This piece was published first in the Kingston Whig Standard, then in the Queen’s Alumni Review and in England in various Mathematical Journal Sites
Oxford University-educated Dr. John Henry Ursell died on July 30 in the early morning, according to a hurried phone call we got that night. He was 71 and was a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Queen’s University. He was a member of the Irish, British, and American mathematical societies, along with many other international associations. He delivered papers and attended meetings of these associations right to the end.
Some students said he was the best teacher they ever had. They trace back their understanding of mathematics to his devotion to helping them understand. Others seemed to see him as a madman.
John, like many other brilliant scholars, had bipolar disorder, perhaps coupled with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that, while allowing him to see the world differently, greatly hindered his forming relationships. Not knowing his name when we first met in 1979, I labeled him “the bookseller’s friend”.
The day I opened my small, out-of-print bookshop for the first time, he was standing on my doorstep. Without a word, he stepped inside and went straight to the science section, where he began removing books from the shelves and piling them in stacks. A few other people had been waiting, too, and dispersed to the cookbooks and fiction sections as I tried to assess what was going on.
John was thickly built, about six feet tall, with a bush of wild, grey, curly hair, a beard, and scary eyebrows. I approached him quietly and coughed.
He didn’t respond.
I moved so I was in his line of vision. He didn’t look up.
“Excuse me?” I said. He finished with the first shelf and moved to the next. I decided he must be deaf.
“COULD WE TALK?” I said, finally, as loudly as I could.
He paused and looked at me as though I’d become unhinged. “LATER!” he bellowed back. “RIGHT NOW, I’M BUYING BOOKS!”
“Oh, okay,” I said softly and tiptoed away, mindful of what I’d been taught during bookseller training: “Never disturb the fish.”
Just then, my youngest son began playing his Twisted Sister album upstairs at top volume. John stopped abruptly, picked up a stack of books and walked to the counter, where he began piling them up again. I reminded myself to kill the teenager upstairs when I had a chance and started adding up the total.
The phone rang. I stopped to answer it. John glared at me. I got off hastily and started adding again. The phone rang again. I reached for it, but John was faster.
“SHE’S BUSY!” he bellowed and slammed the receiver down. I took the phone off the hook and added up the numbers more quickly, then agreed to a 20 per cent discount, but only if he took the books with him right then. “No car,” he said, never mincing words. “Too much to carry.”
“My husband will deliver them,” I said sweetly. “What address?” I asked, never realizing I would be the only bookseller in Kingston, if not the world, not storing his purchases forever and ever and ever.
And that was how our long association came into being. At one point I found a builder to put an extension on his house so he could continue to buy books and have enough room for them.
During our relationship, I discovered his vast curiosity about everything in the world. A couple of years after we met, I discovered, at the Salvation Army store, a collection of lurid paperbacks from the 1950s on the reality of UFOs. I brought them home, priced them, and shelved them. John discovered them, bought them all and donated them to the Douglas Library. “They have nothing on this topic,” he said, with an air of incredulity.
After waiting a decent interval, the library donated the whole collection back to the Salvation Army, whereupon I bought them again, gleefully noted they still had my pricing on them, and I reshelved the lot.
When John discovered them back on my shelves, he was furious. He promptly bought them to re-donate them, vowing this time to keep a closer eye on the library.
I could see the four of us going on like this forever – me, John, the Douglas Library, and the Salvation Army. A nice little money-maker.
In August, John was registered to attend a meeting of the Canadian Number Theory Association at Waterloo University.
From 1979-1998 Kingston writer Rose DeShaw ran The Idea Factory, an out-of-print bookshop at the intersection of Barrie and Colborne Streets, “deliberately” north of Princess Street.
Queen’s Alumni Review, 2009 Issue #4Queen’s Alumni Review 2009 Issue #4