Charlie was a remarkable guy, and I'm deeply sad that I won't get to spend more time with him. We only met in 2007, a few months after I met his daughter, Susan Weiner. I liked him immediately – he was funny, and engaging, and a great person to have a conversation with, because he loved to hear and share stories.
Here are some stories I heard him tell about himself and believe I remembered correctly:
He grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. In 1946, he hit the road to explore the South with a friend. Among his better documented stories is his encounter with Fiddlin' Bill Hensley, an old-time musician he searched out who lived in a ramshackle cabin near Asheville, North Carolina. This was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with music, and Charlie's music experiences ranged from New York jazz clubs to Gullah singers in the Georgia Sea Islands. He had a great ear and memory for melody – at 80, he could still sing Japanese songs he'd learned in Tokyo during his brief military career in the '50s.
In the late '40s he rode the rails and played songs with Woody Guthrie, who gave him one of his hand-drawn, mimeographed songbooks. He attended get-togethers at Pete Seeger's Greenwich Village home, and was present the night Lee Hays brought over his friend Ronnie Gilbert and the Weavers were born. Charlie acted as impromptu security for Paul Robeson and other musicians as the 1949 civil rights and music festival in Peekskill, New York deteriorated into a racist and anti-Semitic riot.
His mother was a socialist who ran for office in New York, and Charlie remained a staunch supporter of those ideals his entire life. He distrusted and questioned authority, and always fought for basic human rights. In the '50s, he spent time in auto plants in Ohio, working on the line but secretly organizing for the union. He took part in civil rights marches in New York and Washington DC, and Susan got to see Martin Luther King when she was a young girl. He worked on campaigns for Henry Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern.
He met his first wife, Shirley Marks, in Cleveland, and they brought forth Susan Weiner, my wife. Their marriage didn't last, but he and Shirley remained cordial friends until the end.
Charlie entered college at Case Institute of Technology, eventually earning a PhD in the History of Science and Technology in 1965, the subject that became the focus of the rest of his life. From 1965 to 1974 he was director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in New York, where he applied his earlier interests in talking to people and recording the results. In 1970, he used a Guggenheim Fellowship to move his family to Copenhagen so he could document the life of Niels Bohr, and many of his oral histories, films, and papers can be found online in AIP's Niels Bohr Library.
In 1975, he joined MIT as professor of History of Science and Technology, and was founding director of the MIT Oral History Program until 1986. He was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and, in 2002, he was named the Arthur Miller Lecturer on Science and Ethics at MIT.
His work collecting interviews, letters, and other papers resulted in four books: Exploring the History of Nuclear Physics, History of Twentieth Century Physics, The Legacy of George Ellery Hale (with Helen Wright and Joan Warnow), and Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (with Alice Kimball Smith). This doesn't include the many interviews with prominent scientists Charlie made available to others. Notably, his interviews with Richard Feynman – the first time the famous physicist had agreed to discuss his work – were quoted and credited in James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.
Sadly, his magnum opus, on which he worked for over twenty years, will remain incomplete. It was to be a book on (quoting his MIT page) “the history of social responsibility in science from the atomic bomb to contemporary genetic engineering. It uses archival and oral history materials to document scientists' complicity in and resistance to nuclear and biological weapons, their connections with citizens' groups affected by environmental toxins and by fallout from nuclear testing, and anticipatory concerns about ethical limits to human genetic manipulation.”
Charlie never left behind his great love of music. Though he lived in Cape Cod with JoAnn, his wife and partner of many years, he kept a Greenwich Village apartment so he could see live jazz in the many clubs where he was well known to everyone from the owners and staff to musicians. Among his close friends, he counted guitarist Jim Hall (who gave him guitar lessons), trombonist Roswell Rudd, and pianist Bruce Barth, but the many, many people Charlie loved and who loved him back may be numberless.
In February 2010, Susan and I came to Cape Cod, because Charlie had landed in the hospital with congestive heart failure (which continued to plague him for the next two years). It was not entirely a sad trip for us, as he was able to come home and he and JoAnn toasted our Valentine's Day engagement, which had occurred in the restaurant across from their home. By July, Charlie was healthy enough to come to California for Susan's birthday and he and JoAnn came to our wedding in October.
In December of 2010, Charlie and JoAnn had a long stay in Eyeries, a small village on the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland, so JoAnn could work on her art and Charlie could work on his book. Originally planned for three months, they had such a good time they extended their visit by another month. The people there welcomed them completely, and they made many friends. On their return home, Charlie played us recordings he made of community music sessions held in a nearby pub – a long and terribly sad song sung a cappella by an angelic-voiced young teen was a standout.
They returned to Ireland a year later. Despite misgivings about his health, Charlie was the biggest champion of the trip and refused to stay home. He looked forward to seeing his new friends and diving back into the book, where he'd done his most productive work in some time. After arriving in Eyeries, however, he never fully recovered his strength, and declined rapidly.
He is missed tremendously by all who knew him, and the idea that the world goes on without him – and his continuous, shameless puns – is hard to imagine. Sláinte and l'chaim, Charlie, we'll sing a song for you in loving memory.
UPDATE 1: Susan and I were just talking, and I remembered one of Charlie's most endearing, entertaining, and frustrating traits: his love of good food. I once came to Boston for business without Susan, before we were married. I said I would have a car and I wanted to drive down to the Cape to have lunch before my flight home. The first thing he asked was, "What do you want to eat?" Well, I don't know, we can figure it out when I get there. "No, I need to know. We'll figure out what you want, and then work backwards from there." (For the record, we ate at Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, a great, low-key place to get a lobster roll and sit next to the water that we returned to often.)
Eating out with Charlie meant enduring a ritual of joking banter with the waiter or waitress, who had to endure a pop quiz of their menu. "So, tell me, the sole — is that sauteed in oil or just how is it prepared?" As much as he enjoyed finding new restaurants he loved sharing his favorites with his friends.
UPDATE 2: Thanks to all the visitors who are leaving personal remembrances of Charlie. They mean a lot to his family, and help reveal a side of Charlie we didn't know directly. It is quite moving to hear the impact he had on others. Please encourage others!
MIT has published its official obituary.
UPDATE 3: Will Thomas says kind things about this post and writes about oral history and the extent and importance of Charlie's work on the history of science blog Ether Wave Propaganda.