Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Alex Tung's Memorial Service

Updated 5/23/2010 with David's speech.
As I said before, the day was beautiful. The sun was shining through lightly cloudy skies, the usual strong coastal wind was a comfortable breeze, and the roaring ocean was only a murmur.

Alex loved being outside in nature and we were able to find a great location in Half Moon Bay. The first day we saw it, the weather was stormy and gray, but the next time it was bright sunshine and hot. We just had to hope that the weather would be okay on Sunday.

A view of the bluff where the service was held, taken from an adjacent bluff.

People had already started gathering on the ocean bluff point by 10:30am last Sunday.

A picture of Alex was set up so that the people would look at him and the speaker with the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

People continued to gather, laid down their blankets, and consoled each other as best they could.

Friends continued to stream in and sign the guest book and tried to provide words of comfort to Alex’s grieving mother and sister.

Shortly after 11:00 over 200 friends and family members, some of them from far away - East coast, Europe, Hawaii, Taiwan, New Mexico, etc. were asked to take their seats for the service to begin. We knew that many more people were unable to be with us in person, but attended in spirit.

Before continuing on, please start the music playlist below. The songs are the three selections sung and played by friends of Alex during the service.

Angel was the first to speak and officiated the memorial service. After him, family and friends who covered Alex’s entire life came up to speak. The text of their speech is included below, but I have left out all of the breaks for tears and trembling voices. Each speaker spoke from their heart, and told of his or her love for Alex. He touched so many lives and is deeply missed.

The following is the speech by Angel, Alex’s undergraduate advisor.

“Dear Family and friends of Alex:

Today is a truly unique day in our lives. All of our paths cross together at this place and time. The spirit, the memory, and the life of Alex brings us all together, his body having already followed his will that it be donated for research to benefit others. We come here with sadness in our hearts, we come with a higher appreciation of life itself, we come with the joy of times past, and with the regrets of opportunities missed. Some of us, who were older than him and who ignored the futility of making life plans may even come here with a little bit of anger; anger at life itself because with Alex, life did not respect the natural order of things. The order that dictates that a mother leaves before her son does, that a professor departs before his student, and that friends and lovers shall march away together.

I first met Alex on September 18, 1996….at 4pm….I was appointed as his faculty freshman advisor at Stanford. In a million years, no one would have picked us to become friends. He was a 17-year old kid with shoulder-length hair; dyed blond for good measure. Intellectual, but pretending to be cool, rejecting pomp and circumstance, and deeply wanting to change the world. I, on the other hand, was twice his age and the type of person who thinks that a shirt and tie are casual clothing. But friends we did become, and thus we were, since that initial meeting until we said goodbye, for four thousand nine hundred and thirty five days. And what I received from Alex in all those days was nothing but affection, smiles, understanding, an open heart and mind, and a love and friendship that grew at least a little bit every single day. I cherish all those times, and for most of those days, I went to bed giving thanks for the great gift that I had been given in Alex.

Each of us wonders what we have achieved in life. For one, we want to love and be loved in return. For two, we want to learn to be virtuous and live life in peace. If those are the measures, then Alex overachieved all his life. Even though I meet many of you here today for the first time, I know nevertheless most of you already through Alex. He would tell me how much he loved his high school friends, how he cherished his family, how he felt a lifetime bond with his freshman dorm mates, and how deeply in love he was with his girlfriend. Wherever he went and whoever he met he gave love and found love. And then, as a professor, I learned much from this student about the virtues of man. I saw humility, I saw kindness, I saw charity, and I saw fortitude in his words and his deeds. He travelled far seeking a measure of justice for the poor, and he worked near to promote the human side of doing business: A young life indeed, but with a century’s worth of heavenly gold.

And thus, we will now seek to keep the light of Alex glowing in our lives and in the lives of others. We can do so in our everyday actions by learning from his virtues and by remembering his love. His life is in each and every one of you; it has not departed and sad will be the day if you ever let it leave.

I brought my young son with me today. He is too young to understand this moment. But I wanted above all that his life path would also cross with all of ours in this place and time. Whereas for us this intersection is a destination, for him it can instead be a departure. The day will come for him when he will have to choose between right and wrong, between love and hate, and between virtue and sin. When that time comes, he will not have to search in books for answers, he will not have to stare at a poster or fall for a false prophet. Instead, I’ll be able to come to him and say: “Son, search no more for a virtuous man, you have already met such a man, let me tell you all about Alex”.

Thank you all

God Bless you Alex”

** ** **

Next to speak was Alex’s cousin, Monica

“I am so grateful to see and have seen all the support and friendships that Alex had throughout his life and present today. My name is Monica and I’m Alex’s cousin.

Even though we’ve lived far from each other most of our lives, I have many fond memories of my cousin Alex. My childhood memories of him include hot afternoons at the swimming pool, and running around with our lanterns in during moon festivals. But it was not until recent years, into our adulthood, where I’ve gotten to know Alex as the supportive, generous, and playful person that he was.

Alex has been a supporter and a true family member to me. It meant a great deal to me when he showed up at all of my recent big life events, getting married, having children, bringing us his cheerfulness and sharing our joys. I had a canopy that was collapsing at my wedding ceremony, he was the first to rush to save it. He and Serena were also the ones to take me on my first outdoor stroll after my first baby.

In always a gentle manner, Alex told you the truth on his mind, and supported you in the best and appropriate way that he knew how. He also had a sarcastic edge to him. I am not to admit “losing” any heated discussions, but I did take a few well-thought-out jabs from him.

Our family is so proud of Alex, both of his professional and personal achievements, and even more so of the incredible man that he was. All of us here knew that he was brilliant at what he did and generous with his time with Cosmos Education, his friends and families. I am heartbroken that he’s left us, but cherish the memories that I have of him. I love you Alex.”

** ** **

Janet, a friend of Alex’s since high school, spoke next.

“I first met Alex in the ninth grade back at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. I remember walking into science class on the first day of school, where he flashed me a smile, and I instantly developed a huge crush on him. While that never quite panned out, it was the beginning of an amazing friendship. Throughout the years of high school, our circle grew to include a small squadron of friends. One of the things that made us unique was our inability to make decisions. We could never decide where to go or what to do, but in the end, we realized that it really didn’t matter. All we wanted was to simply be together.

And we truly always were together. Every free moment we had, we’d be swimming at Alex’s, or shooting pool at Tom’s, or playing video games at Andrew’s. We were this group of – not just friends, but best friends – that insisted on doing everything together, even when it was actually just doing nothing.

I always felt that Alex was the moral backbone of the group, which extended and matured well past high school. He grew to become a man of such integrity and compassion, and was the most honest and genuine guy that I’d ever known. I could always count on him to tell me what he truly thought, and nothing ever got past his watchful eye. I’ll miss having that voice of reason keeping me in check.

Alex loved meeting new people, trying new things, and exploring new places. It was invigorating for him, and through these new experiences, he became much more than an engineer - he was a musician, a photographer, a poet, a humanitarian, an outdoorsman, and so much more. He was never afraid to launch himself full force into something he was passionate about. As a result, he was able to touch the lives of so many people, many of whom I see here today.

Alex always expected the best out of all of us, and so we always strived to do our best and to achieve our full potential. I’m a better person because he was in my life, and I’ll continue to live it as he would have wanted me to. Alex, we love you and we miss you.”

** ** **

After Janet, there was a musical interlude as two of Alex’s friends – Jeff and Tom – through tears and throat clenched pauses, played and sang heart-touching renditions of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s “Over the Rainbow”, REM’s “Night Swimming” (one of Alex’s favorite bands), and Rusted Root’s “Send Me on My Way” (the informal theme song among his group of high school friends).

** ** **

Then Mike, Alex’s friend since freshman year of college, spoke.

“Alex and I met because we lived in the same dorm our freshman year in college. From the moment I saw him I knew there was something special about him. We were both in engineering, had the same freshman adviser, and had the same girly hair. Little did I know it would take most of our undergraduate years for people to figure out who was Alex and who was me. Alex was such an amazing and unique person that I can't believe that anyone would actually think I was him.

Early in that first year at Stanford, Holly Thomas decided she didn't really like her own room and started looking around for places to study and hang out. She tried using my room, among others, as a second home and didn't always find a hospitable environment. She ended up spending most of her time in Alex and Michael Vortmann's room, essentially living under Michael's bed. Alex never said a word, and welcomed Holly into the room, letting her come and go as she pleased. When he knew she was feeling down or having a bad day, Alex would surprise her with her favorite food - macaroni and cheese. Holly became so comfortable that she started answering their phone and chatting with Alex's friends, mostly Amina, who today is as much of a friend to us as Alex was.

Alex's concern for others was not isolated to this one person or time. He was always doing things to surprise other people that no one else would think of, and he brought us all so much joy. For instance, after Michael graduated from medical school, Alex sent him a box full of photos from our time in college together, and made him a poster with pictures of the most special moments. He put a quote on the poster by Zora Neale Hurston that read, "There are years that ask questions. And years that answer." When we were sophomores, Alex snuck into Xanadu dorm where Jessica, Holly, Neiha, and Kerry were living, really early one morning. When Jessica woke up, she found that the dorm had been decorated with a giant poster reading 'Happy Birthday Jess!" And after undergraduate graduation, on his European backpacking trip with Jannon, he was always coming up with ways for the two to make the most of every city.

Alex spoke about wanting to make the world better, but he backed up those ideas with his work. He was so great at combining his love for science and engineering with his love of public service. He helped people through education and outreach on both on a local and international scale. He championed and worked countless hours for organizations including Cosmos Education, Stanford Anthology for Youth, the Haas Center, the Office of Engineering and Public Service, and the Science Bus, among others.

Alex had an exceptionally open and welcome spirit. So many people I know have reflected about special conversations that they had with Alex, or how they enjoyed just being around him, or even just how they had a crush on him. That was the effect that Alex had on people. Alex not only surrounded himself with these wonderful people, but connected them to each other too. Throughout college, Alex told us so many great stories about his friends from Pennsylvania that when he got around to introducing his weird college friends to his weird high school friends, it was as if we had known each other for years. Because Alex surrounded himselfwith such great people, it's no surprise that those friends became our friends, and that they are now among the people we talk to and lean on every day. I am so thankful that Alex brought us together.

Alex's strength is amazing. Whenever we would visit, he managed a smile and perked up, even when he wasn't feeling great. More often than not, I felt like he was the one lending support to me instead of the other way around. He never stopped living and learning. This last summer, we took a trip to Lake Shasta to spend a weekend on a houseboat, and Alex did it all. Alex rushed from a doctor's appointment and traveled for hours to join us. He brought his camera, and spent the weekend capturing a beautiful weekend on the lake. He even found time to learn how to water ski. His smile during that trip was something I will remember forever.

I love that Alex would stick up for the people who need to be defended. I love the memories of all of those summers packing 4 or more people into apartments and making the best of it. I love Alex's cynic and sarcastic wit, and the optimism that lay just beneath. I love that we could always talk, no matter how long it had been, and it would be like no time had passed at all. I love Alex, and I will never ever forget the time that we had together.”

** ** **

David, Alex’s graduate school co-advisor, spoke next.

It is odd that only in times like this that we truly understand and appreciate those around us. In seeing this gathering of friends and family I see the richness of Alex and his life that I did not truly understand until now.

The facet of Alex that I know of Alex was as his PhD dissertation advisor. I first met Alex about 7 years ago shortly after he passed his PhD qualifying exam. He was looking for a project that fit his intellectual interests, but also fit his sense of things that were important. He came very highly recommended by Bob Dutton and Steve Connolly. As any good advisor would do I promptly set him off on directions that led him no where. Fortunately, he learned from this and ultimately formulated a cohesive body of work that lays a foundation for new medical tools to treat patients with less suffering and pain.

Although, Alex proved to be a determined and outstanding scientist and engineer, his heart as many have already related was with service and education. I remember Alex taking the summer to go to Africa with Cosmos. When he returned, he had such enthusiasm from his experience that I was certain that he would never return to the hum drum life in the lab. As is typical of Alex, we went through and analyzed his interests and goals and he realized that the doctorate would give him the credentials he would need to achieve greater impact. He didn’t let his return to research, however interfere with his love of service and teaching. There were many evenings when I would come to the lab at night to find student projects from the Science Bus scattered throughout.

It is sad that Alex life was cut short, but we can find solace in hearing of his deeds and seeing his friends around us. We can know that his life was a full one. In the end we should not judge the value of a life by its duration, but its richness. In this regard Alex’s life has been and will be very valued by all around him.

** ** **

Dana, a friend from Cosmos Education was up next.

“My name is Dana. Alex and I worked together on Cosmos Education, an organization that many others have already mentioned today. Cosmos is a nonprofit that does work to improve science education in Africa. Alex was a true anchor for the organization and he will be missed tremendously.

As I look out on all the wonderful friends and family that have gathered here today in memory of Alex, I can't help but think of all of the people who could not be here. This includes Cosmos colleagues in Kenya, in Zambia, in the UK, and countless secondary school students from across Africa. I know that they are also here in spirit.

While I was reflecting on what to share with all of you today, I thought about the numerous ways in which Alex was special. But what stuck out for me above all else was how thoughtful and reflective Alex was. And how he was always thinking with both his head and his heart.

On the intellectual side, Alex confronted the complexities of development and was always asking smart questions and learning as much as he could. He knew that good intentions alone were not enough and that if he truly wanted to make a difference (which he did) then he needed to understand the complexities. Alex put his knowledge to practice as he strove to increase Cosmos's impact.

On the human side, Alex didn't let the complexities of development keep him from acting. He was the first to respond in times of crisis. When the house of a Zambian colleague burnt down, Alex was the first to rally support. Five days or so after I met Alex for the first time, we were together on a Cosmos trip in Zambia and I found myself in the unfortunate situation of having an ATM card that had expired and knowing I still had two months left to go in Africa. Even though he barely knew me, Alex didn't hesitate to start withdrawing money from his own account for me and bankrolled the rest of my trip to Africa. (Yes, I did pay him back!)

There is a quote posted on one of the walls at the Hewlett Foundation where I work that is purportedly a favorite and William Hewlett which says "never stifle a generous impulse." I think Alex lived by this every day, and in his passing I hope we are all able to follow his example.”

** ** **

Serena, Alex’s friend from graduate school, and recent girlfriend then spoke of Alex’s quirkiness.

“Seeing everyone who came today really shows how much Alex's generosity has touched everyone's life. I don’t think that any words could fully capture his spirit, but I wanted to share a couple of quirks that made Alex truly Alex.
  1. Alex hates chocolate, but will eat oreo cookies

  2. He loves cherry flavoring, including cherry coke and cherry flavored antibiotics.

  3. His sign is a smiley face with tongue sticking out to the right

  4. Alex gives a disapproving face to people who don't recycle or properly dispose of trash; he will carry trash for miles to throw it away properly

  5. Alex is a loveable nerd; I especially appreciate his 3dB wall

  6. He is very huggable since he has a very nice curve to his shoulder

  7. He is a packrat because he really cherishes everything, including all the cards and messages you all have sent him through the years.

... of course there are many more attributes which make him so unique and memorable.

I would like to end with one of Alex's favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I think really exemplifies him:

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”

** ** **

Last on the schedule, having known Alex for the shortest amount of time, was me.

“The first day I met Alex… I yelled at him.

I told him to “climb harder”, “watch your footwork”, “keep going”… he left the Rock Climbing Strength and Conditioning class that I was teaching at Stanford with a smile on his face and sweat on his brow.

I knew I did my job well when he came back the next week for more.

I just loved how he gave it his all – constantly giving his best effort and making such a great impact on the rest of his fellow classmates as well by shouting words of encouragement and pushing, whoever was his partner for the day, to his or her limits.

After the quarter ended we continued to hang out – and I took him out on some group climbing trips – and at some point, somehow, we became good friends … and his climbing did improve too.

Now that I’ve been able to see a much more complete picture of who Alex was, and all the amazing things he did, it’s surprising that he had the time to climb at all.

Alex was involved with so many, and such diverse, groups. From helping middle school students find “their voice” through writing to science education and sustainable living in Africa.

He helped countless people all over the world.

Despite having such a short time, he managed a high impact. In reading the outpouring of responses and emails I’ve received since updating his blog it has absolutely amazed me the positive impact he had on so many lives. Each “Alex experience” that was shared showed his great and caring personality – each had a touching story to tell about how he impacted their lives for the better - pulling out the very best in those around him.

People who got to know Alex were changed for the better.

And I, like you, have the pleasure, and honor, of including myself in that category.

Though he’s no longer here to climb with, laugh with, or make fun of me – he will always be with me in my heart and memories. He helped shape me to be the person I am today.

You never know when will be the last time you say goodbye to a friend – so cherish your friends and follow Alex’s example - and make a positive impact.

I love you buddy.”

** ** **

Afterwards Angel closed out that portion of the service and other individuals, who felt moved to speak, also came up and shared their stories.

First was Alan,

“Hi all, I'm a friend of Alex's post undergrad era. According to gmail, I've known him since at least 7/26/2004. In those 6 years, I'd say Alex was one of my closest friends who also understood me the best. In our discussions among friends, he'd be the only one who grasps where I was coming from and could explain it to others (although he wouldn't necessarily agree with me). Hopefully I'm channeling some of him today.

Looking through our chats and e-mails, I've clearly gotten more out of our friendship than he did. He's given me so much advice on getting my degree, and has provided a good butt kicking at times when I'm procrastinating. Showing me that one person can and should try to impact the world (cosmos, science bus, etc.). A former labmate e-mailed me last night, and she said.. onething she remembered about Alex was that he would bring us Jack In theBox at night when we were working late, even though Alex was not in this class.

What did I bring to him? I got him to watch shows like Glee, America's Best Dance Crew, and So You Think You Can Dance. Quality American television. Believe it or not, he's even telephoned in votes for that show. As usual, we would disagree on who was the strongest dancer.

I do want to tell him he's wrong about one thing. He would occasionally say that he was jealous of the number of friends that I have. I hope he's here today seeing this. I should be the one jealous of him. The number of you, the intensity of everyone's love for him, and, as cliche as it sounds, the fact that we all are better people just for knowing him. I really hope he can see this. I love you Alex, I'll miss you.”

Allen also read a message prepared by Winston Hsieh, an award-winning historian and biographer, who is a cousin of Alex's mother. The message outlined the impressive family line that Alex was born in to.

** ** **

Several other friends then got up to speak..


Finally Alex's sister Julia and mom gave heartfelt thank you's

It was also mentioned again that Alex was awarded his PhD in EE and that approval has been given to name a laboratory room at Stanford in his memory. The lab houses the new Assistive Technology Laboratory at Stanford (ATLAS) in Building 550, Room 134. Angel then dismissed us, and we retired to my research advisor’s nearby house for some food and to view many of Alex’s photos and writings. We also watched a slideshow of his life, with incorporated comments of remembrances, that Serena so thoughtfully put together.

Alex’s high school and college friends also took the time to make poster collages, showing many highlights of Alex’s life. One such poster below:

Some people sat alone with their memories of Alex and slowly went through the albums and notes.

Others gathered in small groups, reaching out to those around them for support as they looked into moments of an amazing life.

And yes, us climbers did take one more climbing photo…

The slideshow was definitely the impressive remembrance.

Feel free to download the slide show pdf. Warning: it is a large file.

It truly was very impressive, and the writings, very touching. Thank you very much to all those who sent something in.

Folks slowly trickled out and went back to their homes as Alex’s mom and sister sat and relaxed. It was a great spot to take a much needed nap.

The next day we did gather together for a dinner… and though it was a full table, it felt empty without Alex... who just a few days earlier had insisted on eating dinner at the table and not in the hospital bed in his room.

We also continued the cleaning, and soon had his old room and office packed up

I am still going through his hard drives - compiling his photos and documents in one place, and am enjoying all the emotion that he put into what he wrote and his amazing photography skills. He truly was an artist.

And yah… now that the service is over, the cleaning done, and only a few more hard drives to go through… soon I’ll have nothing left to do for Alex… soon I’ll just be going through my days again, back to my normal routine.. staying busy with all the stuff I do… while still wearing my “LiveStrong” wristband to honor Alex, and remembering how much I miss my bud.

Written by: Blase B. Iuliano
Edited by: Janet Cheng


Carol said...

Just wanted to say thanks again, Blase, for posting so many of the details that those of us further away wouldn't have known about. I don't think I've met you in person but one day I hope to - Alex has certainly brought people together, even in his passing.

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I recorded audio from the memorial service. It's here if you want to download and listen:

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