Brian Slator was someone who helped me find the right words, and as much good as I have to say about the man, writing about him is tough. Hard to imagine what the family is going through. So sorry, Slators, Omars, and all.
To Rita and the whole family, I am so sorry for your loss. I am also sorry for what so many others lost, a mentor, a friend, a man who believed learning should be fun, and computers should be helpful. A caring adventurer who glued a bunch of folks together into an enduring web. Someone who did the work of keeping in touch each year. As I once said, and I hope all will forgive me, he was a good friend and a bad*** all in one.
Here are some Dr. Brian Slator memories:
Outside the CS department, he had a lock on his old blue bike, but it only appeared to be locked, the lock was always just wrapped around the frame. Similarly, there was always a spare key under a rock somewhere… over time I realized this was part of his approach to life, always a way around the problem, often non-obvious, another means of access, no cause was hopeless, he picked locks with words.
When I first started working with WWWIC, I was struck by how Brian would often stop mid-utterance, lean back, cross his arms, and, after a pause, say “What I mean to say is…” after which would follow the most perfectly formulated, crystalline thoughts and vision statements. This live-thinking was really awe-inspiring and I anticipated these moments. I have adopted this myself.
When I was in grad school, Brian often hired me to work on his side projects, and the amount he offered for the job always somehow seemed to be the exact amount I needed to keep going. It took some time for me to realize that this was not a coincidence and that it said something both about the size of his heart and the sheer observational power the man possessed.
Slator would often come to me with little “toy” problems that inadvertently demonstrated how much he cared for people. For example, one oddball project was making silent castanets for Rita’s dance students, who needed to build confidence in their technique. Together we laser-cut some gold spraypainted cardboard castanets one afternoon to see if they might help. I’m not sure if they did, but I was impressed nonetheless.
Slator was generous with authorship before I really understood what it authorship was good for.
I visited Toronto for the first time (and left the US for the first time) on Maya training with Shannon. I visited Los Angeles and my first graphics conference (Siggraph 2005) because of Slator and WWWIC… this later became where I published/showed new work with Disney… and LA became my home after I dropped out of grad school.
On that topic, Slator both helped me get into grad school and also tried very hard to keep me there – even after things got strange and very difficult. He came up with a number of imaginative workarounds for my situation and even after I’d left, he reached out a few times before my credits expired, just to see if he could convince me to return and finish my degree. Better late than never…
A Slator maxim that I relish, “A technology so powerful it can only be used for good and for evil.” – I hear it spoken in the radio-friendly, confident and humorous sound of the man when he said things like that. I have a few voicemails saved.
Slator was unusual in that the closer you got to him, the more he opened up… the more creative, fun, authentic, interesting, and connective his presence and life became. I may have met the leader of a king-hell research group, but got to know a traveler, connector, motorcycle enthusiast, filmmaker, author, and mentor that through no small effort changed the course of my life in an immensely positive way. I mean, these days, I sit at my computer and do CAD design for a living… which is really no different than the 3D modeling I did for WWWIC. These digital skills and technical access came from that first encounter with Slator, Schwert, and Clark (and I hold them all responsible for many positive things that ever happened to me).
Slator always wore a Batman hat. I do think he was some kind of odd superhero. But in many ways he was more a Professor X than a Batman. He produced great work by maintaining a stable of unusual, good-hearted, productive, and trustworthy people who sometimes needed a little guidance, help, or protection (like me, from my personality or myself, others who just needed regular help like health insurance, etc).
I spent a few hours today going through my photo archive. I know I have more somewhere, and I honestly wish I had a selfie like Shannon’s, but I was surprised to find a prescient photo of a smiling Slator wearing an N95 mask. This was back in late 2006, refurbishing the Clubhouse.
I’m also including a shot that I return to a few times a year. In my last minutes in Fargo, two people showed up. My childhood crush, Emily, who brought me a coffee, a hot sandwich, and a hug goodbye. And of course Brian Slator, who made sure I had everything I needed, money for gas, and blocks on the springs of my super-overloaded-hatchback. I will never forget them showing up at the moment I needed them and encouraging me to go when it was probably the last thing either of them wanted. What I mean to say is… Godspeed Dr. Brian Slator and Good Hunting in the Great Beyond.