As requested by many in attendance at his memorial service and wake
In Remembrance of Jerry Eugene Pournelle
7 August 1933–8 September 2017
As written and delivered by his daughter Jennifer Pournelle at
St. Vincent de Sales Church, Sherman Oaks, California, September 16, 2017
I have been asked today to say his eulogy. From the Greek, as he would tell us, meaning true words, spoken in praise of the dead. And as the eldest of his children, presumed by age to know the most about his life, that duty falls to me.
But how is it possible to write truth in praise of a master of fiction? How is it possible to eulogize a man who rose to public acclaim while I was mostly away? Away to school, away to the Army, away to university, away to build my own career?
I cannot say truth about the personality—the public figure, known far better to many of you here than to me. I can only do my best to say truth about the person; about the man. About what I know to be true about the son, the husband, the father, the grandfather—and the loyalist of friends, to those fortunate to know him as a friend.
I begin with what we all know of him: his insatiable intellectual appetite. His breadth of subject was literally encyclopedic: as a child, alone on the farm, his parents away working, he entertained himself by reading the Britannica from A to Z. That reading foreshadowed an essential, but surprisingly inobvious, core trait of his character: iron discipline. Not imposed on others, but imposed on himself. The chaos we all observed around him, immortalized in the household epithet “Chaos Manor,” was actually symptomatic: the result of him making everything—absolutely everything—secondary to being done.
He quite openly expressed this sense of discipline about his writing: writing, he often said, was work. It was not difficult: you merely sat in front of a typewriter until beads of blood popped out on your forehead. Yet he did it, time and again: dozens of novels and anthologies authored and co-authored—eight of them bestsellers. Hundreds of columns, delivered weekly, on time, over decades.
But both his joking aphorism and prodigious output belie the other disciplines that lay behind them. First, his disciplined reading. He read voraciously. He read everything, on every subject. His walls at home are literally lined with enough books to fill a small library—and those are only the ones he kept. Thousands more no doubt fill others’ shelves today, donated to book sales or simply given away. And that’s the books: the breadth of periodicals, online and in print, is staggering.
He read to inform himself, and especially to form and inform his own opinions. Which leads us to his second discipline: he was disciplined in debate. He was, at core, a son of the south: where he, and his father, and grandfather, and their and their fathers back unto the foundation of the southeastern colonies were born; where he was born. And southern men of his time believed that expression of intellect demanded mastery of a style of discourse that brooked no prisoners— because, there and then, when discourse failed, violence inevitably ensued.
So, by nature more than a little reclusive, he mastered that style. And honed it. That is, he believed in the art and craft of rhetoric. He held it as a duty to be able to stand tall, in a crowded forum, command attention, sway opinion, and silence opposition. And a good deal of that mastery he learned on the road, because he was incredibly disciplined in travel. By that I mean his endless circuit of lectures, interviews, conventions, book signings, and background research. Despite his being, at heart, a homebody. He loved nowhere better than behind his own desk, in his own office, in his own home—or, failing that, in the home of his closest friends and collaborators. He loved no food better than that cooked on his own stove, or, failing that, in the kitchens of a few local dineries.
So, the frenetic travel, the speaking tours, the holding forth in yet another venue: they were all, for him, service. Duty. Discipline. A requirement of his craft and trade.
And they were also a reflection of his generosity. He was a remarkably generous man: generous with his time, his money, his possessions, and his ideas. As a son, as a husband, as a father, as a friend, and as a member of his (many) communities.
He was generous as a son. He was a Great Depression baby and a World War II latchkey kid, which made him just old enough to leave and fight for his country in Korea. So he never really knew his mother: she was out working her fingers to the bone, struggling to keep the wolf from the door, while his father struggled to craft a depression-proof future in the (then) new commercial radio industry. So, he often felt estranged from his parents, especially from a mother he felt he never saw. Yet, after his own father’s death, and well before he had earned anything like assured prosperity, with his own young sons yet to raise, he took her into his own home, where she lived out her years reclaiming the childhood he missed with her love for his children.
He was generous as a husband. He adored his wife. He loved deeply, and passionately, and never anyone more than her. The parable of the widow’s alms teaches us the truest measure of generosity: when that of which you have the least, you give most freely. So by “generous,” here I do not mean with obvious things like, like gifts and jewelry and public events (though with those too). I mean that, although always awkward as a schoolboy in showing his feelings for her, he did his utmost with what he knew how to do: jokes, and puns, and praise, and respect, and walks, and stalwart support of her career, and four sons.
And especially—and this is most telling—by listening to her, and to her alone. Certainly not always. Probably not often enough. But I do not believe that any other human being on the planet had the capacity to tell him “no” and make it stick. Because of his generous love for her, he listened, and learned how to be a better father, and an outwardly more affectionate one. To say the words out loud. She taught him that the great light of a generous heart need not be hidden beneath a bushel. He listened, and let his generous light shine on her, and everyone around them.
It certainly shined on us, his children. He was generous as a father. OK, let’s start with the obvious. There was never a check he would not roll his eyes, groan, and write. School fees? Of course. Wrecked car? Harrumph. No problem. College expenses? Well, it’s your job to get the best deal you can. It’s my job to pick up the rest. Airplane tickets, tailored mess uniforms, personal sidearms? Here you go. Need a tool, a meal, a book, a computer, a printer, a place to sleep, a bottle of white-out? There’s one here somewhere in the house. Go find it. Help yourself.
But his real generosity was with imagination. He believed in space. He believed in adventure. He believed in deep truths in myth, and deep lessons in legend. He believed in science. He believed in nature. He believed in fun. And he combined them all. Road trips, hiking trips, shooting trips; flights of imagination; cooking (badly), reading (well), brainstorming plot lines, standing up to bluster, figuring out what you need to know, then figuring out who could tell you. He’d pick up a phone in a heartbeat if he thought he could marshal support or make a contact. He’d invite you to dinners across thresholds you’d never otherwise cross—and then always pick up the tab.
And when you finished what you started, or achieved what you’d aimed, or found success in your field, his outpouring of respect was spontaneous and generous—and never seeking to curry your favor. He told everyone else how proud he was; how much respect he had. He seldom told you. For you, he was generous with what he most valued: drive. Achievement. Finding your own way, and your own mind, and (if you wanted to learn them) any skill or opportunity he’d mastered that might be of use to you.
He was similarly generous as a friend and colleague. That is the generosity of which I personally know the least. But over the past three days alone, I have lost count of the number of people who have messaged me—a person they know barely, if at all—to relay their heartfelt gratitude for what he most willingly provided: opportunity. Access. Introductions. Praise for work completed. Respect for early accomplishment.
I can add to that his remarkable financial generosity to people and causes and community. To his church. To the arts, especially the Los Angeles Opera. To battered women’s shelters, and widows & orphans funds, and of course to the greater science fiction community.
Which brings me to a final reflection, shared by one of those among us who is as close as a family member: How was it that a man so liberal with all he had, was so staunchly conservative in his political philosophy? I believe, in my very genetic soul, that this stemmed from his true and deepest belief: that we are all required to rise above adversity, and succeed, and then be generous with our success. And in the true world of his writer’s mind, this was always possible, for he could always imagine a universe in which it could be. And so he wanted us all to rise to that challenge, and having risen, to succeed.
So, from this house of God, in my own father’s name I invite you to go live your own dream. He was more than happy if you wanted to join and share in his. But he was always happiest, and most respectful, when you went and lived your own. Chin up, and soldier on.