When I heard last weekend that Sidney Burrus had died I felt simply heartsick, bogged down with grief. Sid was the person most responsible for me staying at Rice after I graduated. People are often surprised to learn that my first real job here was as a post-doc in the School of Engineering. This odd career trajectory says much more about Sidney than it does about me. His relentless curiosity and willingness to come at things from unexpected angles was one of his defining characteristics and it led him to think that having a historian around the Dean’s office might be of some value. I don’t know if that’s so but he remained always an enthusiastic supporter, friend, and resource. I won’t recite again the facts and figures of his brilliant career (you can find those here and here) but I do want to say a small bit about what he’s meant to Rice, and what Rice meant to him.
It was my great good fortune to be called on to help with the task of emptying his office in Abercrombie, itself about to meet its maker. And as soon as I was in there I began to feel better, rather cheerful again and filled with gratitude that I got to be on the Earth at the same time as Sid. Cleaning out someone’s office is always an education, no matter how well you knew the person, and this was no exception. Delightful discoveries were everywhere. There were drawers full of carefully organized files of his academic work dating back to graduate school, which beautifully revealed the evolution of his scholarly ideas. I also discovered that Sid didn’t read things online. He found things online, then printed them out and read them on paper. This paper was not so carefully organized–it seems to have just collected and the sheer scope of what he read is amazing. Yes, there was engineering and science and technology but also many pieces about the future of the American university, about religion, about social policy of all kinds. I even found some Foucault! And most unusual were his books. In the offices of retired faculty the books tend to be old and outdated, useless but dustily preserved by inertia. Sid’s books, in contrast, were quite current, a reflection of his constantly forward-looking mind.
And yet. There was single shelf’s worth of old volumes. It was there that I came upon something that seems to me very lovely. Because as deep as Sidney’s drive to move forward was even to the end of his life, he always carried something of the old Rice with him. I already knew this, gleaned from conversations over many years. But in this one object I found a tangible demonstration of the ties of respect and love that have been shared by successive generations of Rice students and faculty.
It was this book, published in 1960 by Paul Pfeiffer, ’38, who was one of Sid’s teachers here:
Inside, this note. Sidney Burrus, ’57, ’58, ’60 had only just graduated when it was written:
Then I turned the page once more to discover that Pfeiffer had dedicated the book to James Waters, ’17, professor of electrical engineering, who had been Paul Pfeiffer’s own teacher at Rice:
Sid Burrus, rest in peace.