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Remembering Dick Oehrle

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Our colleague Dick Oehrle passed away this past Wednesday after an approximately 2-year long battle with gliobastoma, a highly virulent form of brain cancer.  Dick was a highly unusual man in just about every respect.   Having been a linguistics professor for many years, at roughly the age of 50, he decided to give up academia in favor of startup-land. The first startup he joined didn’t work out. When he applied at Cataphora,  he had little startup experience, and lived a whopping hour and a half away from the office.  I admit that despite his super-impressive resume, I had to think twice about hiring him.  But his evident enthusiasm for the endeavor quickly brought me to the right decision.

Though Dick worked for me at Cataphora for nearly a decade, during which we had many ups and downs, I only saw him get even slightly angry once. This rare event occurred back in the early days of Cataphora, when the office Nespresso machine broke.   Dick read the instructions and tried to fix the machine, but to no avail. It made a pathetic snorting sound, but no water was pumped, and no coffee was produced.    So Dick was reduced to calling Nespresso tech support.    A very young-sounding woman who was clearly reading from a script started to ask him questions. “Sir, are you sure the machine is plugged in?”, “Are you sure the power switch is set to ‘on’?”, “Are you sure you poured water in the machine?” and so on.  Finally after a few more inane questions, she asked him whether or not he had tried to read the instructions, and if so, whether he was sure that he had understood them.

Even for Dick, this was the final straw.  Hours without coffee, no imminent hope of resolution, and on top of that he was being mightily condescended to – a state of affairs that was surely well outside of his experience.   Although much time has passed, I still remember Dick’s reply: “Madam, I have read your instructions. All of your instructions. I have read them in all seven languages in which you provided them.  I have a PhD from MIT. If I can’t fix the machine with your instructions, who can?” 

I recollect less well what transpired after that. However I believe we got a new machine from Nespresso that was either discounted or free.   And then we bought a spare one too, just to be on the safe side.

Dick built and ran the computational linguistics group at Cataphora. He was one of five key men when Cataphora sold its legal (digital investigation & e-discovery) business to EY.   After a 4-year stint at EY, Dick semi-retired, contributing to Chenope on a part-time basis.  He focused on the critical notion of indexicality, the construct that all language at least implicitly reflects the world view or understanding of the speaker.  For example, to someone who stocks the shelves at night at a large chain store, “upper management” means the assistant night shift manager, and not the CEO of the conglomerate.  This concept has large implications for any serious study of organizations, regardless of their kind.

Even after the diagnosis, Dick continued to contribute.  His encyclopedic knowledge of all things linguistic wasn’t eradicated (or even seemingly significantly compromised,) by the cancer.  Astonishingly, he was even finding subtle errors in the patent that we were working on at the time.   But he would tire quickly, and sometimes get disoriented about things like the time of day, or day of the week.  Yet his memory of things that had gone on at Cataphora even a decade earlier remained sharp and precise.  He outlived the average life expectancy by ~4x.

One of the great rewards of doing startups is the opportunity to work with extraordinary people.  I certainly had that opportunity with Dick, and for that I will always be grateful.

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