A Vt. drowning sets off a story of revelations
By Kevin O'Connor
Staff Writer | April 09,2006
At first glance, the young man was just another checkout worker trying to squeeze a cartload of groceries into one bag. Who knew he was a world-renowned physicist with weightier questions on his mind?
Anyone tracking the news in southeastern Vermont in January would have read about a 36-year-old man who drowned after diving into the frigid Connecticut River.
John Brodie was a part-time supermarket worker living in Brattleboro when he grabbed his bicycle the night of Jan. 28, pedaled to nearby New Hampshire and rang someone's doorbell. When police stopped to question him, Brodie said he was running for president. Then he jumped into the cold, dark river and disappeared.
Police had little more to report when, five days later, they pulled Brodie's body from the water. Most locals, hearing of some longhaired guy riding around in secondhand clothes, figured his tale was sad but simple.
Then family members and friends started telling the rest of the story.
It begins when John Hartley Brodie, born in Massachusetts and raised in Maryland, parlayed his high school academic honors and piano- and lacrosse-playing skills into acceptance at Cornell University.
Brodie had the look of an All-American — blue eyes, blond hair, a tall, toned body and a wide smile — but he was no "big man on campus." Personable yet humble, he won acceptance to medical school, only to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from Cornell in, respectively, 1991 and 1992.
Taking a year off to tour Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe with nothing but a backpack, the son of Quaker parents turned to Eastern religions and shoulder-length hair. But soon he was back to the books, earning a doctorate in theoretical physics from Princeton University in 1998.
For Brodie, science was a family tradition. His late grandfather, Herbert Hartley, was an organic chemist who helped develop the polyurethane industry and was honored by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for designing the antitank hand grenade used in World War II.
His father, Harry Brodie, is a retired organic chemist who developed the first estrogen-biosynthesis inhibitors now used to treat breast cancer.
His mother, Angela Hartley Brodie, is a University of Maryland researcher who last year became the first woman to receive the $250,000 international Charles F. Kettering Prize for "the most outstanding recent contribution to the diagnosis or treatment of cancer."
But talk with Brodie's parents and they can't begin to tell you about their son's thesis on gauge and string theories. Physicists call string theory the "theory of everything" because it tries to explain the nature of all forces and matter by breaking them down into a shared ingredient smaller than atoms or electrons or quarks.
Confused? Brodie wasn't. He went on to study the theory at Stanford University and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., and published more than a dozen research papers in peer-reviewed journals. (The Journal of High Energy Physics, for example, ran his article on "D-branes in Massive IIA and Solitons in Chern-Simons Theory" in 2001.)
"John is a well-known figure in our community," says Amihay Hanany, associate professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "People know him all over the world."
In 2004, Brodie took another break and traveled to Central America, teaching at the Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica and building Habitat for Humanity housing for poor people in Nicaragua. The last time he toured the world, he returned to academics. This time, he decided to follow a different path.
Last fall, Brodie was hiking in the Northeast when he stopped in Brattleboro. Spotting a flyer seeking people interested in communal living, he called the phone number on it.
"He said he was just passing through, that he was traveling to find more peace for himself, and he asked about places to stay," recalls Glenn Reintsma, a 28-year-old who lives in the town.
Brodie ended up sleeping on Reintsma's sofa for several weeks. Brattleboro, he discovered, had Quakers, Buddhists and other worldly spirits drawn by its School for International Training. Feeling at home, he rented an apartment.
"He said he did some tutoring in physics, but you never would have guessed he had the background he did," recalls his landlady, Martha Gehring. "It's not that he was withholding or unfriendly. He was just very modest — and very gentle, very sweet, very simple, very kind."
Locals grew to know Brodie as an environmentalist, a peace activist and a vegetarian who supported People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He liked to play his guitar, write music, hike, camp, bicycle and practice yoga and meditation. To make a little money, he bagged groceries at the local Price Chopper supermarket.
That all changed the night of Jan. 28, when Brodie got on his bicycle, rode across the Connecticut River bridge to Hinsdale, N.H., and rang a doorbell on a dark, quiet road. A policeman stopped him soon after.
"John told me that he was running for president," patrolman Dean Wright wrote in his report. "I told John that maybe it would be a good idea to go door to door at 11:00 in the morning instead of 23:00 at night."
Taking Brodie's Canadian health insurance card, Wright returned to his cruiser for a records check.
"John was very polite and seemed eager to please," the report continues.
But something happened when the policeman returned to say Brodie was free to go.
"Please don't shoot me," the young man reportedly said before he started running. The policeman saw Brodie jump into a marsh between the road and the river. He heard him complain the water was cold. He saw him get out, only to run toward the icy Connecticut. He heard a loud splash.
"I shined my flashlight out and could make out the shadow of John and the rippling of the water," the policeman wrote. "I then heard John say 'Help me, help me.' His voice sounded very weak and in distress. I told John to come back to my voice and my flashlight. A few moments later, I did not see John at all."
Authorities would not find Brodie's body until five days later. Arena Israel read the short newspaper story on the drowning of a man described as "reclusive." The Brattleboro woman recognized him as the meditator in the blue mechanic's jacket who sat beside her at a local Buddhist center. She started making phone calls.
Brodie, she discovered, had parents in Maryland and a brother, sister-in-law and niece and nephew in California. He took the supermarket job to escape the complexities of physics, he told friends, only to find his mind spinning with questions about bagging efficiency. Israel also learned the probable cause for his late-night ride.
"John was a brilliant, creative, and deeply spiritual person who lived a rich, full, and courageous life in spite of his struggles with bipolar mental illness," she wrote in a letter to the editor several days later.
Bipolar disease, once called manic-depression, is a brain condition that causes unusual shifts in a person's emotions and energy. Brodie had taken medication for it when he was diagnosed while studying in Canada several years ago. But seeking an alternative to mainstream medicine, he eventually stopped.
Brodie's obituary appeared in the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun.
"John Hartley Brodie, 36, a theoretical physicist, accidentally drowned on January 28, 2006 near Brattleboro, Vt., where he was residing," it began.
Family members and friends attended a Quaker funeral in Maryland in February, then drove to Vermont for a memorial service at the Putney Friends Meetinghouse last month.
"We want to know more," one friend said through tears.
More than 40 natives and newcomers, waiting for the start of the service, contemplated their piece of the puzzle, not understanding how it fit into the full portrait.
"Each of us knew John in a very different way," Quaker Francie Marbury began. "This is an opportunity to get a rich picture of an extraordinary man."
The out-of-staters spoke of his intellect.
"Boy, could John carry a great conversation. We covered anything from politics to philosophy, spirituality, world affairs and, of course, very heavy mind-bending physics and math," friend and fellow physicist Stephon Alexander wrote in a letter read aloud. "I honestly can't help but express anger and frustration about his not elevating to his rightful stature in his field. But I knew that John was not about that stuff, he wasn't in it for the ego trip. He did physics because it gave him joy."
The locals told stories about the humble soul who padded around his apartment barefoot, who telephoned a mental health advocate a week before his death seeking help for his condition.
"If Jesus Christ was walking among you today, would you recognize him?" John Wilmerding of Brattleboro said. "I think John challenges us now to grow beyond our own boundaries, to realize each other as great souls."
But returning home, people started talking, telephoning, typing more newspaper letters. Why didn't Brodie take his medications? Why didn't the homeowner who heard the doorbell let it go rather than calling police? Why didn't the patrolman deal with the situation differently?
Brodie lived to explore different questions. At the service, someone read a poem he once wrote his father:
"Tell me why the sky is so blue today/I love you as I said before and anyway/Can you see above the lumine of the sky/When we will see each other at the end of time."
Outside the meetinghouse, the sun shone, a breeze blew. Inside, a copy of Israel's letter to the editor sat on a table.
"For me, John is an example of a type of endangered human species," she wrote. "May we as individuals, and as a community as a whole, come to respect and value the more courageous, vulnerable and gifted among us before it's too late."
Contact Kevin O'Connor at email@example.com.