[Musical Inspiration: American Boy, Estelle]
“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I first got to know Walter Bornhorst when he was my boss at my father’s company, Thermo Electron (now Thermo Fisher Scientific). Walter was a senior executive with blond hair and fire in his hazel eyes. He mentored me in business and invited me to bike twenty miles every day at lunchtime through the woods of Lincoln, teaching me how to draft, just millimeters behind his wheel.
He was fifty, and I was twenty-five. He’d been divorced for seven years and had four adult kids around my age. He was my boss, and my father was his boss. The risks were clear, but Walter found excitement in danger.
After we started dating, Walter taught me to ski. We were fiercely competitive, and I complained that his prior experience gave him an unfair advantage. Snowboarding had just come out, so he suggested we go to the top of Loon Mountain—without lessons—and race down. Of course, he won. He became an expert, snowboarding into his 70’s and passing all the teenagers on the mountain.
At the office, Walter always had a Styrofoam coffee cup in his hand and a plastic stirrer in his mouth. He drank coffee all day long until one day he decided it was unhealthy and quit coffee altogether. He never bought into the Ancient Greek ideal of “everything in moderation.” Before I knew him, he’d been a heavy drinker (until giving up alcohol) and a chain smoker (taking puffs between points while playing tennis, until he stopped smoking). He always promised he’d live to be a hundred, so when he heard that garlic made you live longer, he ate garlic cloves until he stunk, and I made him stop. While he loved all food—blood pudding, fried brain, bread dipped in bacon fat and molasses, squirrel, pheasant, and rabbit—he became vegan after reading about its health benefits, and then started evangelizing to convert our friends.
My parents took issue with our age difference, although they respected and loved Walter. In fact, they’d known him since before I was born, after Walter’s unlikely path into their world.
Walter was born in 1941, on a remote Ohio farm to parents with a sixth grade education. Due to dyslexia, he always said he was from "McCartysville," but we learned after his death that his hometown was actually "McCartyville" (no "s"). Their house had no bathroom, just an outhouse with Sears catalogues for toilet paper. His severe dyslexia, which made it difficult for him to recall his own birthday, caused him to be a weak student, so he had the girls do his homework on the bus. For him, school was about recess. A natural leader, rule-breaker and rabble rouser, he organized a student strike, convincing the kids to stay out at recess after the bell rang.
With myriad priests, brothers, and nuns among his 22 uncles and aunts, Walter started high school in the seminary, to become a Catholic priest. On laundry duty, he had kids smuggle in bread and butter which he ironed to make griddled sandwiches, driving huge demand until he got caught. While on kitchen duty during a staff party, he set up a jug outside the window to pour wine from the half-empty bottles, and later the kids snuck out to the courtyard to drink. He’d already been drinking since the age of ten, when he sat with the men for beer after working the fields. Anyone old enough to work was old enough to drink.
Walter got homesick and left the seminary, but he remained religious until his eldest son Michael started asking questions that Walter couldn’t answer with logic, so he dropped religion in favor of spirituality. When our children were little, Walter gathered them every week for “Spiritual Sunday,” where they discussed issues of ethics, morality, and how to live life.
As a teenager, Walter excelled in sports. In junior high, he held the county record for best pole vaulter, and despite his average stature he became a local basketball star. In high school he was named Athlete of the year for track, basketball, and baseball. The principal said Walter was not “college material” and should become a coach, but Walter had heard that “engineers were on top of the world.” He decided to become an engineer, even though he didn’t know what that was. Throughout his life, he simply made a decision and jumped in, feet first.
At the University of Dayton, Walter spent his first year taking high school refresher classes for no credit. As the classes got more technical, he found his groove, with a hands-on feel for engineering from building projects as a kid on the farm, such as a go-cart track and a retrofitted pony wagon. As a teenager, he’d constructed a full-sized tennis court, pulling trees with a tractor, moving dirt with a front-end loader, and spreading clay from a local gravel pit.
Throughout his life, whenever problems arose, Walter created solutions using engineering. When we got married and did IVF, he built a contraption so I could give myself injections. Recently, after his scooter fell on him while parking, he built a wooden stand to replace the kickstand. Like any engineer, he was data-driven, and every day (in various periods) he charted his weight, biking speed, golf score, investment returns, blood pressure, heart rate, REM sleep, or platelet count. All over our house are folded lists with scrawled dates, numbers, and graphs.
Walter’s college advisor encouraged him to apply to MIT, which was the most improbable step of his story, since his family had never heard of it. At MIT, Walter found joy in solving problems and understanding the underlying theory: what he called, “the beauty of the truth.”
His professor in Thermodynamics was my dad, George Hatsopoulos, who made him his Teaching Assistant and became his Ph.D. advisor. My father always said that Walter was his smartest student. (I reminded my father of this fact when my parents later objected to me marrying an older man.) Walter earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in a record three years. He became Assistant Professor in Thermodynamics at MIT where he was assured of tenure track, but he left to work for my dad at his young company, Thermo Electron.
At Thermo, Walter led the development of the artificial heart, making implants in calves. After solving blood clotting issues, they implanted the heart in a boy, leading to FDA approval and the first widely-used electrically-powered artificial heart. Walter also created and led several spinouts through IPO, becoming Senior Vice President and the obvious choice as successor to George as CEO of Thermo Electron.
At work, Walter had uncanny strategic clarity that was unclouded by popular opinion. He never took notes in meetings and simply sat back with that plastic coffee stirrer in his mouth, looking for the signal in the noise. Nothing came easily. He kept his home address in his wallet because he couldn’t spell it. In the end, however, dyslexia became his super-power, because his inability to skate on the surface required him to understand things to their core. His intellect, judgment and wisdom made him a trusted advisor to many (including me). His boredom at social events converted to total engagement when the small talk turned to serious conversation, debate, or an issue where Walter had advice to offer. Even his older brother referred to Walter as his older brother. Whatever the problem, Walter always had the solution.
He was also willing to state his opinion without holding back. Always valuing function over form, Walter disdained formalities. When Human Resources had him fill out paperwork which he deemed wasteful bureaucracy, he wrote at the top, “If anyone ever reads this, call me.” In school, his sassiness earned him a “D” in Deportment. He spoke his truth, because he believed in facing reality, and he didn’t look to others for validation. With confidence in his own capabilities, he felt no need to try to impress others. He only wanted to be true to himself. His authenticity drew admirers, even though he didn’t care about being admired.
When George tapped Walter to be the next CEO of Thermo Electron, Walter declined.
My father, stunned that Walter would turn down the opportunity, said, “I don’t understand. What do you want?”
Walter said, “I want to have fun.”
Work was not Walter’s identity or fuel for his ego. Despite his strong leadership skills and judgment, his ambitions were driven by a simple desire to earn enough money to pursue his passion for playing sports. Growing up, money had always been his biggest constraint. To make money as a child, he’d shot rats and sold the tails to the county for population control; bred rabbits, selling hundreds to the grocer; and trapped and skinned weasels for their fur. His earnings were used to buy his bike, a tennis racket, and a pump shotgun for hunting squirrels and pheasants. Money was never about status; money enabled fun.
When my parents realized we were serious, they embraced Walter as part of the family. My father, after writing the book on Thermodynamics, creating a tech conglomerate, and presenting his economic papers to Congress as Chairman of the Boston Fed, appreciated having someone at the dinner table at his intellectual level. Walter, unintimidated, held his own on any topic, with a particular zeal for political debate.
After our wedding, Walter and I honeymooned in Greece with my entire Greek family. With grace, he navigated the overpowering culture and the foreign language spoken around him, biking for hours up through the mountains for a panoramic view of the sea. He created “Thistle Hills” in the arid Greek landscape so that he and our kids could hit golf balls and shoot archery. Later, he put in a hot yoga studio and set the temperature to 110F instead of the standard 95-100F, because if hot was good then hotter was better. He made the Greece experience his own.
When Walter left Thermo, he saw an opportunity to do real estate rehabs in Boston with his son Michael. I drew the interior layouts while getting my M.S. from MIT in Mechanical Engineering.
Walter was a huge help in my understanding of engineering, always starting with first principles and a free body diagram. He was a gifted teacher, and later was so proud and delighted to instruct our daughter Zoe in engineering when she was at MIT. He also taught physics and math to his granddaughter Grace. After we decided to sponsor Chanel, a Cameroonian student from Greece attending college in the U.S., Walter tutored him in calculus, accounting, budgeting, and life, becoming his surrogate father. The only person who never went to Walter for help was our youngest son Thomas, who was busy providing him 24-hour tech support, because Walter never learned software on the farm. More than anything, Walter loved teaching sports. He taught all his eight kids (and me, my mother, and my friend) how to ski, and taught many of us how to snowboard so he could share in his joy.
A few years after leaving Thermo, Walter and I, along with two creative engineers, co-founded Z Corporation, an early leader in 3D printing out of MIT. We shipped our first 3D printer two months after I gave birth to twin girls. I converted my office to a nursery and brought them in every day for their first year. With Walter’s strategic guidance, our team grew the business in a wild ride made more exciting by our growing family, with two boys following the twin girls.
Regardless of work, Walter was always playing sports, and nothing was done halfway. He often purchased equipment before ever trying the sport, and then practiced with single-minded focus and fervor until achieving mastery. He loved white water kayaking with his son Michael, racing his Hobie cat with his daughters Kristen and Kari, fishing with his son Sean, hot yoga with our daughters Zoe and Natasha, sculling alone on the Charles, as well as tennis, kiting, camping, jet skiing, windsurfing, and deep-sea diving.
When arthritis made his knee hurt, Walter learned to ski on a single ski at a school for amputees. Of course, he had an extra leg, so he built a platform to put two bindings onto a single ski. When his knees got worse, he walked on crutches to the bottom of the ski lift in order to snowboard down the mountain. Nothing stopped him from his passions.
After knee surgery, Walter started biking for therapy and became an avid bike racer, ultimately coming in 8th in the Nationals for his age group. He biked across the country twice with no support crew, once in his fifties with paper maps along the northern route with Michael, and again in his seventies in the opposite direction along the southern route with Zoe, Natasha and our son Christopher. He was thrilled to witness Natasha’s recent mania for biking.
Of all the sports he pursued, Walter’s biggest obsession was golf. He bought every golf gizmo under the sun and flew to Florida for lessons. Every day into his eighties, he drove his red scooter to hit balls on the driving range. He ruined my interior decor by nailing markers to the carpet and setting up golf equipment and video cameras to record himself, and then spent hours analyzing his swing to figure out “the answer.” Alas, the answer remained elusive. Golf was his only attempted challenge, physical or intellectual, that Walter was unable to master, yet that never reduced his commitment or drive. After teaching our son Christopher to hit balls as a toddler, Walter loved watching him crush the sport. Walter’s golf joy turned out to be not as a player but as Christopher’s OG instructor, partner, and frequent competitor.
Walter was in his core a thrill-seeker, and he wanted our kids to feel the fireworks. He thought people worried too much, although one could argue that he didn’t worry enough. When the twins were toddlers, he put them into a red wagon which he tied to the back of his Honda scooter, dismissing my concerns with his assurance, “Don’t worry. I have a Ph.D. from MIT.” Turning out of the driveway, the wagon toppled over, and the girls fell out, breaking Natasha’s collar bone. It was one of the few times I ever saw Walter cry.
In our backyard, he created a wonderland with a Sport Court, jungle gym, hot yoga studio, golf simulator, swings hanging from high branches, and a golf putting green. He designed a tree house which he situated way up high, giving the kids a panoramic view of the world. He built an elevator with pullies so the kids could pull themselves up, and installed a zip line from the tree house down to our patio, where kids crashed either into a human or else into the side of the house. His point, questionably executed, was to not let fear keep you from the excitement of life.
Walter’s fearlessness extended to his staunch belief in facing reality, no matter how difficult. When MDS and congestive heart failure made him too weak to play sports and too fatigued to find joy, he rejected medical interventions which offered only incremental improvement and instead demanded hospice.
Walter was the smartest, wisest and most authentic person I’ve ever known. During our 33 years together, he challenged me intellectually, calling me out on any lapse in logic. He taught me business and opened my eyes to the world of science, noting and explaining daily phenomena that I had never before questioned.
He also challenged me physically, expanding my world beyond work and books to the excitement of sports and outdoor adventures. Together we experienced the joy of biking fifty miles a day up the mountains of Italy while he carried all our supplies, crossing the country with our four kids in an RV, family camping, skiing in minus-11 degree snowstorms, and snowboarding through the clouds.
Walter was intensely competitive, but even when we raced each other down the mountain, he still cheered me on. Always the teacher, he also yelled out instructions, which could’ve applied just as well to his approach to life:
“Don’t be scared. Look in front at your reality, no matter how steep or icy the mountain is. Translate your fear into excitement and push yourself hard. Don't slide or scrape across the surface. Lean your weight into the turns with your edge and carve so deeply into the snow that you can later see the mark you’ve left on the mountain from up high on the chairlift.”