Our great friend Bill Usinger died from a heart attack two weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon. He was one of Phil’s very best friends, with a history together dating back to the days of graduate school, when they spent countless hours each week working to make monoclonal antibodies. Antibodies we still use in our lab today, by the way. Here’s something Phil wrote about Bill…
“I was preparing for a lecture last week when I received a cryptic, one sentence email from a colleague stating her sympathy at the loss of Bill. After a few frantic messages I found out what happened from one of his colleagues at Trellis Biosciences in San Francisco. I was so stunned that I had no rational response. Bill was my best friend. We knew each other for 31 years, from the time that we worked side-by-side in Bob Mishell’s lab at UC Berkeley. Over the decades we stayed close: we bummed around the Bay Area while each eating about a 1000 oysters, went to Niner games, watched the fire demolish the East Bay together in ‘91, side-by-side, close up at the Claremont Hotel. It was an incredible, devastating inferno. We manufactured and sold my invention, the Clonemaster, as part of his company, Immusine. I gave him my Niner tickets when I left the Bay Area, he gave seminars wherever I was located (we’d already planned a visit for him to K-State, my new place). We scuba-dived in Monterey and we watched “Amadeus” together. We ran, we rode bikes, we went to parties. We walked for a day through the streets of Paris, ate 4 dozen oysters and spent the evening drinking Bordeaux and eating foie gras. I got to know his kids Brett and Brittany and their swimming conquests. We shared a love of golf, and we played many times together in the East Bay and then in Oklahoma with Brett and my wife Sally. He hit a long ball; he liked to tee it high and watch it fly. Over the past few years I was excited to have new scientific ventures with Bill through his work at Trellis, raising human monoclonals to Gram-positive bacterial pathogens. Me and Sally loved him, me from 30 years of knowing such a wonderful guy; her from 15 years of acquaintance with a man she respected and admired. We often wished that we lived closer to him.
Bill was the sweetest person. He always had a smile and never spoke a negative thought. He was sincere and authentic, a person who listened when I talked and had charming details to relate about his own life and his family. For example, he used to collect antique mechanical banks, in which small metal dogs jumped through hoops, bronze owls turned their heads, and iron muskets discharged, all to deposit a coin in a slot. He loved those banks, some of which were ridiculously valuable, but he sold them all when he started his own family.
Bill was a clever researcher, who was skilled and insightful in the laboratory. He taught many, many novices (including me) the intricacies of mammalian cell culture. I worked with him in the same sterile hood when we were post-docs, and as we were sitting and manipulating flasks he taught me much of what I know about cellular immunology. Bill was stronger than me, physically and mentally. In most conversations he never disclosed the travails that he went through on the scientific-biotechnology roller coaster. It raised him up but it also plummeted down, sometimes to the bottom. He chose the most risky career path, biotechnology, and he had a lot of fun following it. But, scientists are not automatically great businessmen. Business was a new skill that Bill had to learn, and it took some years, some false steps and a few companies to accomplish that. He never faltered or second-guessed himself during those biotech ups and downs. He persevered and succeeded. Before Trellis he was a vice president in charge of human monoclonals at Novartis, one of the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturers. That was an accomplishment and a responsibility, ultimately a credit to his expertise. Twice he addressed undergraduate classes at my institution about how to succeed in a biotechnology career. His current projects at Trellis, that I was fortunate to participate in, are headed in positive directions from his guidance. Biotechnology is a crapshoot, but Bill was lucky roller, a winner.
I don’t know much about his death except that it was a heart attack. It’s an unfathomable loss. I take solace that he’s not suffering nor experiencing some type of prolonged physical or mental decay as a result of a medical condition or catastrophe. I’ve seen all that and I’m glad that Bill escaped it when he left this world. As I view his photos, including this one, I can’t help but remember Bill’s easy laugh, his perpetual optimism and his overwhelming desire to enjoy what he was doing. That’s why all the pictures show him smiling, he was a happy, wonderful man.“
Besides his bright, inquisitive blue eyes, the permanent smile on his face and his unshakable optimism, he was the most dedicated father I’ve ever met. His two kids are amazing swimmers, and both are competing to make the US Olympic team in 2016. Bill awakened each day before 5am to take them to their training, and once they returned he cooked up a batch of his special pancakes before they left for school. They needed a ton of calories to keep up with the grueling training, and every weekend Bill made a big batch of those pancakes to freeze. Once Phil and I witnessed the whole process, so completely internalized in Bill’s memory that he just added the many ingredients while talking with us about everything that was dear to him, science, sports, cooking, the future. It was almost like being in front of a professional baker…
Bill was a reader (and subscriber) of this blog, and though he never left a comment on the site, he often talked to us about the recipes he tried or wanted to recreate. The first time he made my pizza dough from scratch with his kids he sent me a photo by phone, the three of them in the kitchen, with big smiles and a lot of flour around. 😉
It is hard to accept that someone so full of life and goals is gone. We won’t see him anymore, we won’t talk. We won’t be in Colorado together next month at the ASM Annual Meeting, as we had planned. We will not travel to Brazil together when Brett and Britt make the Olympic team.
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