The note came early last month, and I couldn't have been happier.

"Hi Doug," the email began. "On the small chance that you missed it, today's New York Times reports Awonder Liang just won the 8-year-old world chess championship. I remember your playing with him some time ago."

It was signed, "Jim."

I was happy because I was always happy to hear from Jim Crow. This in no way made me unique. James F. Crow was known around the world as a great scientist, tops in his field — genetics. But his wide circle of friends knew him as a warm, generous, humorous man with many and varied interests. You couldn't ask for better company.

I was also happy to get his note of Dec. 4 because it confirmed that as he approached his 96th birthday, Jim was still reading and commenting on the New York Times.

I responded immediately, suggesting lunch at Sa-Bai Thong on University Avenue. It was one of Jim's favorites.

He wrote back saying lunch would be fine, but perhaps at Capitol Lakes, where he was now living. He said he wasn't getting around very well.

And then — before we could arrange the lunch — word arrived that Jim had died Jan. 4 of congestive heart failure.

The New York Times — he'd read it daily for decades — took note a week later with a lengthy news obituary calling Jim "a leader in the field of population genetics who helped shape public policy toward atomic radiation damage and the use of DNA in the courtroom."

Many honors came his way and we spoke the first time in 2001, shortly after Jim had returned from England on a trip when he was honored not once but twice.

"It's not like I get these things every day of the week," he said, with what I would learn was his usual good cheer. "But these happened to coincide and I could accept them both."

On that visit he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh and was also inducted into the Royal Society of Great Britain, joining Isaac Newton, among others. Jim was particularly pleased that the society took note of his many accomplished graduate students.

Two months after that first conversation, I wrote a column in which I mentioned I had never attended the Madison Symphony. Jim got in touch and said he had an extra ticket. Would I like to go? 

The reason he had the extra ticket, I learned, was that his wife, Ann, had died earlier that year. They both loved music and met in the student orchestra at the University of Texas. Ann played clarinet. Jim played viola, well enough to have performed with the Madison Symphony from 1949 to 1994.

After attending the symphony, we had an occasional lunch. I recall one at Sa-Bai Thong in 2004 a short time after the acclaimed actress Uta Hagen died. Over good Thai food and beer I mentioned that Hagen had grown up in Madison. Jim smiled and said he had seen her on Broadway in 1943, in "Othello" opposite Paul Robeson.

Jim was teaching at Dartmouth then. He came to UW-Madison in 1948 and though he officially retired some four decades later, he was still going into his campus office almost daily when we lunched in 2004.

It was at that lunch that Jim referenced his long friendship with Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and her husband, Seymour Abrahamson, like Jim a geneticist.

Jim and the chief justice had worked together on issues involving DNA as a forensic tool in the courtroom; he and Seymour Abrahamson had worked in the same labs dating back half a century.

Last week I had a chance to ask both Abrahamsons about their great friend. The chief justice recalled Jim's unique ability to bring contentious prosecutors and defense lawyers together when he vice chaired a committee on DNA testing for the National Institute of Justice.

Seymour, too, mentioned Jim's extraordinary public service, the many important committees he chaired for various organizations. And he said, "He was a tremendous scientist, a humorous man, delightful to be around. Everybody loved him."

Jim was engaged to the end. He'd taken exception to a recent negative article written about one of his heroes, the Nobel laureate geneticist H. J. Muller, and set about trying to show the author the error of his ways. Around this time Jim ran into Seymour Abrahamson. "I think I've got him convinced," Jim said.

I wish I'd had one more lunch to hear about it.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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