By Fabian M. Dayrit, PhD.
Unfortunately the portrayal of the events prior to the death of Prof. Heck is incomplete. It’s not true that he died without being cared for. Let me share with you some details that will hopefully give you a better picture of the situation. I am writing this to honor his memory, to show gratitude for his family, and to correct the news that he was not cared for. Richard Heck did have a family that cared for him until his death.
I first met with Prof. Heck a few days after the announcement of his Nobel award in 2010. The Integrated Chemists of the Philippines was organizing the 26th Philippine Chemistry Congress in April 2011, so he would have been a great plenary speaker. We found him living in a modest home in the Tandang Sora area. He had completely retired from Chemistry and had been out of touch with things for over 10 years already. He also suffered from dementia and so did not want to talk science, but was happy to inspire the young. We arranged to have some of our MS Chem students interview him at his home.
At that time, he was almost completely dependent on his wife, Socorro, and his nephew, Michael Nardo. He was also very much attached to Michael’s child. He seemed happy with his simple life. It was also clear that he had no family to go back to in the US so this was his home.
Prof. Heck brought his family along to our chemistry congress in Cebu. We arranged for him to have a session with the student participants in the annual Chemistry quiz contest for high school students, an event which he enjoyed.
Socorro was many years younger than Richard (almost 20 years, I think), and so I was surprised and saddened when she passed away two years ago. Richard’s care fell to the hands of Mike.
People ask about the financials and what has happened to his share of the Nobel funds. I am guessing that Socorro, like all Filipina wives, probably took care of managing the funds. Certainly, I don’t think that Richard would have been in any condition to manage it properly. So when she passed away suddenly, I don’t know if any of the financial information and legal papers would have been attended to. I don’t know if Mike has knowledge of how to manage the legal situation since Heck is a US citizen and Mike is not a “next of kin”.
The Nardos are a family with modest means so it was a big burden for them to take over the care of Richard with the many medical complications that had come up. All they had was Heck’s $2,500 pension and a US insurance company that was delayed in its payments to the hospital. Mike told me that they had to sell their car to raise more funds for Richard’s care. From Mike’s description of Heck’s condition, it’s possible that Alzheimer’s may have been setting in as well.
The first day of the wake on Saturday, October 10, was assigned to the Philippine chemistry societies. I was at the wake in the afternoon when the GMA news crew was interviewing the two caregivers. The reporter was obviously more interested in the news angle that Heck had been abandoned. We asked them whether they wanted to interview others who were also at the wake (Dr. Alvin Culaba, VP of DLSU, and Drs. Armand and Odette Guidote were also there at the time) but they were satisfied with the story line that they got from the caregivers. This was also the story that came out in Rappler.
In addition to the family, we should also be thankful to De La Salle for welcoming Richard to their academic community and for providing for the wake expenses. I am sure that this added to the joy of his final years.
Richard Heck did have a family that cared for him.
About the author: Dr. Dayrit is an Academician of the National Academy of Science & Technology (Philippines). He is a Professor of Chemistry, Ateneo de Manila University, and the current president of the Integrated Chemists of the Philippines.