To his cycling buddies on the Anchor House Ride for Runaways, Doug McCune was the guy they could count on to help them make it through a tough day on the bike.
He would often ride in the front of the pack so that his companions could draft off him, a trick where cyclists ride single file to block the wind for the other people behind them.
His friends admired his cycling ability, his wry sense of humor, and his stellar fundraising efforts for Anchor House, a Trenton-based charity that serves runaway, abused and neglected children and teens. But above all they valued his friendship, openness, and compassion toward others.
“He was a great companion both on and off the bike,” friend Dan Meara said.
Few of his cycling friends knew that McCune was a world-renowned scientist, because he was not the type to talk about his achievements.
“There was so much we didn’t know that we only learned about from reading the newspapers after Doug’s death,” fellow rider and friend Steve Marinko told a crowd of several hundred people who gathered at Princeton University Saturday for McCune’s memorial service.
McCune died in July at the age of 55 after colliding with a sports utility vehicle while completing the final day of the 33rd annual Anchor House Ride for Runaways, a 500-mile, week-long ride that started in Jamestown, New York and finished at the Quakerbridge Mall in Lawrence.
More than 200 people participate in the ride each year, and the death of McCune was a shock to the close-knit group that considers itself like a large family.
At the service celebrating McCune’s life, friends and colleagues recalled how McCune found pleasure in helping others, from scientists to siblings to fellow riders.
After graduating from Yale University in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, McCune’s intellectual curiosity, interest in strategy, and knack for problem solving led him to a career in science. He took a job at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and eventually became the co-head of the lab’s computational plasma physics group. In 1995 he earned a master’s degree in computer science from Drexel University.
McCune is best known for developing sophisticated software that is used around the globe to understand the physics of fusion experiments. The goal of fusion research is to develop a safe, clean and unlimited energy source. The complex computer code he developed is used by fusion energy researchers worldwide to analyze experimental data from modern fusion experiments and enables scientists to collaborate across continents.
“Working with Doug, I got about ten times more done than if I worked alone,” said Rob Goldston, the former director of PPPL. “He created the world’s best tool for making sense of fusion data from all over the world.”
Goldston said McCune had a unique combination of traits that contributed to his success. He was a master of computational techniques, was a dedicated scientist, and he understood people and their needs.
Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) described how McCune reached out to him when Holt first came to the lab and how he later helped Holt with his campaign. He then read a letter McCune sent him a letter citing the suicide of a loved one who was a successful Microsoft executive and urging that more funding be put toward mental health research and services.
“The letter shows how full of compassion Doug was,” Holt said. “Our question should be not how did he die, but how did he live?…He genuinely cared, worked hard and never forgot about other people. We are sad because we will miss him. We are grateful for out friendship and our time spent with him.”
McCune loved the outdoors, whether it was fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, skiing or biking. He ran the New York City Marathon in about four hours at age 53, and he participated in the Anchor House Ride for Runaways 16 times.
He raise more than $75,000 for Anchor House over the years, an amount few other riders have matched. He ran what Marinko described as a “first-class fundraising operation”, meticulously tracking contributions on the computer and sending out fundraising letters that listed the amount each person gave the year before. He also used the Internet to raise money for the charity from colleagues all over the world.
“He died doing something he loved, riding a bike on a beautiful day for a worthy cause that helped kids in need,” Marinko said. “He left a legacy for us, and the entire Anchor House community is grateful.”
Donations in McCune’s memory may be made to Anchor House Ride for Runaways securely at www. anchorhouseride.org/Donate.aspx or sent to Anchor House Ride for Runaways, 482 Centre Street, Trenton, NJ 08611.