A Tribute to Neil Duane (1940 to 2004)

September 2004

Boston-IA founder, P.J. Gardner, remembers Neil Duane (1940 to 2004) and acknowledges his contributions to the founding of Boston-IA and his support of her as a mentor and guide to the world of accessibility.

I always wanted a mentor, but I guess I never really had one. Now I am pleased to say that I had one of the best.

I first met Neil Duane back in the mid-1980s. I think it was in 1985, but memory fails. All I know was that we were having another recession back then, and I had put an ad in the Boston Globe looking for technical writing work. I got a call from Neil inviting me down to the offices of Boston Documentation Design in Quincy, Massachusetts, on Wood Road. I thought it was some kind of interview. He told me to come down and see what they were working on. I arrived, all ready to do my interview thing, and he was on the phone, so he waved me into an office filled with computers and a few people working, and told me to look around. He stayed on the phone the whole time I was there, perhaps a couple hours. He was obviously wheeling and dealing, making connections with people, so I left him alone. I finally left, a bit disappointed that I was not able to make a good impression and find paying work.

After this terribly inauspicious beginning, we talked by phone several times. Neil was always excited about something, generating ideas a mile a minute. I know several of my friends did part-time work for him, and I kept running into him from time to time, at meetings of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) or other places related to technical writing. No hard feelings, but we did not have more than a passing acquaintance at that point.

Then one day, I attended a meeting of the AccessAbility SIG chapter that Lori Gillen was forming at the STC in Boston. Neil Duane was there with Dean Rose Doherty to talk about a new graduate certificate program that was being created at Northeastern University to teach Accessible Web Design. I had begun to investigate accessibility, because it seemed like a natural fit for my love of hand-coding Web pages and my concern for people with vision problems. (I had just recovered from involved LASIK surgery myself.) Neil and Rose were there to invite people to sign up for the program. Neil was bubbling over with enthusiasm about the program— they both were— and in my heart of hearts, I knew I was already hooked.

I stayed in touch with Neil and Rose while I took the first class with Michael Salvo of the English department on "Communications for Interactive Media". As a result of that class, I created an imaginary organization called "Boston-IA", to bring together the disciplines of Information Architecture and Internet Accessibility. Just before I started the second class (which would be with Neil), I talked to Bill Buchholz, chairman of the Information Design and Corporate Communication program at Bentley [University], and he said to "make it real".

So I entered Neil's class, "Accessibility and Interactive Technologies", with an imaginary organization that already had a few founding members. Neil's class was a real eye-opener. The first night, he showed a film, by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, about the benefits of accessible Web design for people with disabilities. During the course, he invited JoAnn Becker of Adaptive Technology Consulting (a blind woman) to show us the JAWS program. He taught us about the demographics of people with disabilities and showed us the AccessBooks product he and a partner had designed to read books to people who are blind. He taught us how to caption video clips and had us compare the different accessibility standards and evaluate Web sites for accessibility. He told us why the standards were in place and let us know why each of them was important to real human beings.

He talked a mile a minute and was a walking encyclopedia, not only about people who are blind or have low vision, but about people with every other disability, including people who are Deaf or have hearing impairments, or people who have learning disabilities. Neil was such a wealth of knowledge, and his enthusiasm for the topic was boundless.

Neil didn't limit himself to just the subject matter, either. He also helped us think about how to develop ourselves as consultants in accessibility and be the advocates for accessibility he knew we would be. "You are at the forefront," he told us. "It is your job to pave the way."

For our final project, he asked us to evaluate a Web site and to write it up in a format we could present to a potential client or employer. Throughout the course, he kept in touch by e-mail on a daily basis and answered every question we asked. He was always online, it seemed. He never had to look anything up. He knew everything off the top of his head. He was born to be helpful and concerned, I think. He was certainly one of the most caring instructors I have ever had. And he talked about his own health issues, some of which had hospitalized him for months, or possibly years, in the most off-hand manner possible. He turned everything that came across his path into a learning experience.

Even when the class was over, Neil helped me develop my final project into something I still use as a work sample. One day, I remember us sitting in Bertucci's at Alewife Station, on high stools, while he helped me with the numbers of people with disabilities in each category, both in the U.S. and worldwide. We also brainstormed about the first Boston-IA event. He volunteered to speak on a panel with Bill Buchholz on the Boston-IA tagline, "Bringing Information Architecture and Internet Accessibility Together". Bill would talk about Information Architecture, and Neil would talk about Internet Accessibility. I remember Neil drawing an elaborate diagram, on a napkin or scrap of paper, I forget which, of all the disciplines that could be involved in accessible information delivery. He also gave me advice about finding my next job and tried to cheer me up, because, here we were, in another recession. And he even bought me lunch.

When it came time for the Boston-IA event, Neil sent me an e-mail that he might not be there, but he'd try. He was— Oh, by the way— going in for cancer surgery, but he really wanted to be at my event and to support me. Not only did he show up, with a bandage above his eye, he talked non-stop from the moment he began speaking to the end of the program, with everyone glued to his every word. How could one person know so much? It was as if he were trying to tell us everything he knew in one evening.

From that point on, Neil and I stayed in touch constantly by e-mail and by phone. I told him about progress with Boston-IA and my contract job searches, and he encouraged me all the way. He admitted to me that they were "a bit worried" about his surgery, that they "hadn't quite gotten as much as they thought," but he always minimized it and stayed very cheerful. Over the next months, he was always so positive, it was hard to imagine what he must be encountering. In December 2003, he went into the hospital for some heavy-duty treatments, but he was always positive. I kept in touch, informing my fellow students about Neil's progress and giving them his address for get-well cards and greetings. It was only during the spring that Neil admitted that it was so bad after the treatments, "I could barely walk," he told me.

Neil kept talking about staying positive and looking towards the future. Finally, in the Spring, I pushed myself to call him rather than sending e-mail, something I had been avoiding for a little while, because I didn't want to know how bad it was. Neil told me that he had taken his family, including the grandkids, to Disney World, to be together and "so they would have some good memories". He still had lots of hope, but he was preparing for whatever lay ahead. Throughout all of this, his thoughts were always about others, not himself. He told me he had planned his own funeral and burial, so his family members would not have to worry about anything. I even think he wrote his own obituary. "I think it's harder on the family," he said, "than on the patient."

He told me, "I put together some of my books and things for you and left them at Northeastern. Make sure you pick them up. I will give them to you, but I may need to borrow them back, if I beat the odds on this. O.K.? ...Call if you have questions. I'm still coherent."

I couldn't imagine it, but every time I sent him an e-mail, I got an answer that sounded like his usual self. He told me, "I have another round of chemo coming up. They want to try something else. They tell me I have one chance in five, but I am going to go for it." I talked to him by phone on the Saturday after the first treatment. He said, "I feel pretty good. If I were going to be sick, I think it would have happened by now."

I went to class the following Thursday and left class during the break to pick up the materials Neil left for me. I couldn't imagine how in the world I was going to carry them up the stairs and across the bridge over the train tracks to the parking lot. Nancy (from the Northeastern office) told me how Neil had given a reference for me to teach his course the following year and how many good things he said about me. Then she brought me his leather-bound document box (which I had seen so many times) on a dolly— all tied up neatly with a bungy cord, ready for travel. Later, in the classroom, when I opened the book box and looked inside, I found all the text books, accessibility device brochures, teaching manuals, examples of Braille, American Sign Language diagrams, and everything else you could have imagined inside— including the Karamazov Brothers tape.

On Saturday, which was April 10th, I called Neil's house to thank him. There was a pause at the other end of the line and his wife, Patty, took the phone. "I'm sorry," she said. "I guess you don't know that Neil passed away this morning."

Since then, I have looked back at the e-mail messages Neil sent me over all those months, messages telling me to believe in myself, always about me, rarely about himself. I remember one message in particular: "You just keep hanging in there. You're doing just fine and have enough energy to power up three normal people. In some ways you remind me of myself when I was younger. So much to do and not enough time. At least I tried, and can look back with no regrets that I didn't try something, even though it was a bitch at the time."

He signed his very last message to me, "Your mentor, Neil". I guess I was very blessed to have such a mentor in my life. Someone I will surely never forget.

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