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Oliver Habicht Dies of Pancreatic Cancer at 53

Most of the time, when we note the passing of someone in TidBITS, it’s a person who was important in the history of computing or the Internet like Steve Jobs, Doug Engelbart, Bill English, Robert Noyce, Marvin Minsky, Larry Tesler, John Perry Barlow, Aaron Swartz, and even Eudora Welty. We also like to honor those who played pivotal roles in technology publishing, like Cary Lu, Tom Negrino, Robert Hess, Don Crabb, David Bunnell, and Patrick McGovern. But sometimes we memorialize people who have touched our lives within the Macintosh world in smaller, more personal ways, like Martin Minow, Evan Michael Gross, and Walter Van Lerberghe.

Oliver Habicht, who died on 25 September 2020 after suffering from pancreatic cancer for two years, falls into yet another, more rarified category. You probably won’t recognize his name, even though he has been mentioned in TidBITS five times since 1993 and once wrote an article for us (see “Photo Safe II Offers Worry-Free Travel Backups,” 11 February 2009). You may also have noticed his name in the acknowledgments of dozens of Take Control titles: when he was laid off from a job a while back, he helped with numerous books, doing tech editing and link checking, tasks that he continued for a while even after he found a new position.

But unlike almost everyone else associated with TidBITS, Oliver was Tonya’s and my friend first, only later becoming personally and professionally enmeshed in the tech world. He ended up spending 30 years as an IT manager at Cornell University, enjoying his 15 minutes of fame when he created the “pumpkin cam”—a live video feed of the enormous pumpkin that was somehow impaled on the top of Cornell’s 173-foot bell tower in 1997 and remained there for months. He even got a mention in the New York Times then, and 20 years later, the Cornell Daily Sun covered his revival of the site. For a little more small-world syndrome, note that the pumpkin was also covered by Mark Frauenfelder on BoingBoing and the final (?) story was written by none other than tech journalist Farhad Manjoo, Cornell class of 2000 and then editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun, who is currently an opinion columnist at The New York Times.

To clarify our relationship, Oliver was our best friend, having shared an apartment with us for several years while we were undergraduates at Cornell University. His parents separated during that time, and Tonya’s parents were temporarily living abroad in Scotland, so my parents expanded family gatherings to include both of them. Of course, Tonya would later officially become a member of the family when she and I got married (see “TidBITS Wedding,” 20 May 1991). At the ceremony, we enjoyed pranking Oliver, who was our best man, by making him contend with a Russian-nesting-doll series of boxes to reach our wedding rings. Unofficially, though, Oliver has long been family, and that continues to this day. We babysat for his toddler son in 2001 when he and his wife Amelia went to the hospital for the birth of their daughter, and we took care of both kids for a bit when Amelia had a stroke in 2009. We’ll be telling stories for the rest of our lives about the winter of 2015 when we drove to Ottawa with Oliver and the three of us did the Winterlude skate-ski-run triathlon in temperatures of -15 degrees Fahrenheit, or as the hardy Canadians unconcernedly informed us, -26 Celsius.

So it was hard for us to come to terms with the likely fatal pancreatic cancer diagnosis that Oliver was handed in August 2018. Since that time, we’ve watched him suffer through horrific chemotherapy, where the goal was to poison as many cancer cells as possible without actually killing him. Then there was radiation, and finally, in June 2019, he had the benignly named “Whipple procedure,” where a surgeon took out a few of his internal organs and put most of them back in a different order. After that, he was nominally cancer-free for the rest of 2019. But then some blood test marker numbers were too high, and when he went in for imaging in March 2020, more tumors showed up. He opted to avoid further chemotherapy and has enjoyed life to the extent possible during the pandemic even while knowing that he had only months to live.

During that time, Oliver focused on flying (he had a private pilot’s license) until he had to start taking morphine for pain. He and I went on numerous long weekend hikes, and he, Tonya, and I spent some afternoons just hanging out on our back porch, talking about nothing and everything like we’d done in college. After he could no longer fly, he threw himself into other hobbies, putting together an Internet-of-Things hodgepodge of devices to dissuade a woodchuck from tunneling under his porch and undermining his patio. Throughout it all, he was as matter-of-fact and upbeat about his limited time as could be imagined, and I remain in awe at his fortitude. He claimed that good character had nothing to do with it—he was just dealing with what life put in front of him.

One of Oliver’s special joys was exploring unexpected ways to do things more efficiently and sharing his methods with others. Whether that meant experimenting as a young adult to see just how quickly he could pack and get to the airport or the more methodical research of a grown man to find the best way to file paperwork (a Zoho database combined with numbered file folders), we were often the recipients of his advice. But even as he evangelized raw oatmeal for breakfast, Getting Things Done as a productivity system, and bodyweight exercises for staying strong, Oliver never pushed his findings in a know-it-all way. He did love to discuss them, though, and he usually understood what we might (or might not) be interested in hearing. He was receptive to our notions as well. For instance, back when CrashPlan offered peer-to-peer backups, he happily became my CrashPlan buddy, hosting my offsite backups at his home while I returned the favor. Oliver tackled his cancer diagnosis with research into the odds of one thing or another keeping him alive, and he frequently discussed his reasoning with us. If we had been dying alongside him of the same disease, he would undoubtedly have shared actionable advice for navigating the rough trail.

I realize that few people reading this knew Oliver, or at least knew him as well as we did. But there’s nothing to be done about that now, apart from publishing this article and regretting that there will be no more stories to share. Farewell, my friend.

Oliver Habicht and Adam Engst, photo by Tonya Engst
Oliver Habicht (left) and Adam Engst (right); photo by Tonya Engst

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Comments About Oliver Habicht Dies of Pancreatic Cancer at 53

Notable Replies

  1. So sorry to hear of the death of your friend. He sounds like someone everyone would have liked to know.

    Judaism is not my tradition, but they have a lovely expression for when someone dies: “May his memory be a blessing.” When I have officiated at funeral services, I almost always mention that I believe what brings us the most comfort and healing after a loss, especially the loss of someone who died too young, is memories of good times we had together.

    Seems like you and Tonya will have no shortage of good memories of Oliver, and I hope & pray that they will be a comfort to you and all who knew and loved him.

  2. Wonderful tribute, Adam. So sorry for you and Tonya’s loss.

  3. I’m sorry for the loss of your and Tonya’s dear friend. This beautiful portrait of a wonderful and accomplished man will help ease the grief of his friends and family.

  4. Condolences. I feel sorrow with you.

  5. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. May his memory be a blessing.

  6. So sorry for the loss of Oliver and the pain for you both and his family. He sounds like a remarkable man and clearly he planted joy and friendship in your lives. Prayers for you all.

  7. Condolences — thank you for the portrait of a friend

  8. Words are never enough. But how wonderful to have had a friend - just a friend - who meant so much to you.

  9. My condolences on the loss of such a great friend. Thanks for sharing with us the wonderful friendship.

  10. I work in the Cornell Physics Department where Oliver handled our IT. He helped me split and optimize my windows and always had a smile on his face. He stopped in the office around the beginning of the year and it was so nice to see him. He was a wonderful soul and will be sorely missed. I’m sorry for your loss.

  11. Please accept my condolences.

  12. That’s awful. Such a loss.

  13. Thanks for the note, and I’m glad you got a chance to see him again after he took leave to start the treatments. Oliver was one of those IT managers who was always training his employees better and encouraging them to take on more responsibility, a trait that actually lost him a job at one point because he’d made everyone under him so useful that his management position seemed less necessary on a day-to-day basis during a budget crunch. As much as he liked fiddling with the technology himself and working with the people he supported, he always felt that it was important to help his employees grow.

  14. Everyone should have a wonderful article like this written about them when they pass. Great job, Adam. I know that must have been incredibly difficult to write, but it was very well done. Much appreciated.

  15. Thank you—it was truly hard to write, both from the standpoint of figuring out what to put in and the many, many things I had to leave out, and from the pure emotional rollercoaster it required. I actually wrote it about 3 weeks ago when Oliver had already exceeded his 2-week notice from the doctors, which was great, since he had a chance to read it. I think it embarrassed him a little, but he said it was sweet (and didn’t have any corrections, thank goodness).

    For another view of his life and a few more pictures, here’s what I wrote for the local running club. But even this ignores his work as the head of the Varna Volunteer Fire Department, his role on the board of the First Unitarian Church in Ithaca, and so many other things.

  16. My condolences. Nice tribute to your friend.

  17. What a lovely remembrance Adam. I’m fortunate to have a best friend from college, but we don’t live in the same city. What a blessing to have such a good friend.

  18. Adam,

    At the risk of repeating what commenters said before me, what an awesome tribute. I was also pleased to learn that Oliver had the opportunity to read what you wrote before his passing. So tragic to die at such a young age. Yet a small blessing to be able to tell your best friend how you feel about him while he was still alive. My wife Ilissa and daughter Rachael are both Cornell graduates, and I’ve seen how special Cornell friendships are. Something unique about the air high above Cayuga’s waters, I believe. So sorry for your loss. My condolences to all of Oliver’s family and friends, whom I am confident are numerous and equally heartbroken.

  19. Such a brave person! and brave, appropriate memorial; and Adam, thank you for giving us the chance to have known him a little!

  20. Heartfelt condolences for your loss. It is hard to lose such a good friend so young.

  21. Thank you for writing this. I happened to pick up the most recent Cornell Alumni magazine and flipped through my decade. I was stunned to read about Oliver’s passing. We were long-time friends, although with life getting ahead of me the past few years, I hadn’t been to Ithaca or reached out for a periodic email.

    I couldn’t tell you the first time we met - I was a student, working part-time at CIT, and he worked for a different subgroup, so it was probably a retirement party or thrilling department meeting. My senior year, he moved into the office next to the one I shared with five other students. A smile became a hello, a coffee became lunch, and it was as though we’d known each other for years.

    I’d come back to Ithaca for work, and we’d catch up. I remember when he and Amelia became engaged, he was beaming. It was obvious that they were soul mates. Years later, during a particularly hot & humid reunion weekend, our two families got together at their home. My youngest, then 2, had a magnificent time in the mud by the little rivulet in their side yard.

    I don’t know why we didn’t make it back to Ithaca after that - it was always on the tomorrow list. Now tomorrow is gone, and I miss my friend.

    Oliver was a kind, gentle, McGuyver-like man who introduced me to Star Trek (Next Gen - I too am old!), Nutella, bike helmets, camping in Maine, and flying in very small planes. He loved many things, but most of all, he loved helping people in a subtle, gentle way. When I was at Cornell, he lived in a similar way - gently, fully cognizant of the footprints we leave behind. He was real, genuine, and humble, a unique man and a great friend. I know he loved his family and friends deeply, and I am certain he misses them - and you both.

    Thank you again.

  22. Thanks for sharing this, @Mel1783—it’s always nice to hear from someone else whose life intersected with Oliver’s. And yes, tomorrow is a slippery character that must be pinned to the ground or it will wiggle away repeatedly. You might be amused to know the back of the shirt I’m wearing in the photo says “carpe uiam”—a play on the classic “carpe diem” that means “sieze the run” in Latin.

    Perhaps the next time you come to Ithaca for a reunion, we can go for a walk around campus and share some stories.

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