I hate that I'm compelled to write another tribute so soon after I posted the one on Jim Ramey. In the case of Jim, I was recognizing someone who was a major figure in the field, but not one I knew personally. In the case of former NRC Commissioner E. Gail de Planque (NRC bio and more recent bio), who passed away on September 8 of complications of Lyme disease, the loss is personal.
Gail and I have been friends, colleagues, and co-conspirators since the mid-1970s. She preceded me in the ANS hierarchy, and helped me immensely in learning my way through it. Sometimes, one cannot be sure of which seemingly unimportant decisions or actions profoundly influence the course of one's career or life, but I am convinced that, more than once, Gail was behind an action that probably strongly influenced my career.
I was new to ANS and had a notion that a study was needed of the status of women in the ANS. I had no idea how to penetrate the ANS management labyrinth, but somehow, got authorization for a study, and in due course, it was distributed (in those days, by mail). To my surprise, I got a call from her. "What was I going to do with the results?" she asked. I hadn't thought that far ahead, and had no ideas. "This is what you should do," she told me. She laid out a plan for a special session, told me what I needed to do to get it approved, suggested speakers, and offered to co-organize it.
The rest, as they say, was history. After pulling that off successfully--with a good deal of help from her--I was asked to serve on a committee. I never knew if she suggested my name to the president at the time, or if (as I sometimes joked) the management saw that I had energy and ideas and thought they'd channel them in a different direction than I was heading. By the time Gail became president of ANS, she gave me my first committee chair position, and that certainly provided a direct stepping-stone to other ANS activities. Ultimately, some years later, I followed her footsteps as ANS president.
In the meantime, I had the opportunity to work with her in a variety of ANS activities. What always impressed me was how universally liked and respected she was, both for her technical capability and for her people skills. In one memorable meeting, she and I were espousing a position that was voted down. I was ready to fold up my tent--"you win some, you lose some"--but she kept arguing the case, and without polarizing the room or creating any ill will, there was another vote, and, lo and behold, our position prevailed!
Ultimately, she was asked to throw her name in the hat for an NRC Commissioner position. Since I was by that point, a long term government employee, she turned to me for information--on the QT--about the implications of her moving from a career position to an appointed one. For once, I was able to help her.
When it came time for her to move to Washington to take up her post, I was about to move to Japan for 6 months, so in a masterpiece of good luck and good timing for both of us, she was able to house sit for me while she house hunted for herself.
But perhaps the most enduring--and amusing--motif of our long friendship was our bemusement over how people continually mixed up the two of us. Over and over again, people would mistake us. At one memorable meeting in the late 1990s, one person asked her how it felt to have lived in Japan (I'm the one who had done that) while I was asked by another person how it felt to be a past Commissioner! As recently as this past November, someone came up behind me at an ANS meeting and said "Hello, Dr. de Planque."
Now, the confusion between us might seem understandable at some level, but when the layers were peeled away, it was still puzzling. Yes, we both used the same given name, and when we were in our twenties, we both had long, dark hair and were shorter than average (although she was taller than I am). Still, as she would always point out, there are lots of Jims and Bobs and Johns, and no one ever mistakes one for another. As we got older, her hair turned prematurely white, so physically, we certainly didn't think we looked alike. However, by then, we had both worked at both the NRC and DOE (although in a different order, a different DOE office, and different positions), had both served as ANS president, and in fact, she had lived in my house and used my phone number for 6 months. (Don't get me started on the confusion that caused after I returned and found myself responding "yes" when someone asked for Gail, only to figure out part way through the conversation that they meant the other Gail.)
While we found it irritating, it was also amusing--and for me, rather flattering. So, like everyone else with whom she worked, I am terribly saddened at this loss and will miss her a great deal. But perhaps most of all, I will miss those cases of mistaken identity and the chance for us to caucus, like excited schoolgirls and bemoan the fact that no one could tell us apart.
Note added September 30: Since the publication of this posting, obituaries have appeared in both the New York Times and the Washington Post providing additional details about Gail de Planque's life and information about a planned memorial service. The links to the two notices are: Times obituary and Post obituary.