Bill leaned towards me, slightly lopsided but intent, holding a glass of white wine at an angle that almost kept it from spilling on me. It was clear he wanted to figure out what I was up to, not quite staring, but listening hard. He always had an opinion and often they were useful. But just as developmental biology is not my strength, evolutionary biology was not his, so there was conflict as perhaps neither of us respected our knowledge limits.
My collaborator, David Queller, and I came late to the world of Dictyostelium, first getting introduced to the players at the Dundee Dicty meeting of 2000. Since we were a lateral transfer, we had no history, had not grown up in any camp, and did not know the issues or the factions. But it wasn’t too hard to figure out who the silverbacks were. I won’t list them all here, but clearly Bill was one of them. So were Pauline Schaap, Rob Kay, and Jeff Williams. People talked about Peter Devreotes, who I think was not at that meeting, in hushed tones of respect. But for us most of all the best silverback was Rich Kessin, who treated us like a new-found treasure with a different perspective. He helped with an intensity and care I hope I can remember to offer to future newcomers to any closed group. Also a cell biologist, but one with a very global view, Rich shared with us what he could, even triumphantly pointing out that our two most likely future collaborators, Adam Kuspa and Gadi Shaulsky, worked at Baylor College of Medicine, right across the street from us. And they, of course, were former postdocs of Bill Loomis.
The good thing about Bill was he was always around to chat since his need for a cigarette took him away from many talks. We quickly figured out that we learned more from private conversations than from the lectures, so we spent a lot of time with Bill. He was always skeptical, but not unwelcoming. He was not the one at that first meeting that actually asked me what we were doing there, as if we were threatening intruders.
We only know Bill from Dicty meetings. Sometimes he was a bit over the top, insisting how much he valued our presence, but giving us an undesirable first or last slot to talk. I think we confused him, but we had shared friends in Gadi and Adam. And when he could be, Bill was very helpful. Perhaps the best time was when we were puzzling over all the very long triplet DNA repeats in Dicty and wondered if they were expressed. Bill had a blot that showed that in fact one of the largest ones was, and let us use this unpublished datum.
Colorful, larger than life personalities make things fun, but can offend. Bill was certainly more in the former than the latter camp. What would a Dicty meeting be like if you couldn’t count on finding Bill smoking away, skipping a talk, giving opinions on just about everything?
After we had seen Bill at multiple Dicty meetings, he seemed more accepting of us. He told some family stories. Apparently he grew up in a very intellectual family, discussed in a book called Tuxedo Park. What I remember is Bill telling of hanging as a kid on the stair railing as people below, major intellectuals of that time, talked about things like splitting the atom.
Bill Loomis, opinionated, penetrating, interested in everything, and fun. I’m going to miss you! You died too young, but thus did not suffer the indignities that extreme old age eventually brings to us all.