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Remembering Les McDermott

This summer, while on vacation in Europe, I received some bad news from my friend and U-M classmate Earl Howard. Earl told me that a dear classmate of ours, Les McDermott, had died.  The thing is, he hadn’t died within the past few days, he’d left this earth months earlier, in April. After hearing the news from Earl, I immediately went to the funeral home obituary site he indicated to confirm. I saw the brief obituary and the picture of Les. Yes, sadly, Les was gone.

I got to know Les in the mid-1970s when we were both studying electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. There were only a handful of black students in the College of Engineering at the time (and sadly, today as well), and in any case it would have been impossible not to notice Les. Les was gregarious, generous, and super smart, though you would miss the latter point if you inspected his academic record. He was a true friend to me, and he and his lady friend Vickie basically adopted my when I was a poor, hungry graduate student. 

My friend Leslie McDermott, in his prime.

I graduated from Michigan in 1976 and took a job with AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Les went to work for IBM in Kingston, New York. On several occasions I drove to their home in Rhinebeck to spend the weekend with Les and Vickie and their two young sons, Wesley and Matt. In the ensuing years, I was consumed by my life in New Jersey, I got married, and Les and I lost touch with each other. I heard from mutual friends that he moved to Florida to work for another division of IBM. We may have spoken briefly around that time – I don’t remember. What I do know is that Les and I lost touch for nearly 40 years, and we never saw each other again.

Last year or the year before, I was thinking about Les. I managed to get his phone number and I called him. We had a long conversation. He told me he had experienced some difficult health-related battles, and said he’d nearly died. Les was always given to exaggeration, but I didn’t think he was embellishing anything in this case. We reminisced a bit about our U-M days and exchanged updates about our families. We agreed that we shouldn’t, and in fact couldn’t, wait 40 years before talking again. And then that was it. The next think I knew, Les was gone.

Les was an important person in my life, and when I was a graduate student at Michigan I learned an important, life-changing lesson from him. I referred to Les, and that lesson, in Chapter 19 of my book, “Proving Ground: A Memoir.” I’m attaching the chapter to this post as a tribute to Les, and to the memory of the time when we were two pioneering African American engineering students struggling to leave our mark at one of the world’s greatest engineering schools.

Les, here’s to you buddy.

Link to Chapter 19 of “Proving Ground: A Memoir”
Chapter Title: “Almost Obsolete”

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