By Martin Hackworth
My friend Dennis Strommen, who I wrote about in my last column, died this past week. Dennis was a really, really good guy, and a very supportive friend to me in all of my endeavors. A lot of people felt the same way about him. Dennis was also one of the few completely consistent “adults in the room” at Idaho State (along with Butch Hjelm, George Imel, Frank Harmon, Bruce and Alice Ronald and a few others), where we worked together for many years. It bothers me a lot that I was supposed to have dinner with him a few weeks ago, something we had planned for some time, and had to cancel with little notice. What I felt like I had to do instead was not worth missing the last opportunity I am ever going to have to spend some time with my friend. Hindsight is really good like that. Dennis always had my back, and I feel like I let him down over this. Yet when my family and I saw him in the grocery store just a few days before he passed he was completely understanding. “Hey man, I know that you are always busy.” He was more concerned about JR’s fifth grade football career and Megan’s final year of Pharmacy school than any breach of manners on my part. I was grateful for his generosity. It is true that I am always busy. But that’s a poor excuse. We made plans to get together again this week. Those plans are now on hold for all of time. I feel more than a little remorse over this.
Dennis was a man’s man. He was a scholar and an educator and a scientist with impeccable credentials in all of it. Dennis was also an athlete (in his younger days) and a person who throughout his life valued art, music, literature, travel and all that the world had to offer. Finally, Dennis was a guy I have reason to believe was probably pretty good to have around if you were outnumbered and in a pinch. Though he used to kid me about my former association with pro wrestling, I’m pretty sure that Dennis could have thrown me completely over the Physical Science Building in which we worked. I’m pretty sure that you did not want to mess with him too much. Dennis commanded respect in about every way in which it may be earned.
Dennis and I shared an interest in forensic science and a passion for exposing and debunking garbage being passed off as science – the latter something that tends to keep one continuously occupied (especially around here). Dennis was not the guy you wanted to have to explain yourself to if you were peddling some pseudoscientific nonsense. He and I sat together on a few panels over the years where bad science and pseudoscience were discussed and debated. I particularly remember one time, Dennis, Gayl Wiegand (another person you don’t want to mess with when it comes to science and reason) and I sitting on a panel where parapsychology and paranormal phenomena were being discussed. I was a taken aback at the insistence of one of our colleagues that remote sensing actually worked. I kept trying to explain if you call the police often enough to inform them that a missing person will be found in the woods nearby, sooner or later you are bound to be right. That’s not the success of remote sensing, that’s the success of statistics. Dennis had a better take: “OK, you’re so sure this works, why don’t you find someone to remote sense D.B. Cooper’s loot?”
Dennis was preceded in passing by some fifteen years by his wife, Carol, who died by her own hand. Even though there is no way that Dennis could have anticipated or prevented this terrible tragedy, he took responsibility for it. Even though all of his friends disagreed with this, I always respected him for being the kind of person who accepted responsibility for anything that isn’t what it should be. Most people would wash their hands of something as difficult as the suicide of a loved one as fast as possible. But not Dennis. He never forgave himself. As wrong and as tragic as that was all by itself, it’s a much better thing to own than the capacity for making something inconvenient just go away. I think that move crops up somewhere in the definition of having a soul.
So long, old friend. I promise that I will continue to do the best work I can, and not give up the good fights. I’ve got a whole can of whoop-butt for knuckleheads with your name on it. Rest in peace.
Associated Press and Idaho Press Club Award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist and the editor of MotorcycleJazz.com.