Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A tribute to Matt Biddle, my friend and colleague

Matt with his daughter, Faith, on the occasion of a visit to our home

My friend Matt Biddle died last evening (10 April 2018 - the 39th anniversary of the Red River Valley tornado outbreak), after a long struggle with a host of physical challenges.  I can't detail his entire medical history, but his most recent problem was a heart stoppage, resulting in anoxic brain damage.  When Vickie and I went to see him in the ICU of Mercy Hospital, he was unresponsive and on a ventilator.  His family then decided the best thing would be to take him off of life support.  His passing was peaceful and his family was there at the end.

Matt was saddled with these physical difficulties for the entire time I knew him, but he somehow managed to carry on with his life.  To me, that represents extraordinary courage and determination - those were two of his defining characteristics.  Matt was seriously dedicated to issues that involved people, as a geographer who felt compassion for others and sought to provide mechanisms to reach out and help those with physical handicaps in severe weather situations, even as he had to overcome so many physical problems himself.  His contributions to the University of Oklahoma in terms of storm preparedness were vastly out of proportion with his rewards - both financial and personal.  He was an avid storm chaser and participated in scientific field programs whenever given the opportunity - he supported the science with his full commitment to whatever missions he was given.  He was also a big fan of the Detroit Red Wings.

Matt was an opinionated, argumentative person, so naturally I was drawn to him - so much of what he said and stood for made perfect sense to me.  Of course, I didn't always agree with him about everything, so we argued frequently.  I don't believe he ever took this personally and he gave at least as much as he got.  I always respected what Matt had to say, even if I disagreed at times.  Sadly, Matt wasn't appreciated by academics and management because he spoke his mind clearly and with passion.  Most seemed ready to kick him under the proverbial bus rather than to provide him with opportunities and the means to contribute.  I was able to help Matt obtain his PhD in Geography after Matt had a stroke that left him with aphasia affecting his ability to speak and write his thoughts.  Think about how frustrating it would be to have thoughts but be unable to express them!  Nevertheless, I forced him to do as much as he could without my intervention, so he could feel he "owned" his dissertation.  I was so proud of him and pleased to see him conquer the process and his aphasia on the day he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation.  Unfortunately, even that achievement failed to win him much respect in the professional world.  We tried several times to get funding to do various interdisciplinary projects related to severe storm preparedness, but ... no luck.

Matt's PhD Advisory Committee after his successful dissertation defense

His life during the time I knew him seemed to be a constant roller-coaster ride.  Great joy and satisfaction with his successes, only to be laid low by one physical issue after another.  His greatest and most constant joy was his daughter, Faith, who is pretty and quite bright - she's always done well in school.  I know she looked up to Matt and did things to help him cope with the tough side of his life.  He simply adored her.

I regret not having spent more time with him.  I'm reminded of an occasion when I was chasing with Al Moller in Kansas.  Several of us, including Matt, converged on an Applebee's in Newton, KS for a late supper.  We all jabbered on for a long pleasant interlude before going our separate ways.  A happy memory.  It's also somehow comforting to know that despite all his difficulties, he was able to chase;  it was something he loved doing.

Occasionally, we'd get together for a beer and perhaps a meal, but in retrospect, I wish we had done so much more often.  Matt leaves behind many in the chasing community who held him in high esteem.  If the level of his professional support had been based on the admiration of his friends, he'd have been able to do great things.  His passing is far too soon but the challenges with his body he faced were too much even for his strong will.  Matt may never be cited very often in scholarly circles, but his spirit and his accomplishments live on in the hearts and minds of the many who knew and loved him.  He will be missed by a multitude.


tornado.specialist said...

Thanks for posting such a thoughtful tribute, Chuck. Matt was an inspiration to so many of us, it seems -- from his early "Chaser Formerly Known as Matt" CFDG and field-project days to now. Elke chased with Matt in the early NGS project days of the late 1990s (hauntingly, including Tim Samaras, Carl Young and Al Moller). I admired Matt's argumentative idealism too; yes, we had some good ones, but always seemed to come back around to talk of our mutually favored pro football team, the Dallas Cowboys.

Even more, I admired Matt's love for his daughter and determination and integrity in the face of hardships that would cause others to get lost in despondency or worse. We had many e-mail exchanges about tornado data, events and chasing -- indeed, a spontaneous nowcasting call from Matt helped me get to the tornadic supercell that offered this marvelous little scene in northwest Kansas:

He left all of us who knew him better off for it.

===== Roger Edwards =====

okienurse said...

Matt was definitely a role model to a lot of people but never saw himself in that light. I remember when he got his PhD he shrugged his was a big deal but nothing he was going to brag about. He was a humble man, opinionated but for the good of everyone not just Matt. He said Faith was his biggest accomplishment and was so proud of her. I feel so sorry for her not being able to have him around now. He is missed a lot!

Anonymous said...

Chuck as usual, your comments leave me without words and this is no exception. I'm very sorry to hear about Matt's passing. While I never had the opportunity to meet him, I sure wish that I could have. Please pass along my condolences to his family.

Steve Johnson
Fresno, CA.

Chuck Doswell said...

Note: Okienurse is my wife, Vickie.

Anonymous said...

I never knew Matt but I graduated high school with Jason. Sorry for your loss, Matt sounds like an incredible person. My condolences to the family.

Monica Miracle (Russell)

david grizzle said...

Outstanding comments and I agree regarding Matt’s forwardness. It was a breath of fresh air and gave strength to others to speak up. Many times on events Matt would appear and we would have some great short visits. A true cornerstone not fully realized.
David Grizzle

Patrick Burke said...

Matt and I were forever bonded after May 3, 1999, when he served as driver for myself and Kevin Scharfenberg during the Sub-VORTEX research project. We witnessed 13 tornadoes together that day. I've not been following Facebook lately, but my wife let me know of Matt's condition via Chuck's writings, and for that I am grateful. Not knowing that he had yet passed, I thought of Matt this afternoon as I circled the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C., viewing the cherry blossoms. It was a peaceful moment, and I feel Matt is in a peaceful place. I will miss his enthusiasm and kindness.

pastgrace said...

Roger Edwards referred to the "Chaser Formerly Known as Matt." I recall Matt proudly calling himself the "Chaser Known as HazMatt" and having a license plate on his chase vehicle (with all of its typical meteorological sensors), HAZMAT. Being that I was a meteorologist before starting my graduate studies in the OU Geography Department (where Matt was also a student), I often got into excited discussions with him about weather.

Matt deserved to get a purple heart along with his PhD, because he was wounded several times by academia. However, he kept on fighting. Even after receiving his PhD, he searched for funding for further work and visited the National Weather Center hoping to find support. He was persistent and usually refused physical help when walking with his crutches. If nothing else, his legacy is to be an inspiration to others with so-called handicaps.

Dan Berkowitz

John Bishop said...

Matt had a passion for public service. He continued to work at OUPD in any role that was offered. He became a Weather Specialist for Emergency Management Incident Command with OUPD. He was active with LEPC and wanted to be part of the OUEM team. I will miss the phone calls, text, emails and radio chatter from Matt. He was really proud to be OUPD and lived to serve us and the OU community. We usually met for brunch on Saturdays usually at Scratch, the Garage, the Service Station, Midway or something on campus or campus corner. He never complained about his disability and sought to correct biases that others had on those with physical challenges.

I too wish that I spent more time with him, especially at the end. My travels in search of a job in Minnesota took me away while Matt was in the hospital.

To all his family and friends. Please know that he spoke highly of all of you and with great fondness. His academic, storm chasing, school and sports friends were topics of many conversations.

Matt had a passion for being involved and wanted to protect and serve. He did so as a Community Service Officer, in Emergency Management and as a Weather Specialist / Storm Chaser.

We met early in my career. I used to pull him over because he drove that El Camino like a bat out of hell. He was an aggressive and distracted driver. After a while, I would pull him over and we would talk about his chasing adventures. We worked together on the set of Twister in 1995. It was really fun to see the advisers in their cars and the Project Vortex team consulting and being ignored by Hollywood. He hated that they didn’t make it more realistic. His work in Emergency Management inspired me in my pursuit to be an Emergency Manager and Operations Section Chief. He volunteered to work any incident I was on and I put him in every chance I had as a technical specialist.

I wish we had more time Matt. I wish…

You will never be forgotten. We have it from here, rest easy my brother. Stay safe.

Lt. John R. Bishop
OUPD # 22

Anonymous said...

I was very saddened to hear of Matt's death. I am a neighbor and friend from his high school days. I only saw him in person a handful of times over the last 20 years, but we emailed quite often over the last few years. Thank you to everyone who posted comments above. It helped fill in for me what Matt had been doing during "the Oklahoma years."

Matt was definitely a unique person. Always very smart. Argumentative but smart. And also a very funny person. I will miss him.
Dave Riddle