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Stateside With Rosalea: A Verandah Light Goes Out

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

A Verandah Light Goes Out

The first Saturday in January, I heard a number of words I hadn't heard spoken in a long while: primary school, verandah, dux, soldering iron--pronounced without a silent "l". They came in the speech made by one of his kid brothers at a memorial service for Richard Newton, Dean of the College of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.

A fellow Antipodean, Richard was somebody I admired because he reached for a much-prized apple on a tree growing in the US, from a country way down at the bottom of the world, and having gained that apple turned around and shared it with others. Not only that, but he fought with and cajoled the college and the university and industries in Silicon Valley and the politicians in Sacramento to make it their goal, too, to share the golden prize with others.

The golden apple I refer to is the knowledge and benefits gained from education and research at a university that is consistently rated among the top research universities in the world, despite its handicap of being a public institution answerable not to private benefactors so much as to the citizens of California because its operating budget comes from the State.

To understand UC Berkeley, you just need to know that when you're visiting, you're asked not to park in the spots reserved for Nobel Laureates or the disabled, "unless appropriate." It has a long history of not only producing great researchers, but of recognising that research can't stop at just fulfilling the expectations of people who comprise the dominant culture; you need to be inclusive. The first Center for Independent Living in the United States was founded by disability activists in Berkeley in 1972.

During the Sixties and early Seventies, at the same time that social and political movements and ideals played out on campus and sometimes on the surrounding city streets, UC Berkeley's College of Engineering continued to play its role within the Eisenhower-derided "military-industrial complex", no more so than in what is now known as the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. Many of the things we take for granted in our daily life today are the results of research contributions made then by faculty and students in the fields of microwave devices, antennas, lasers, cellular and space communications, and magnetic disk storage.

By the 1970s, when Richard Newton was an engineering student in his home town of Melbourne, UCB was undertaking pioneering work in the use of computer-aided design for microelectronics. Newton's talents in that field were noticed by a professor visiting the University of Melbourne from Berkeley, Don Pederson, and he suggested Newton study with him for his PhD.

The young student from Australia made such an impression at UCB that--for fear of losing such a brilliant mind to a rival institution--the university broke its own policy of never hiring one of its own students as faculty straight after they received their doctorate, and he was made Assistant Professor in 1979. [I don't know how long they will keep it up, but for now you can read Prof. A. Richard Newton's official university bio at]

In 1999, while Chair of EECS, Newton heard that the State of California was going to create three Institutes for Science and Innovation, and not one of them was going to be at UC Berkeley. As we say Down Under, he busted a gut to get a fourth institute established, one that would be "dedicated to the application of information and communication technologies to the solution of such tough societal and quality-of-life problems in areas that include energy, the environment, transportation, health care, disaster mitigation and response, and education."

It is in that context that I came in contact with Richard Newton. For three years at the very beginning of the 21st century, I worked as an administrative assistant to faculty in EECS, and was excited to be part of an institution that was being led in what I felt was a very worthwhile direction. I didn't work directly with Richard Newton, but on the few occasions we met over the years, he would unaffectedly make the kind of small talk expatriates make to put each other at ease in social situations.

He was department chair for only one year before being fingered to become the Dean of the College of Engineering in July 2000, and as Dean his annual talks always fired up our enthusiasm, even when the dot-com bubble burst making matching funding from industry for the institute hard to find, even after California's state budget went down the tubes with the electricity crisis of 2000-2001, even after 9/11 turned urgently required military and intelligence advances into the main focus of federal funding for research.

Richard Newton died after a short illness at the age of 55. A big rangy outdoors-loving guy, with a smile as broad as the outback, he was taken down by what one speaker at the memorial called an "assassin"--pancreatic cancer. From other speakers we learned that he played basketball and Aussie Rules, was dux of his high school, read poetry, and gave books of table talk topics to his hosts because he loved to entertain and be entertained by company.

He was fiercely proud of UC Berkeley, and persuaded the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education that anything MIT could do in terms of putting classes on the Internet for all the world to gain from, UCB could do too--and better. A prankster, he could wait 25 years for the pay-off, as when a flatmate from his early days in Berkeley visited South America recently and searched for "Quazno's Nose"--a tourist attraction Newton had simply made up and put down on the list of places he'd been that he said his friend should visit too.

Richard Newton was a husband and father, and a practising Buddhist who, I was told by someone who worked for him, painted his office lavender because it's the colour of compromise, and rearranged his schedule when the Dalai Lama was in town so that he could spend as much time at his appearances as possible. Buddhist monks delivered a prayer for him at the service, and there could not have been a dry eye in the audience when one of his students sang John Lennon's "Imagine"--suddenly the words MEANT something all over again.

Richard's kid brother told us how, when they were growing up, no matter what time they got home--be it 11 at night or 5 in the morning--they had to turn off the verandah light that had been left on for them and call out, "Mum, Dad, I'm home now." I like to think that Richard's home now too. Home in the hearts of all of us who believe in what he not only imagined was possible but worked so hard to make a reality.



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