One of my favorite obituaries that remains firm in my mind was that of Maureen O’Donnell. She passed away in Annandale, Virginia on February 20, 1989 at the young age of 58 of cancer. She had suffered greatly in life – losing 4 of her 6 children to cystic fibrosis. But that did not stop her. She only channeled her love to her students at W.T. Woodson High School where she taught Latin. She was viewed as both a mother and teacher by her students.
She was remembered as a “small woman infused with boundless energy, [who] built one of the nation's strongest high school Latin programs from scratch, inspiring hundreds of students not only to study a "dead" language but to revere such traits as honor, compassion and understanding.” She was awarded with an honorary doctorate by Yale and as Virginia Teacher of the Year in 1982 for the program she created.
But the thing that stood out most about Mary in my mind and has stuck with me since reading her obituary is something she would write on the blackboard as soon as she walked into a classroom – “Quid ad aeternum?” She would use the expression to help students put their woes into perspective. Roughly translated it means, "what does it matter in eternity?"
She obviously had done that in her own personally tragic life. But the Latin quote, would not just comfort, but also inspire. I have always had it floating around in my head translated as: “How will my life stand up in the light of eternity?” Thanks Mrs. O’Donnell.
Today I read an obituary in the Wall Street Journal about Charles Kao. He was a refugee during the Chinese Communist revolution in 1948 as his parents fled the mainland for Hong Kong. Two of his young siblings died of measles. Hong Kong was then under British rule and Kao eventually sailed for England where he attended Woolwich Polytechnic and University College London.
He eventually began working for a British subsidiary of International Telephone and Telegraph. He studied the potential of light beams to carry data. He focused on transmitting light signals through glass. The initial challenge was that impurity of glass prevented transmission beyond a few feet.
Dr. Kao determined exactly how pure glass would have to be to create a viable light transmission path. He then set out to prove this. The result was fiber optic cable capable of transmitting massive amounts of data that humanity now relies upon. Wow. Thank you Dr. Kao.
Reportedly, the key to Dr. Kao’s success was his question. “He asked, what was possible to do, not what had been done.” That statement sparked in my mind the eulogy Senator Ted Kennedy gave at his brother Robert’s funeral when he said his brother was fond of saying, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”
Mrs. Sullivan and Dr. Kao created something from nothing. They changed lives and the world.
Quid ad aeternum