In memoriam: Ethan Remmel, 1969 - 2011

Ethan Ryan Remmel was 41 years old when he died at home on Monday, June 13, 2011, 10 days after teaching his last class at Western Washington University and a year after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Remmel was an associate professor of developmental psychology at Western Washington University.

Born June 28, 1969, in Brunswick, Maine, Remmel attended Waynflete School and Yale University, eventually graduating with a dual major in computer science and psychology.

Remmel was a smart guy, one of those who could write his own ticket, says friend and colleague Larry Symons, an associate professor of psychology at WWU.

"He had any of a million opportunities," Symons says.

He could have kept working in Silicon Valley, for example. After graduating from Yale, he worked for computer systems giant Oracle before moving on to other leading software companies. But his heart was in education, so he went back to school, earning master's degrees at San Francisco State University and at Stanford University. He then earned his doctorate at Stanford with a dissertation on the "Theory of Mind Development in Signing Deaf Children."

He could have stayed at Stanford, too, using the university's world-class research facilities, or gone anywhere else to conduct research.

"Remmel's Ph.D. adviser at Stanford is one of the premier researchers in developmental psychology, and Ethan probably could have gone anywhere," says Remmel's partner, Grace Wang, an associate professor of environmental studies at Western. "But he chose Western because of its balanced approached to quality research and teaching."

That's exactly what he wanted. Remmel loved to teach.

"Western offered to him the ability to teach students and to work with them on a personal, one-to-one level," Symons says. "Teaching is the wrong direction if you want to make a lot of money. You come here because this is what you want to do."

And Remmel did, beginning at WWU in the fall of 2002 as an assistant professor of psychology. He became an associate professor in 2008.

It was his love for teaching that spurred him to begin a personal blog after his cancer diagnosis. He wanted to keep friends and colleagues up-to-date on his all that was going on. It was Ira Hyman, a colleague in the Psychology Department, who convinced Remmel that his writing was so important and well-written that it deserved a wider audience. Remmel began writing his "Living While Dying" blog for Psychology Today in February 2011. His first post included a brief explanation of his efforts:

I am in Hawaii on a week-long vacation with Grace and without the kids. Many months of grueling chemotherapy have held off the cancer, although it seems to be making a comeback now. I have some serious decisions to make in the near future. I have been keeping a blog for my family and friends. A friend and colleague suggested that some of my thoughts about trying to live well despite terminal illness might be interesting to a wider audience, and introduced me to the blog editor at Psychology Today.

So who am I? Like anyone, I am a lot of things. I am the son of loving parents and the father of two beautiful boys, ages 8 and 3. I am a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Western Washington University. I am a guy with cancer.

Why should you read this blog? I will try to write honestly about what it is like to live with the knowledge that death is nearby and to balance quantity and quality of life. If you are interested in end-of-life issues, I hope it will be worth your while. We will all face these issues eventually, either with regard to ourselves or loved ones.

Remmel is survived by his partner, Grace Wang, sons Miles Remmel and Seth Remmel-Coakley, and ex-wife Lynn Coakley, all of Bellingham; sister Rachel Remmel and sister-in-law Linda Stanley and nephews William and Ben Remmel, of Rochester, N.Y.; best friend Eric Martin of Durham, N.C.; and parents Kathy and U. Charles Remmel II of Portland, Maine.

In Bellingham, Ethan fulfilled his desire to live on the ocean, walk to work and prioritize teaching by joining the faculty of Western Washington University, where he was honored to have been nominated for an outstanding teaching award last year. As an academic, Ethan contributed well-regarded studies on hearing-impaired children and was a respected book reviewer for the American Scientist.

Students and faculty have started a scholarship fund in Ethan's name that will support a student with interests in child development. Donations can be made by visiting and typing in "Ethan Remmel Scholarship."

Throughout his life, Ethan was as happy hiking along an alpine ridge as in art galleries, fine restaurants and thumping dance clubs. A good athlete who loved basketball, he surprised opponents on the court with a leaping ability and killer instinct that belied his slender frame. He was a passionate world traveler as well as a philanthropist and volunteer, serving as a peer supporter for San Francisco's Shanti program for people living with AIDS, mentoring in the Big Brother program, coaching Bellingham youth basketball and volunteering in Bellingham schools. Curious, fiercely disciplined and independent, funny and adventurous, six-foot-two with bright blue eyes, Ethan will be remembered for his gentle kindness, intellect, love of family and friends and passion for sports, as well as the blogs he kept during the last year of his life.

Ethan's family would like to thank all the people who helped during the last year of his life: the many friends who traveled to Bellingham from all over the United States to visit Ethan; his academic friends and colleagues at WWU; his neighbors on South Hill in Bellingham; the dedicated nurses at the Infusion Center; Dr. Nestor; the kind and wonderful Dr. Sam Whiting of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance; Whatcom Hospice, especially Hannah Sullivan; Compassion and Choices, and many others.