“Above all else…” Reflecting on the gifts of Richard I. Cook

Richard I. Cook

Sometimes, people come into your life and – through a rare blend of qualities – support you through the challenges and struggles in a way that few can. Richard Cook has been such a presence in my life. As per the obituary written recently by his colleagues and friends David Woods, John Allspaw and Michael O’Connor, “Richard died peacefully at home on August 31, 2022 in the loving care of his wife Karen and his family”.

Richard was a polymath, and I knew him as a safety scientist, physician (anaesthesiologist), and engineer of many kinds (human factors engineer, safety engineer, software engineer, resilience engineer, cognitive systems engineer). But his roles extended beyond that and were unconstrained by any job title. His interdisciplinary approach inspired my own approach and, working in the field of system safety and human factors specifically, one cannot help but come across Richard’s work, often in collaboration with other esteemed colleagues. His work has had a great impact on me, as it has on others, and it was something of an honour to republish his renowned short treatise ‘How complex systems fail’ in HindSight magazine Issue 31 in December 2020.

His recorded work, as detailed in the obituary, is that of several accomplished lifetimes. What is unrecorded is the help that he provided to so many people. I am but one of thousands whose lives have been improved in a very real way by Richard’s support. For some, this was via his care, as a physician. For others, it was via his support on professional matters, as a colleague. And for others, it was via his help on a more personal nature, as a friend.

Since I met Richard, he supported me (and my children) through multiple diagnoses, procedures and operations (one of which went wrong, taking us back to ‘how complex systems fail’). When Richard would get a whiff of something amiss (he seemed to have a sixth sense for this), he’d get in touch. On one occasion he replied to a concern about an upcoming operation on my daughter with an 18 paragraph email, followed by further emails with helpful information and advice, not simply medical, but on how children and parents often think, feel and communicate about operations and medical procedures. He’d often request that we catch up on the phone. I can think of no other person so giving of their time.

Richard had an air of ‘the country doctor you wish you’d had throughout your life’. And while he wasn’t acting as my doctor, he blended mind-boggling understanding of biology, medicine and surgery with a human gift for listening, compassion and humour.

Richard also enjoyed reading my youngest daughter’s quips and observations on life, which I have recorded since she was young. He became a fan of her neurodiverse remarks on the world, in the style of a young Dorothy Parker or Fran Lebowitz. (He would sometimes email out of the blue about one that he’d seen in twitter or read in one of the unpublished compendiums that he has read from her with his remark in capitals, e.g.: “‘I’d hate to be a turkey. Every year you lose someone from your family. And not because of old age…’ MARVELOUS”).

On reading the obituary to Richard, the last paragraph struck me.

But above all else, he showed all those who have known and worked with him how to be kind and giving of time and attention when it comes to supporting others. His keen (and often hilarious) wit has helped many cope with struggles and challenges of all shapes and sizes.

This brings me to two virtues described in The Road to Character by David Brooks,

“The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy values are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

Richard’s ‘résumé virtues’ are evidenced in his work – both as-done at the time and as-recorded in reports, papers and talks (expertly summarised in the obituary). (He wasn’t taken in by the troubling trend to self-promote and advertise each minor accomplishment on LinkedIn on a daily basis, and would probably have a few choice words about this phenomenon.)

Richard’s ‘eulogy virtues’ have been felt in millions of moments, messages, conversations, and relationships – impossible to compile – dispersed over time among thousands of people. I was struck by the number of people who attested publicly to the personal support Richard had provided to them, to the time he gave – gifts freely given.

The final paragraph of the obituary (“But above all else…”) summarised perfectly and concisely some of Richard’s ‘eulogy virtues’. On reading this, I reflected on the inevitability of each of our deaths and some of the issues and questions raised during those final pages. All of this brought to mind a song that I found in the last few weeks, with a title that can be found in the first sentence of that final paragraph. The song is “Above all else, be kind”, released in 2020 by the artist Fran O’Hanlon, known as AJIMAL.

AJIMAL is an musician from Newcastle, England, who – like Richard – also happens to be a doctor. “Fran O’Hanlon acquired the name AJIMAL in the aftermath of being caught up in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Whilst working at a field hospital during his medical studies, he found himself in the presence of an infamous former voodoo priest, from whom he would later derive the moniker.” Fran is a palliative care doctor, and so specialises in reducing people’s physical and psychological pain, and helping people to improving their life experience generally, as they reach the end of their life. It was somehow an uncanny coincidence to me to find – after Richard’s death – that a song that was brought to mind by the words of an obituary to Richard was also written by a doctor – a palliative care doctor.

I was thinking of Richard and sent a tweet with the song title and a link to it. AJIMAL (Fran) responded and what happened next was even more remarkable. He noticed that I also retweeted a tweet by David Woods linking to the tribute.

AJIMAL (Fran) responded:

Richard can be seen talking about his time in Haiti here (part 1) and here (part 2).

It turned out that a song that I tweeted in Richard’s memory was written by a musician who not only happens also to be a doctor, but who happened to work alongside Richard at the field hospital at Fond Parisianwhen after earthquake hit, as a medical student on a sabbatical year. In our exchanges since, Fran said of Richard, “Of the many people I met there, he stuck so clearly in my mind. Incredibly humble and caring with a wry sense of humour.” He described Richard as “such a wonderful, kind and funny man...he clearly inspired others with his humour and compassion.”

Out of the millions of artists on streaming services, the one I chose happened to know Richard, and felt the same way as so many of us. I don’t have any special supernatural beliefs, but sometimes the world works in ways too mysterious and wonderful to comprehend.

Before Richard died, I sent him a card that I don’t think made it across the pond in time. But I think he knew that he was loved, by more than can be counted, not only for his brilliant mind, but for his warm heart.

AJIMAL – Above All Else, Be Kind (Official Video)

Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

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