Courtenay Wright, University of Chicago physicist, witness to D-Day, dead at 95
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Courtenay Wright worked with some of the greatest military and scientific minds of his generation.
He was brilliant, dashing, funny and kind, according to his wife, crime novelist Sara Paretsky, who said the University of Chicago particle physicist died Thanksgiving morning in a Rush University Medical Center hospice. He was 95.
As a 20-year-old radar officer in the Royal Navy, Mr. Wright decoded a message that made him one of the first in the world to know about the launch of D-Day. The day after the greatest amphibious invasion in history, he was on the bridge of the HMS Apollo when General Dwight D. Eisenhower urged the captain to go full speed ahead so he could inspect the beaches of Normandy, according to Paretsky.
The Apollo ran aground, and part of the ship swayed, “nearly decapitating the general,” Paretsky said. Eisenhower’s “startled face was inches from his own,” she wrote in the book “Writing in an Age of Silence.”
He was brought to U. of C. by renowned physicist Enrico Fermi, a leader of the Manhattan Project. In the book “Fermi Remembered,” Mr. Wright said he enjoyed Fermi’s descriptions of being dazzled by Hungarian computer expert John von Neumann.
“As Enrico reported, Johnny was calling on obscure changes of variables, unheard-of transforms, and for all I remember, the Heimlich maneuver, in a tour de force solution of the problem, completed in jig time,” Mr. Wright said. “Enrico turned to us with a quizzical look on his face and said, ‘You know, I felt like the fly who sits on the plow and says, ‘We are plowing.’ ”
In the Vietnam War era, Mr. Wright was in an elite group of scientists known as the Jasons, a name taken from the mythological Greek explorer, who advised the U.S. government against using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia, according to the book “Scientists at War.”
Mr. Wright grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, the son of English parents. His mother Geraldine, born in 1883, “attributed the beginning of women’s liberation to the bicycle–girls could outrun their chaperones,” Paretsky wrote on Facebook. His father Wallace, born in 1860, once worked as an elephant wrangler in colonial Burma.
He was named Sydney, but kids teased him, calling him “Kidney,” so he began using his middle name, Courtenay.
He and his friends used to hike up twin peaks near Vancouver called The Lions, then ski down. One time, he got stuck there at night, taking shelter on a ledge. He woke to find a bear peering at him, his wife said.
He studied at the University of British Columbia and earned his doctorate in 1949 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a student of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.
He and Paretsky met at a Chinese restaurant in Hyde Park. Then a widower with three sons — Kimball, Timothy and Philip — Mr. Wright had juggled work with caring for his first wife Jean, a bacteriologist, during her long struggle with mental illness, according to Paretsky.
The novelist was attracted by his impeccable manners — and resemblance to Sean Connery. “He was generous and loving and thoughtful, and he listened, and I fell in love,” she said.
He accepted her proposal on Sadie Hawkins Day, and they were married in 1976. She was 29. He was 52. With three boys and a dog, their Hyde Park household could be chaotic. But when he was working on a problem, she said, “He could tune out the entire world.”
A gifted teacher, he could make physics clear and understandable. A bidder at an American Civil Liberties Union charity auction once paid $1,000 for him to explain the theory of relativity.
His wife gave nods to him in her V.I. Warshawski Chicago murder mysteries, like when a character expressed regret over not paying attention during lectures by “Professor Wright.”
He liked sailing on Lake Michigan when the waves were high, could hot-wire a car and command a pool table and excelled at Go, the ancient Chinese board game.
He loved his family’s succession of golden retrievers: Capo, Cardhu, named for a Scotch whiskey, Callie and Chiara.
A strong proponent of women’s rights, he spoke in the 1960s at public forums and on TV to support access to abortion.
Paretsky said, “He liked to hear me sing, always, and I got in bed with him at the hospice to hold him and sing to him. The last thing he ever said to me was, ‘Your voice is lovely, and your legs are beautiful.’ ”
In addition to his wife and sons, he is survived by a grandchild. A public memorial at the University of Chicago will probably take place in the spring, according to Paretsky.