Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dr. Douglas Kirby, Rest in Peace, Dear Friend

My dear friend and colleague Dr. Doug Kirby died last weekend at the age of 69 while hiking a mountain in Ecuador.  According to his guide, he stopped for a drink of water, looked out at the moonlit landscape, said, "Isn't life great!", clutched his chest and died instantaneously.  The autopsy said it was a heart attack and stroke. 

Doug was a giant in the sexual and reproductive health field.  He did the first national study of sexuality education in the late 70's and the first national evaluation of school based clinics in the 1980's.  In 1988, he moved to California to become the director of research at ETR Associates, where he was working until his death.  He was one of the hardest working people I know.  We often talked about his cutting back: in our last conversation, he said, "I'm just accepting it's genetic. I'm never going to stop working this hard." 

Doug's impact on the world is enormous.  His evaluations led him to created the characteristics of effective sexuality and HIV prevention programs.  His monographs No Easy Answers and later No Emerging Answers taught us all what was effective prevention and which programs work and he taught us all how to use new logic models to improve our work.  His work formed the basis for the national programs list that is funded by the federal government.  In the past decade, he began his international work, completing the evaluation of AIDS prevention programs in Uganda, and working with the World Health Organization, UNESCO, USAID, and UNFPA on improving programs around the world.  He spoke to the House of Lords in London, Presidential Commissions, the ministers of health from around Latin America...and even more. 

He and I first worked together at the Center for Population Options (now Advocates for Youth) from 1984 to 1988.  He was the Director of Research, I was the Director of Education.  I referred to him as my "office husband"; we had lunch together nearly every day when we were both in town.  I think we must have had a thousand slices of pizza together.  We didn't always agree and we had long long discussions about the impact of some of his findings on advocacy.  He was a steadfast researcher with an unswerving commitment to data, and no one was happier than he when he finally found sexuality education programs that did change contraceptive behaviors and the research that allowed him to say that existing abstinence only programs did not.  I had wanted him to say so earlier; he would not. 

We moved from CPO at about the same time, I to New York to be the head of SIECUS, Doug to Aptos, California.  Fortunately, we were often at the same conferences and so continued to have time together.  Doug always made the effort to drive to see me if I was speaking anywhere in California; and we often had meals and shared time together when he was working in New York City.  We explored Cuba and Puerto Rico together.  We shared countless meals where we were the last people at the restaurant as we hungrily caught up on each other's personal and professional lives. 

And we took walks.  Anyone who worked with Doug or was friends with Doug knows the importance of those walks.  Dinners out were less important to Doug, although desserts -- especially chocolate desserts -- were very important.  My husband and I were once with Doug and his dear wife Gail in Puerto Rico and we had spent the day hiking in a rain forest.  We all wanted pina coladas at the beach; Doug had us stop at a Wendy's first so he could have a chocolate milk shake.

Doug introduced me to the Unitarian Universalist church while we were both in Washington.  He encouraged us to come, saying a line I have repeated to so many others, "Try it, but you have to commit to coming twice.  Some weeks aren't as good as others."  He also, as I struggled with my call to ministry, aid to me on one of those beach walks, "Debra, you can start seminary part time.  Just start."  Those two moments changed my life.

Doug was infinitely curious about people and I have been so struck by how many people in the past week have said how close he was to them.  He made people feel special because he was so interested in them.  He always asked questions about people's lives before he turned to the work at hand.  That so many people felt Doug was a close friend surprised me because he never gossipped, he never shared one's confidences.  He was a mensch in the fullest meaning of that word.

Doug's last gift to me was for his 69th birthday.  He told Gail that he wanted to eat chocolate ice cream for this birthday and to send me a generous check for the Religious Institute.  His note to me, that I will forever cherish, said, "We've eaten the ice cream and here is the check."  I cried when I received it; now that card will be his final gift.  We spoke by phone for the last time in early December for a long time:  about our work, about our now grown children, about how excited he was for my daughter's engagement, about his upcoming trip to Ecuador, about our need to make a plan to see each other more in 2013.  I promised I would fly to Washington next time he was there.  We as we did in almost every conversation marveled about the work we are both so privileged to do in the world, and like every conversation we had, said, "I love you" before we hung up.

The world has lost an amazing man.  Gail, Kathryn, and Cameron, have lost their beloved husband and father. 

I read these words this morning by Abraham Joshua Heschel:  "I did not ask for success.  I asked for wonder."  That was Doug.  May you rest in peace, dear friend.  I will hold you in my heart for ever. 

4 comments:

JffryMG said...

I met Doug 15 years ago through a colleague and mentor, Evonne Hedgepeth. We were presenting at the same conference in Seattle. At the time I was talking with Doug about my upcoming move to Berkeley to attend Starr King. We spoke a little about religion and I mentioned that I was interested in Buddhism and Hinduism. He told me to get in contact with him when I moved, so that I could come down, have dinner with him and talk Buddhism. I, sadly, never followed up on that offer.

I began working at ETR a little over a year ago. I met Doug again briefly at a few staff meetings and was excited about the possibility of working with him. Sadly that will not happen now.

I wanted to say hello to you at his service, however I was not able to catch you alone. I just wanted to say thank you for your words at Doug's service, I am sorry for your loss and thank YOU for the amazing work YOU do.

Jeffrey Gould
jeffrey.gould@etr.org

JffryMG said...

I met Doug 15 years ago through a colleague and mentor, Evonne Hedgepeth. We were presenting at the same conference in Seattle. At the time I was talking with Doug about my upcoming move to Berkeley to attend Starr King. We spoke a little about religion and I mentioned that I was interested in Buddhism and Hinduism. He told me to get in contact with him when I moved, so that I could come down, have dinner with him and talk Buddhism. I, sadly, never followed up on that offer.

I began working at ETR a little over a year ago. I met Doug again briefly at a few staff meetings and was excited about the possibility of working with him. Sadly that will not happen now.

I wanted to say hello to you at his service, however I was not able to catch you alone. I just wanted to say thank you for your words at Doug's service, I am sorry for your loss and thank YOU for the amazing work YOU do.

Jeffrey Gould
jeffrey.gould@etr.org

Kathi said...

Thank you, Debra. You have captured the spirit and heart of the Doug we all knew and loved. When we first met Doug & Gail at a party in 1982, he spent most of the evening asking questions about our trip to Nepal. A year or so later, he and Gail traveled to the Jammu and Ladakh regions of India. And he would attribute that decision to his conversations with us. Who knows how much it influenced him, but he was the kind of man who enjoyed shining the light on others.
He and I often chuckled over the business card he used back then - his profession was "Sexologist". Perfectly correct, but certainly not what the average person expected to read! It opened the door to many conversations about a topic that we otherwise would not have given much thought. We knew he was on the right path and delighted in watching our friend's star shine brighter in his field.

Rev. Debra W. Haffner said...

Kathi, I just read about your husband's similar tragic death while mountain climbing. I'm sure Gail Kirby would welcome hearing from you. If you can send me your email at info@religiousinstitute.org I will connect the two of you again.

Rev. Debra