Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid: Loss of friend and colleague allows time for reflection

Birth is a miracle of love and courage,

bringing light into the world;

Death is a loss of light,

but no less an act of courage

For we are born from —

and return to —


Lori Gorgas Hlaban

Last Sunday, family relatives and friends of Gary Jay Erickson (1939-2015) gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boise to celebrate his life and to remember him in their hearts as they continue their own life journeys.

Gary died peacefully at his home on Oct. 9, 2015. He had been living with Parkinson’s disease for over a dozen years. I admired his courage for not letting this disease dampen his spirit and he often said that he would have avoided it if he could have.

Last May, his wife Harriet invited me and my wife to attend Gary’s 76th birthday. It broke my heart to see him physically debilitated and it brought memories of what my own mother went through in the last years of her life. You see, she also died of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement and mobility. During the last stages, the affected person’s manner of walking is characterized by small shuffling steps and a general slowness of movement.

At the dinner party last May, Gary spoke softly telling humorous stories. I could observe the progress of the disease on his body but not on his mind. His outlook on life was always that of an optimist. During his prime, he was very active and loved the outdoors. Already a tall man, he wore a cowboy hat and boots which made him look larger than life.

My wife and I first met Gary and Harriet in Boise in 1996. They had moved from the Seattle area and we had moved from upstate New York to become faculty members of the newly-formed college of engineering at Boise State University. Gary became the first Chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering and he was instrumental in getting the electrical engineering program accredited two years later after we proudly graduated the first class of undergraduate electrical engineering students in May 1998.

Gary was my colleague, my mentor and my friend. He had a great sense of humor and he used it often. He had a knack for telling stories and finishing them with a powerful punch line. Before I arrived at Boise State University, a student went to him and asked if the new professor with a foreign-sounding name, referring to me, could speak English well. “Yes,” Gary replied before adding “and four other languages. How about you?”

During the memorial, a neighbor recounted that Gary came to visit them a few years ago and he fell backward after slipping on the front steps of their house. When this accident happened, Gary had already been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for a while. After she helped him get home and checking that he was all right, Gary exclaimed: “Well, that was an adventure!”

Gary was fortunate to find in Harriet a loving and loyal partner who took care of him when he needed it the most. Gary was pretty sociable for an engineer and Harriet organized many get-togethers with other friends. Thanks to Harriet’s invitations, I regularly saw Gary at birthday parties, summer cookouts and even impromptu dinners that Harriet had planned.

At the memorial service, I discovered that Gary knew and loved many people of all backgrounds and from different walks of life. He loved all of his children: Ann and Phil, whom he had with Harriet, and Cheryl, from a previous marriage. He was proud of all of them and often talked about them during dinner conversations. When I met Cheryl for the first time at the memorial service, I was surprised to find out that Gary had spoken to her about me.

The new minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Boise, Reverend Sara LaWall, delivered a moving and meaningful eulogy interspersed with some funny anecdotes that allowed the audience to shed both tears of sadness and tears of laughter. Afterward, members of the audience were invited to share additional memories and unique moments in the life of a remarkable husband, father and friend.

The whole memorial service was a powerful spiritual experience that brought many people together in their mourning. Thank you, Gary, for all the wonderful memories and we wish you Godspeed as you embark on one more adventure.

Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.