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William F. Brace

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William F. Brace Obituary
William F. Brace, former head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT died on May 2, 2012 from complications following heart surgery. He was 85. His fame in technical circles rests on his pioneering work on rocks found at the earth's crust, the crust being measured from the surface to depths of some fifteen miles. These experiments were the first studies of rock under various pressures and temperatures. They had immense practical interest to problems faced by engineers and scientists: how to design safer mines? The mechanics of fracking; how and why do mountains form? Why do earthquakes occur? Seismologists had been studying earthquake waves for years, but had no information of the source of the waves. His experiments, simple as they were, are, after forty years, still the basis of what we know about earthquakes. His honors include election to the National Academy of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Science. He was a Fulbright Scholar and a Guggenheim fellow. He wrote over one hundred scientific papers, many cited over seven hundred times, several as recently as 2006. His enormous influence remains. In 1946, as an Ensign in the Navy, he was shipboard at the Bikini Atomic Tests. There was shockingly little protection for the crew and many sailors died of radiation sickness in later years. Bill felt lucky to have escaped. The swimsuit? A French fashion designer compared the splitting of the atom to the splitting of the one-piece bathing suit! He met his future wife for the first time at a Scottish Country Dance in Cambridge. He was going to defend his PhD thesis the next day. The next time they met was at the top of the Headwall on Mt. Washington. She waved him to go first, studied the terrifying steepness, prudently took off her skis and trudged down on foot! They were married in 1955, settled in Cambridge, moved to Concord with their three children in 1978. When he retired from MIT, he re-invented himself as a cabinetmaker. Bill used his skills learned as a naval architect and mechanical engineer, along with his own sense of artistic design to create a wide variety of furniture for his family and friends. All were of museum quality. He was a fine athlete. As a rower, he was one of the founders of The Head-of-the-Charles Regatta, set the course, which is still used after almost fifty years. He enjoyed biking: biked the California coast from British Columbia to Mexico. He ran some 30 marathons, and "Ultra Marathons" of fifty miles! He excelled in wilderness travel. For over thirty years, he led family and friends, for weeks at a time, to the remote backcountry of places such as the Cascades, the Sierras, and especially the Grand Canyon. He carried a plant press, and collected over thirty-five cartons of pressed plants, and became an authority on sedges and grasses. He was also an avid birder. Bill loved music and music making. With his wife he sang for many years with Boston's Chorus Pro Musica under Bud Patterson, sang the great Oratorios and Passions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch. He also played the oboe. He loved to sail. His yacht was a twelve-foot Klepper foldboat with mainsail, jib, outriggers and oars ! He would launch his little craft into Walden Pond, Ipswich Bay and the Bay of Fundy with the thick fogs and thirty-foot tides! He kept himself physically fit. In February of this year, he was skiing on Mt. Rainier. In April, he was canoeing the Concord River. Many say he was a Renaissance man. That he was. He leaves his wife and best friend of 57 years Peggy (Grant) Brace and their 3 children: Colin of Amsterdam; Nathaniel and his wife Karen and 2 children, Clark and Colin of Seattle; and Sarah and her husband Stokley Towles and 2 children, Schuyler and Lavinia of Seattle. Included are his neighborhood "adopted grandchildren": Emily, Charlotte and Nicholas Higgins. He adored those grandchildren, and they all adored him. They called him "Opa", German/Dutch for grandfather. Soon, young and old were calling him "Opa". Fortunately for Bill, he never suffered the limitations and indignities of extreme old age. All his long life he radiated happiness. He will be vastly missed by all who knew him. A celebration of his life will be held on Tuesday, June 12th at 11 AM in the First Parish Unitarian Church in Concord Center. Arrangements are under the care of Charles W. Dee, Jr. and Susan M. Dee, Directors, Dee Funeral Home of Concord. To share a memory in Bill's guest book, visit www.deefuneralhome.com.

Published in The Concord Journal from June 2 to June 11, 2012
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