Eulogy for Dr Alan Reece, ISTVS Founding President

By Randall Flack, DC&PA, Otterburn. 15 January 2013

A memorial service was held in January for the North East engineer Dr Alan Reece. Over two hundred family, friends, and colleagues from the worlds of academia and engineering were there to pay their respects and celebrate his life and achievements.

Founder Member of the Otterburn Society and Technical Director of Pearson Engineering Ltd., Mr Randall Flack delivered a eulogy at Close House. This is Randall Flack’s tribute to his mentor and friend.


Well then, what can I say about Alan . . .

Alan Reece has variously been described, for example, in the words of his great friend Jo Wong, as a gifted educator, innovative researcher, prolific inventor, pioneering entrepreneur, and generous philanthropist. He is that, and more.

I think it fair to say that in life he was a remarkable man, a man who touched the lives of every one of us in one sense or another. I have had the pleasure of knowing Alan for a continuous period of over 34 years firstly as an Agricultural Engineering student of his, briefly as a researcher, as one of his first employees at SMD, yes even before John, then, for the past 27 years, Chief Engineer and Technical Director of Pearson Engineering.

So who is Alan Reece?

Well, in short, the Alan I know was a man with, quite simply, an enquiring mind. A man with a childlike curiosity for all things around him. He was a man not prepared to accept things as they were, unless he observed them himself. That often meant “Hands on” and “Hands dirty,” sometimes resulting in him being talked about as a “mad professor.” Jumping into the sea or a mud pit to see first-hand what was going on with a plough, to understand, to learn, it was simply his way of going about the process of discovery. He is a man who always had to find out “why” and always had to find out “how.”

Indeed, the process of getting “stuck in” is one he enjoyed. The thrill of combining curiosity with being tossed around in the surf and wallowing around in mud rather summed up the man. An unusual combination some might say. But why? What made him tick?

In research, in academia, in business, and in life that great mind was always asking, “Hey, what’s that over there? Let’s go and find out!” Indeed, that same curiosity, that desire to discover, was probably most evident in his love of the outdoors, mountaineering, and skiing.

It’s said that mountaineering, for example, is as much as intellectual challenge as it is a physical one. You look at the problem, you break it down, you think, you plan, you act, and at all times you know where you want to get to although the objective might not be visible at the time. The path is often narrow, the risks are evident, disaster is never too far away, unprepared and lessor souls are often put off. But in life Alan had an inner belief that challenges were there to be overcome and he had the determination to get there, to succeed. We usually got to the top; we dwelled a little but were soon on our way down planning the next adventure. So much of that same approach was as work in all that he did. Here was a man undaunted by complexity. A man blessed with intellect to break things down into simpler things, things that the rest of us could understand, to analyse, to challenge, to change, and to reassemble into something better and perhaps different. How often have I sat in his camper van at the foot of a Scottish Monroe in the wind and the rain, looking at a map, figuring out how to get to a point somewhere out there in the mist, or how often has he set out to design a new machine, to innovate, to do what one else done while not quite knowing the location of the final outcome. In work and in leisure Alan loved those journeys of discovery.

But there was more. I oversimplify. Alan was way more complex than that. Oh yes.

What made Alan one of a kind was that intertwined amongst his curiosity, that burning desire to explore, to question, to challenge; was his unsuppressible need to communicate what he learned to those around him. He had an irrepressible need to share. He would delight in telling us how he had found a better way. In short, not only was he an extraordinary intellectual, he had the gift of being an extraordinary communicator.

And what better way to communicate than to teach. What better means of satisfying that need than being an educator. I had the privilege of being one of his students. When it was time for our Ag Eng 2 lecture, we all knew we were in for a treat and a bumpy ride. All his coursework was in the form of hand written notes; there wasn’t any sign of any text books. Oh dear, the University must of thought. He told it as he saw it, and we loved it. Indeed, that love of life and that enquiring mind was evident every time and during every minute. This was despite his tendency to intertwine fact with fiction.

Engineering principles were explained by reference to what he was doing at the time, be it relevant or not. Explanations were usually accompanied by a lot of jumping around, wild hand gestures, and the frequent use of the work “CHRIST!” After the lesson was over, you often wondered what had you learned. Afterwards you had to go back and look at his hand-outs and figure what it was all about, but above all he enthused us, he made it relevant, and he made us able to figure out what it was we were supposed to know. He taught us an approach, held together by a loose collection of facts. We did well — we got it. Indeed, I can think of no better way of being prepared of the complexities of business life, being prepared for the real world than those Ag Eng 2 lectures all those years ago.

University was perfect for Alan. He needed us. He thrived on the energy of youth. He told us what he thought, we listened. He had us for an hour, twice a week. We couldn’t fail to be touched by his enthusiasm. Yes, he needed us as much as we needed him.

That ability to communicate, to persuade, was not only key in the classroom, it was key to his success in business life. That ability to persuade made him a natural salesman and sometime dare I say it showman. That gift, coupled with an understanding of the world around him, particularly in the engineering domain, and his increasingly outrageous enthusiasm, won him many friends and some enemies. Yes. He could be loved and feared in equal measure. He didn’t do “in-between.” In business life, this sometimes boisterous approach served him well with, for example, the offshore community. They saw someone who could articulate their problems when they sometimes couldn’t, and as a result they were able to trust his ability to deliver a solution. Of course, the offshore community and Alan’s style was a good fit. They were always in a hurry, they were both prepared to take risks (at least back then), but more than that, they were men who trusted their instinct. He gave them that “belief,” in the same way he had given us “belief” in those Ag Eng 2 lectures.

Alan’s approach however was not without its flaws. He sometimes had and unfortunate tendency to “invent the solution” and to “invent the facts to suit.” This often led to uneasy relationships with those around him, particularly with those who were perhaps more rigorous in their approach. There were often casualties along the way. But that is perhaps the price to pay for having a genius in our midst.

Of course, he could not have achieved what he did alone. Be it not for me to say but he had an uncanny ability to surround himself with some truly outstanding individuals. You know who you are, and I include Simon, John, and Anne in that, who in their own different ways share more of what Alan’s about than perhaps they realise, or indeed they are prepared to admit.

In the early days of his business life, we all used to go on ski holiday together, yes the whole company. We worked hard and played hard. There was nothing we couldn’t do. We also used to go to Scotland to walk, climb, and ski. Alan knew it was fun. He wanted to share that with us. He was generous like that, very unselfish. I used to travel with him a lot. Perhaps, he saw in me someone that was discovering life in the same way that did. Was it that same sense of awe and wonderment that defined a relationship that endured for over 34 years? Frankly, it’s hard to tell.

In his later years, finding that audience to whom he could perform became increasingly difficult. In typical “Alan style,” he changed tack. He, for example, created our “Design Team” that took our best engineers and recreated that “classroom effect” whereby he could again express himself through the vitality of a young and receptive of pool of the very best. Through his vision and leadership they achieved and continue to achieve much of what he felt needed done. He channelled his energy, his desire to solve problems through them.

Perhaps the same could be said of his philanthropy. He wanted to try and make a difference to a wider community. He was able to find “new money” friends able to give him what he needed. That said, his philanthropy was not without purpose. He genuinely wanted to make a difference in areas that were dear to him, in education, engineering, and in manufacturing. But perhaps he also learned that there were limits to what he could achieve, that the forces at play in the “Political world” were never easily going fit into “Alan’s world.” Nonetheless, his philanthropy remains a tangible and important legacy that I am sure will benefit many over the coming years.

So what should we make of it all? Was this the essence of the man? It has been said that the same question was put to Alan himself. Why do you do it? Some of you know the story. He thought a little, and in a way only he could respond, he said, “it must be the 3Ps, ‘Pride, Pleasure, and Profit.’” But then he paused and said something remarkable, “you know, I suppose without the Profit there isn’t much Pride and there isn’t much Pleasure.” He realised then that what he had to do is what many entrepreneurs fail to do. He had to go about the business of producing a solution in a way in which he could take pride, to do it in a way that was pleasurable, and to do it in a way that was business-like in order to make it endure.

And what of the “old money” like me. What of the currency of curiosity, of asking why, of figuring it out and doing it better, and what about the currency of communication? Is this his true legacy? Is this what stays in the memory? Is this; are we, his enduring legacy? I’ll let you figure that out.

You know, it was ironic that I was skiing with my family when I heard that Alan had died. We were in Leysin in Des Alps Vandoises. Just across the valley from Villars where Alan first taught me to ski. Whizzing along, mostly out of control, trying to avoid disaster, yet somehow arriving in one piece at the end, breathless, grin on face. This is an approach I credit to him and one I have tried to emulate in business, and in life, ever since.

So there you have it. A man whose legacy only you can decide.

For me, I pay tribute to Alan, to what he has taught me.

He was our teacher, my teacher.

He was our friend, my friend.

Thank you.

Alan Reece at the controls of a digger during the construction of The Alan Reece Building in 2009 at the University of Cambridge, Institute for Manufacturing.

Alan Reece at the controls of a digger during the construction of The Alan Reece Building in 2009 at the University of Cambridge, Institute for Manufacturing.

The Journal of Terramechanics also published an announcement of the passing of Dr Reece, written by Dr Jo Wong and Dr Daniel Hettiaratchi. Download a copy here (pdf).