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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Goodbye, Scotty

James Doohan has died, of pneumonia and complications of his Alzheimer's disease, a condition that was made public a little over a year ago.

I met him once, and got to talk to him. Well, I got to ask him a question.

It was at a Star Trek convention at the Irem Temple in Wilkes-Barre about 12 years ago. (Yes, I am exactly that sort of geek.) James Doohan was the guest of honor, and we were at the Q&A session in the big ornate auditorium of the Masonic Hall. Dozens of us held up our hands for the opportunity to have James Doohan trundle his way over to us, wireless mike in hand, and allow us to ask him our question face-to-face.

I raised my hand. I had no idea what question I wanted to ask. I had a vague sense that I should ask about his voice acting work - I've always been a big fan of voice actors, dating back to the first time I heard the Hitchhiker's Guide on the radio. He picked me out of the sea of hands and approached with the microphone.

I stood up and panicked. My question sucked. I was going to waste his time, and the time of everybody else who didn't get picked, with a lame-ass question? Suddenly he was standing in front of me. I opened my mouth, and another question came out.

"Do you have any idea", I said, "how many Engineering degrees you are personally responsible for?"

Dammit. It was a rhetorical question. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He looked angry - I swear he was glaring at me. Then his look softened, and his eyes focused on something distant, and he began his answer.

Once upon a time, he was recommended for an honorary degree by some of the faculty at an engineering school. The president of the college was a no-nonsense kind of guy, and he said no, it was ridiculous to honor an actor who only pretended to be an engineer in such a way when there were many real engineers more deserving of the honor.

The president changed his mind when it was pointed out to him that more than half of the incoming students to the college had indicated "Scotty from Star Trek" as the thing that sparked their interest in engineering.*

Without necessarily knowing anything about engineering, James Doohan was the catalyst for thousands of people to begin careers in engineering. It's a hell of a validation, knowing that a little job you did for a few years had a lasting impact on the world.

James Doohan now seemed pleased with the question, and the audience broke into thunderous applause. He nodded to me, I nodded back. I sat down, and he walked off to take the next question.

I didn't mention that my own college double-major in Physics and Philosophy was in part inspired by a fascination with a certain logical pointy-eared Vulcan crewmate of his.

Goodbye, Scotty.

*This story is also noted on James Doohan's IMDb biography.
"He was given an honorary Degree in Engineering by the Milwaukee School of Engineering where apparently half of the students polled said they were inspired to study engineering by his role in Star Trek."

1 comment:

Betz said...

I have just finished reading a personal e-mail from a friend of mine who was very sad at Scotties passing. She had met him at a Trek convention last year.
Can you send her a copy of this posting Harold? I think it will make her smile. Your story of meeting him etc.
Oh, by the way, Scottie was my fave from TOS. So sad that we can no longer say without a tear..."Beam me up Scottie"