Engineering mathematician, educationalist, election forecaster, humanist and altruist
Gordon Reece, who has died aged 76 after a short illness, was an unconventional academic even by the standards of the day. For him role of the University lecturer was not just about the push to publish and add to the research cannon, rather he was passionate about using his position to improve the lives of others. He introduced novel techniques to teach mathematics to engineering undergraduates, championed staff development believing that training leads to better practice, and was an ardent supporter of the individual through his work as an official of the AUT, now UCU. A colourful personality whose academic interests seamlessly blended with everyday life, Gordon was often heard on the radio talking about election forecasting, or predictions of epidemics (especially AIDS), two of his research interests. He was a pioneer of computational fluid dynamics and also mathematical geology, yet developed simple methods of explanation using toys to demonstrate abstract ideas. A master of many languages, he contributed words to the Oxford English Dictionary, reviews and articles (e.g. to the New Humanist), as well as generosity and an unwavering optimistic outlook on life to all around him.
Gordon’s parents were Jewish, arriving from Nazi Germany as refugees. They were lucky to escape, his father was at the Dachau concentration camp and many of the relatives died in the holocaust. Newly married, they lived on a kibbutz to equip them for a planned future life in Israel. Gordon’s birth changed their plans and the family settled in Worcester. Gordon spoke only German until the age of three, at which point his parents made efforts to speak exclusively in English with their son. Gordon later also became fluent in French, and Hebrew, and could get by in many languages because he made quick connections between related words.
Gordon was a lifelong socialist and humanist. He was also proud of his Jewish heritage (although not always the actions of the Israeli Government). He was for many years an active member of the Labour party, realising at one point that he had known every post-war Labour prime minister before Blair (whom he despised, and whose leadership probably convinced him to leave the party). While still an undergraduate he was adopted by his local party branch in Worcester and stood in the 1963 general election as their parliamentary candidate. A trades unionist, he was an active supporter of many national and international causes, not least CND and Amnesty International.
Gordon studied Mathematics at Kings College London after which he found work in London and the Home Counties as a teacher and lecturer including at Borough Polytechnic (now South Bank University) and what is now the University of Kingston. Throughout this period he continued with part-time study, leading eventually to the award of an MSc with Distinction. His thesis on ‘The Theory of Measurement in Quantum Mechanics’ was published almost in its entirety. This might seem an unusual foundation for an eventual career in Engineering, but it led to the award of a funded PhD studentship in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College, to study computational fluid mechanics, a topic that drew on his lifelong love of computers. For him this was very much a leap into the unknown, especially given that he had a young family to support. The completion of his PhD was mired by his supervisor, Brian Launder, leaving for a position in California. Gordon was required to travel there to take his viva and, never one to miss the opportunity to combine work with travel, took time to explore the USA. He returned with a bemused horror at the lack of healthcare for those unable to pay, and the way that most ordinary people had been brainwashed to regard this situation as desirable. After completing his PhD he moved on to a Research Fellowship in the same department, developing computer-assisted learning for engineering undergraduates.
In 1978 Gordon was appointed to the role of Lecturer in the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol, being promoted to Senior Lecturer a decade later. He was one of the first to introduce electronic notes and multi-media presentation to large-class teaching, in an era where chalk and talk prevailed. He will be remembered by generations of Bristol engineering graduates as the mathematics teacher who was the purveyor of Mars bars, employed as a form of subtle bribery to incentivise students to ask questions. A serious and sensible question earned the questioner a Mars bar.
Departments of Engineering Mathematics were rare but not unknown in UK Universities in the 1970s. Gordon’s appointment came soon after the launch of a specialist degree programme in the subject at Bristol. For those students he introduced a novel teaching module in computational fluid mechanics using microcomputers, one of the first of its kind anywhere. During the 1980s and 90s every other UK Engineering Mathematics Department was closed or merged either with Mathematics or Engineering. The fact that Bristol’s Engineering Mathematics department thrives today, in both teaching and research, is testament in many ways to Gordon’s teaching, scholarship and citizenship. He was well loved by colleagues from across the Engineering Faculty. A common story emerging is how he was a help and support to younger colleagues, both professionally and personally, for which informal role he sought neither reward nor recognition.
In 1989 he took on a part time role as Head of Academic Staff Development at Bristol. It is hard to imagine that what is now a large part of the HR function of any modern University was only that recently seen as something to be managed by a half-time Senior Lecturer supported by a part-time secretary. Gordon was passionate about providing whatever was necessary for his academic colleagues across the University to thrive. Gordon contributed to University life in other innumerable ways, for example on Senate, Council and as Director of Undergraduate Studies in Engineering. He was a member of so many committees and working parties that he kept on his shelves a row of red plastic briefcases, which he would refer to as his “red boxes”, to carry the papers for each one.
Gordon married Nesta Jones in 1967. They met through their involvement in the Fabian Society and married at the end of 1967. Nesta was the daughter of ‘the Welsh psychoanalyst’ Ernest Jones; lieutenant, close colleague and biographer to Sigmund Freud. She had worked as an actress and then as a social worker. Not wishing to be seen as anything other than a proper father, upon their marriage Gordon insisted that he should adopt her son David. Together Nesta and Gordon also had two daughters Helen and Miriam (Mim). Gordon was a devoted family man, and was immensely proud of his children. David is a policy expert funded by the Independent Social
Research Foundation, with a connection to Lancaster University. Mim is a teacher of French and German and lives in Bath with her husband Nick and three young sons. Helen became an academic lawyer described as the “best in her generation in family law” latterly at the London School of Economics. She died last year at the age of 48, leaving a husband John and two children.
After Gordon took up his post at Bristol, the family bought a house in Berkeley Gloucestershire which was widely used by the local labour party in various elections. Their aesthetic country existence was sadly not to last, ended by Nesta’s premature death from cancer. Lacking the reason to live so far from the city, the family moved to Bristol, eventually buying a house on St Michael’s Hill, just round the corner from the University, which became Gordon’s home for more than 30 years. Many will remember fondly the legendary parties held every year on Gordon’s birthday. These were an opportunity for friends, family and colleagues to catch up, to discuss one of his many interests – in music, literature and the arts – or to put the world to rights late into the night, over all four storeys of the townhouse. He was a bon viveur, a lover of fine food and wine, although never ostentatious.
Gordon combined his lifelong interest in computers and politics to become an election forecaster, a practice which he claimed he started in the 1950s. He once explained he thought about the electoral system as an engineer would, seeking to establish the processes that were at work in translating inputs (voting intentions of people in different parliamentary seats) into the eventual output, the composition of parliament. As every engineer knows, once you have some idea of what the process is, you can model it mathematically and then seek data so that you can run the model. He contrasted this with the prevailing method of the `swingometer’ which he saw as being all data and no model – something that failed to produce realistic results as soon as a third political party was on the scene. As input data he often used opinion polls published on the day the election was called, believing that most voters make up their minds before canvassing begins. His predictions were usually more accurate than those of professional pollsters, which led to numerous interviews and coverage in the press. Indeed, he provided election forecasts for the Bristol Evening Post from the 1980s right up to the 2015 general election. For many years at each general election he would broadcast through the night on BBC radio Bristol as the results came in. His family can recall being downhearted after a long night and yet another Tory victory, yet finding an elated Gordon returning from the studio, raising both fists while exclaiming “I got it right!” He never failed to see the bright side of life.
After Nesta’s untimely death Gordon sought solace once more in international travel, both alone, and with the girls. He travelled extensively in Europe, and to Israel, China, India, and later especially to Malaysia. Gordon’s style was to travel with nearly zero luggage, using night journeys to sleep, or set his sleeping bag under a hedge. That mode of travel changed in later life, as his mobility became more problematic, but he never lost his wanderlust.
During those travels Gordon met Kim Lee and the two entered into a civil partnership in 2006. They were devoted to each other, and as Gordon’s mobility declined, Kim became his full time carer and companion. In 2015 the decision was made to leave Bristol to move to central London, which gave both of them easier access to the varied and cosmopolitan social life they enjoyed.
Gordon had the rare accolade of being one of the few individuals to have lost and relearned the power of speech not just once, but three times in his life. As a student, he developed a meningioma that was successfully removed. After surgery he could not speak English, his main language. His father tried German, which Gordon could understand and speak, before English returned. The second time this happened was in 1999 after he suffered a severe brain trauma falling from a chateau wall in Saumur, France. After a number of weeks, he was airlifted to Frenchay hospital in Bristol. It was clear to his friends and family that he understood everything but could say nothing. Speech and languages returned during recovery, although curiously for a long time he forgot the concept of the number seven. The third time was in 2004 when he was hospitalised with Meningitis that left him in a coma for several weeks. Again speech eventually fully returned.
Following his return to health from the brain injury he resumed teaching, but found this somewhat troublesome. Instead, he was offered and accepted the role of Bristol University branch secretary of the Association of University Teachers, within which organisation he was already very active. His style was not one of megaphone diplomacy, nor to escalate disputes, but rather to share humanity with whoever felt aggrieved and needed support and to seek amicable resolution wherever possible. He was able to form meaningful working relations with colleagues from all creeds and political persuasions. Liz Bird and Steve Wharton, his longtime colleagues within the AUT at Bristol, remember a great friend and comrade who was also a leading light at the social events associated with the national AUT council meetings.
In many respects Gordon was a maverick. Not an angry firebrand, but a kind man who lived his beliefs through his tireless efforts to improve the lot of his fellow humans. Despite the many setbacks that life had brought him, he never showed any signs of bitterness or self-pity. His natural generosity and philanthropy touched the lives of almost all he came into contact with. His friends and family will remember his cheeky grin and boyish sense of fun. This stayed with him to the last; as witnessed by his hair-raising exploits on the small electric mobility scooter on which he could be seen navigating the streets of Bristol and latterly London.
Gordon is survived by Kim, Mim, David, Nick and John and his 6 grandchildren. His funeral will be held at Kensal Green Crematorium, in London at 11.15am on Friday 24th February, and the family have invited all who knew Gordon to join them afterwards at The Mason Arms on the Harrow Road. They have also requested no flowers, but that those who would like to should make a donation to Amnesty International.