In Memoriam: Norman Bilow PhD

Posted: December 23, 2020 in Essay, Family, Memories and Tributes
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The Clouded Mirror of Memory

A couple of decades ago, I wrote a poem called “Memory” that was published in 2013 in my book “The New Poetics of Isolation“. It was a poem about repressed memories and memories of actions that could have had different consequences. One particular stanza was about my father:

“I summon memory / and pause upon the pathway / leading to the rear edifice / within which father’s / chemistry was taught / with plastic molecular models. / A retrograde reality / where polymers build atoms; / not vice-versa”

That was a play on the fact that the model atoms were made of plastic. (Hey! I never said I was going to be a great poet… just a poet.)

That poem ended by saying:

I could have / learned much / had my ego / not prohibited / my assumption / of apprenticeship.

This poem did not speak only of my father. But, with his recent passing, I have come to view it with greater clarity. I missed so many, many opportunities to learn from him. I don’t think it was my ego alone that got in the way. I think it was the clashing of both of our egos. Still, one does not have control over others and must, thus, be satisfied with finding and acting with the best within ourselves. That means taking responsibility and that is why I put this on myself.

Brilliance in Context

Dad was a brilliant guy and had he tried to talk to me in the context of things I was interested in – cooking, the creatine / glycogen cycle during my weightlifting workouts, etc. – I would have been damn interested. I was not taken by polyimides and heat shields, and wire coatings and that’s on him. But, I own the responsibility because I could have done something too. Like:

“hey, dad, why do I always want to eat so much after being around all those people taking bong hits in the Toys-R-Us parking lot on Saturday night? No, dad, it must be from secondhand smoke.”

Joking aside, I could have pivoted to my interests and asked him questions in my context. I didn’t and now I regret that.

Here’s why I say dad was a brilliant guy:

A CV in Plastics

My father received his BS in Chemistry in 1949 from Rosevelt University in Chicago. He went on to the University of Chicago where he earned an MS in 1952 and his PhD in 1956. He authored countless papers and, by the end of his career has amassed over 100 patents, all in Polymer Chemistry and primarily in High Temperature Polyimides. These plastics formed the foundation for electrical insulations, lubricants, ablative materials, and polyphenylenes. In the vacuum of space, many materials outgas and can be damaged by the recondensation of volatilized gases. These plastics were able to avoid failing in these environments. Perhaps the best known applications for we non-chemists would be as conformal coatings used in aerospace applications such as to protect electronic devices and wiring from the intense heat of spacecraft reentry.

My father was pretty self-absorbed with his career. We kids, could say “dad…. dad…. DAD!!…” and he would not even answer. But to get his attention we need only whisper, “hey… Doctor Bilow’…” and BOOM! we got his attention. When I think about how odd that sounds, I also think about how committed he was to caring for his family. He worked so hard so he could put us through college, help his brothers, care for his mother, and raise a family on one of those 1960s single incomes. Doctor Bilow committed himself to his career for all of us, even when it did not always seems that way when he was at Moffit Field, or chairing a Sigma Xi conference. Think about it…

When dad decided to become a chemist nearly 75 years ago, polymers were in their infancy so he began his career at Dow Chemical Company developing polypropylene. At that time, anyone who was a bit creative could come up with projects which they believed warranted development and products which they would like to see invented. He, thus, went on to spend 25 years at Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, CA where he led laboratories in Polymer, Physical, and Analytical Chemistry and served as Senior Scientist for the Advanced Materials Lab.

The position that dad held at Hughes was largely the result of the space race. The USAF and NASA requested proposals to develop polymeric materials which could char efficiently but still retain physical integrity. These government organizations anticipated developing spacecraft which could enter the earth’s atmosphere at high reentry temperatures and this required high-char plastics to maintain structural integrity. Dad was at Hughes and his team submitted a winning proposal. That led to a lifetime of these materials (and, frankly, the possibility for a space program from which vehicles and humans could safely return!).

Family Matters

That use of my father’s brain-power is what allowed him to purchase a home in the San Fernando Valley, to support the Jewish Community, to get us through our B’nai Mitzvah and weddings, and to send his electronic-musician / photographer / mediocre scholar son to CalArts – a world class private art institution while simultaneously helping my sister through UCSD. His work was for him and, as a teenager and young adult, it seemed like that was the end of the story. But, as a 60 year old who has been nowhere as successful as he, my “old curmudgeon” perspective is very different. I’m now 5 years older than dad was when he first retired and I’m not close. He had a whole second career ahead of him though.

At 55, dad retired from Hughes and joined Furane Products Co. as director of R. & D. At Furane he got to experience what I experienced through my years at Grass Valley, corporate mergers and acquisitions. After a merger with Rohm & Haas, dad became manager of research, and, a couple of years later, Ciba-Geigy bought Furane so he ultimately retired again; this time from Ciba-Geigy. Of course, in the spirit of good old American M&A, the company was by now part of Novartis. At Furane dad dealt primarily with polyurethane foaming processes. This is a far cry from the space program but his work ultimately led to another amazing change in the world – an entirely new mattress market. From space to bed, that’s my dad!

In the Community

There is another thing I think a lot about now-a-days. That is my early involvement in ACM OOPSLA conferences, my book review editorship and columnist position at several computer magazines, and even the involvement I have with the SMPTE Journal Board of Editors and my ACM volunteerism. That came from Doctor Bilow, too.

Dad was also an active part of the research community. He was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, a member of the American Chemical Society, and a Fellow of the American Institute of Chemists. In both 1970 and 1974 he was presented with the Industrial Research Magazine IR-100 Award, first for his work with wire insulations and second for a family of thermosetting, high-temperature, addition curable polyimides. Dad also had the high honor to serve as President of Sigma XI and to receive Hughes Aircraft Company’s coveted Lawrence A. Hyland Award. He was no stranger to awards!

Hidden Influences

I ask myself, often, why a PhD Polymer Chemist would support his son in getting a degree in Electronic Music Composition at an expensive Art School when he knew the power of the sciences and the difficulty of the arts. Well, he and I had vastly different tastes, but he loved the arts. He loved paintings (not what I liked) and classical music (which I adored even while going to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Grateful Dead concerts.) And he LOVED to DANCE (he danced, I watched Twyla Tharp and Bella Lewitzky, and got certified as a teacher of “Movement Expression” – so, again, we differed but he led the way). And…. man…. he could dance!

Doctor Dance

Those of you who knew my father well will know this, but most people will not. Dad was a marvelous ballroom dancer. He and my mother were extraordinary on the dance floor. Even as a hand drummer I could not count as well as my dad did when even casually waltzing (God…. I just this second realized that this may well be why I am addicted to Leonard Cohen’s “Take this Waltz”!!!)

Mom and dad were both proud of this and well into his 80s dad’s “dance card” was full up at the Burbank Senior Center. As they aged mom because the greeter at the senior center door while dad danced up a storm with all the “young” ladies. Once in a while, while visiting LA, I would join them but I was generally too self-conscious to dance with or around them. To me, it was like singing in a karaoke contest with Placido Domingo. I could not do it but it sure made me proud and it sure made me happy to see them smile. They were much more stylish than the folks I hung out with at “Dance Home” above the Radio Shack in Santa Monica.

Endnotes

I want to close with some thoughts I should have opened with:

  1. My father used to sit in Norm’s Restaurant, time and again, while I was as Cedar Sinai Medical Center having my many regularly scheduled esophagus dilations. His worrying gave him an ulcer but never did he complain. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  2. My father used to bring home dry ice and liquid nitrogen to use at our Cub Scout meeting so that we could freeze hot dogs and smash them with a hammer. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  3. My father helped me adapt our bathroom so that I could use it as a darkroom with my first Kodak enlarger sitting on the toilet, when I was 12. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  4. My father helped me convert the storage closet beneath our stairs into a darkroom so that Jeff Brown and I could process our rock concert photographs. And he pretended to believe I only inhaled second-had smoke out back. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  5. My father drove to Valencia to attend every one of my CalArts composer’s concerts, family in tow, to support me even though he could not understand why he was paying soo much money for me to write music that he had to sit in the dark to listen to on an Ampex Quad Machine through giant JBL Speakers. Dr. Bilow… I love you.
  6. I never demonstrated this very well, certainly not as well as my siblings, but I want to tell you something. Dr. Bilow… I love you.

As my wife said when her father passed away “I’m an orphan now”. In it’s own funky way, that’s true. But I will say that, perhaps because of that, I realize more now than ever what a blessing it was to be the son of the son of Russian immigrant who made good, went to a university I could only dream of, helped put humans in space, supported his family so well, and set me on a solid course for my own journey.

Dr. Bilow… I love you.

Dr. Bilow… I miss you!

All the rest is commentary.

z”l

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