Thursday, November 1, 2007

The prof has 'coffed


I met Paul Downham in the summer of 1985. I was about to start my senior year in college and was searching for a room in a house to rent.

This was to be a serious year of study for me. I was doing a double major in Physics and Computer Science and an independent thesis was required for completion of the Physics major. That summer I had decided upon a thesis topic while traveling up to Vancouver and observing the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the, still under construction, Fraser River Bridge. My topic would be on the analysis and simulation of the vibrational modes of suspension bridges.


I needed a quiet place to study. The house at 143 Carl Ave. in Santa Cruz seemed to fit the bill. It was 7 miles from campus, close enough that I could easily ride my bicycle. When I visited, Paul welcomed me into his house despite my being a Physics major. He told me that he liked to have regular meals with all house mates, meaning I should pencil in Sunday evenings. Seemed reasonable. His heavy English accent and rather eccentric demeanor were welcome changes.


After I moved in, I learned that Paul didn't really own the house, but was rather the primary tenant and was subletting to college students. The house had 3 bedrooms, a shed in the back and a drafty and cold garage converted (subverted) into a bedroom. There were five of us living in the house, with Paul in the garage and a German Rastafarian surfer, Robert, in the shed outside.

On Sundays Paul would cook up his trademark roast chicken with roast potatoes a la Paul and steamed vegetables and he insisted that we all join him. I grew to enjoy this togetherness and would bring my girlfriend along. The evenings were typically followed by wine drinking by all and brashy monologues by Paul who was convinced of the inherent fascism of the United States for which Santa Cruz style socialism was an appropriate palliative. I never held that against him. Naked ping-pong tournaments were often held in the living room. No one was excluded, regardless of aptitude or rectitude. The only requirement was that players and spectators rid themselves of clothing and play, or watch, as God created them.

Despite his faith in the convalescent qualities of socialist policies, Paul was remarkably shrewd with money. I discovered how much the landlord was charging him for to rent on the house and quickly realized that the four of us were subsidizing his accommodations. Again, I never held it against him because the arrangement was comfortable and I never felt like Paul was taking advantage of anyone. My father, however, thought Paul was evil and a bad influence. If only he knew to what extent Paul was a bad influence.

After I graduated I tried to visit often, but grad school and employment kept getting in the way. I didn't see Paul as much anymore, but his lawn and living room floor were always available for overnight bicycling trips a privilege I took advantage of often.

When he retired, in 1997, he moved back to England hoping to benefit from expansive British social programs. Much to his dismay, however, he wasn't eligible as, although he remained a British citizen, he was no longer considered a resident.

He returned to Santa Cruz but by then the owner of the house on Carl Ave. had sold the house and Paul was forced to find an "affordable" apartment. After several places, he ended up in a comfortable one-bedroom apartment in a "senior citizens" complex across the San Lorenzo River off Soquel Ave. At times he resented all the "old people" living there, with their fatalistic hopeless outlook, and longed for the times when he shared houses with energetic and dynamic college students.

I visited him in 2003, shortly after the birth of my daughter. While we watched my children play in the park near his apartment, Paul told me about the silly politics of living in a retirement community and the fatalistic attitude of its residents.

I learned of his cancer in November, 2006. He started chemo-therapy treatment. That same year he lost his twin brother, Peter.



His good friends Robert, Andreas, Jeff and Donna organized a 80th birthday party for him at his apartment complex. He looked tired and had lost most of his hair, but he strutted his stuff in front of the other foggies of the complex. The attention showered on him that one day added 8 months to his life.


Paul died in September of 2007, eight months after his 80th birthday. He suffered a heart attack in his apartment. The chemo had done him in. I don't know who found him, or how long he'd been dead. But I hope he died giving the editors of the The San Jose Mercury News and The Santa Cruz Sentinel the middle finger, as he often did with his "stern letters to the editor".



Unlike others, I never considered him a father figure, but he was more than a friend. I guess I came to think of him as an older brother. A fragile, vulnerable but savvy brother. At times eccentric, but always honest and dependable.

Some memorable Paul quotes:
  • Grades are a means of sorting vegetables.
  • Silence, when you speak to me.
  • No, not that bag! That's my wife.
  • You are pretty, kind and good. Pretty ugly, kind of stupid and good for nothing.
  • 'cof you pigs.
  • Dear Sir or Madman.
  • Don't look at me in that tone of voice.
  • I am sitting in the smallest room of the house with your letter before me. Now it is behind me.
  • "No! Not the whip! Anything but the whip!" .... "Anything?" .... "The whip!"
Paul, or Prof. Downham as we used to call him. An accomplished pianist and organist, baritone vocalist and teacher. He had a degree from UCSC and the love and admiration of many friends.

Paul. I'm glad to have known you and I'll miss you.

R.I.P -- 23 Jan. 1927 to 13 Sept. 2007

Update: Donna informed me that Paul did not die alone and was able to summon help:

Just so you know, Paul did have a heart attack in his apartment, but managed to ring the emergency bell in his room for help, which arrived promptly in the form of an ambulance to transport him to the Dominican Hilton where he stayed for 2 or 3 days. Rasta Robert and I arrived to visit just a few minutes after they had transferred him to the Driftwood Nursing Facility so we went right over. He was unconscious when we got there and his breath was rattling. We stayed for a while talking to (at?) Paul and petting him but couldn't manage to wake him, so after a while we kissed his cheeks and said goodbye. Paul was dead within 2 hours after we left. It fell to Robert to dismantle his dear friend's life. What a sad and sorry job that was.

3 comments:

Deborah said...

Thank You for this post. Paul attended church here at First Congregational - Santa Cruz for a long time. We greatly enjoyed his love for traditional, choral music and loved to have him play on our organ! Your stories of life with Paul and the pictures are wonderful - and Oh so Paul! We are planning a celebration of his life here at First Congregational, 900 High Street, Santa Cruz during a special worship service Sunday, Nov. 18 at 10:30am. The Choir will be performing Handel's "Te Deum." Paul would love it. We hope his friends will be able to attend.

Kevin said...

Sorry to hear about that. Sounds like your friend was a real character. My he rest in peace.

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