memory helped enormously here. One of his great pleasures was to buy a CD advertising a complete live recording and dissect its validity. His ear and expertise was such that he could recognise, for example, that the second scene of the first act had been spliced in from the previous day's performance, or that part of a movement had been lifted from an earlier recording.
This is not the place to expound on David's scientific contributions, as immense as they are. That will be a focus at his memorial service during the summer. I hope it suffices here to say that he was a formidable applied mathematician who made penetrating contributions to our understanding of acoustics, the evolution and propagation of nonlinear waves and, like the famous Sir Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, the structure of shock waves. As stated in the Guardian yesterday, he was the undisputed leader of applied mathematics in Great Britain. The distinction of his own research work and influence brought him honorary degrees from all over the world, international prizes and medals as well as election to the Royal Society.
All of us grieve, that as David entered a particularly golden time in his life, he was diagnosed with cancer. He vehemently refused to allow this to get him down. Sustained by his quiet but deeply held Christian faith, he continued to work vigorously for his department, college and colleagues. During most of this time he was happy, still joked with his friends, devoted his energies to helping others and pursued his passion for music with as much joy as ever. None of us who was there will forget him conducting his beloved Wagner with the College Orchestra in this very Chapel not two months ago. We were awed by his courage.
David lived, really lived, until he died. His memorial is the enormous influence he left behind him and the many people whose lives he enriched by encouraging them, supporting them and acting as a superb role model for us all.