A graveside memorial service for Eric Clayton Baxter, 62, of New Orleans was at 2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 at Prospect Cemetery, Florien, with Dr. Suni Edson of Camden Wyoming, Delaware officiating and reading the following eulogy, largely penned by his mother with input and anecdotes from colleagues and others over his life span.
Eric Baxter was born June 22, 1959, in Fort Belvoir, Va., and suddenly departed this earth at his mother’s home in Natchitoches where he had lived to assist her during the COVID pandemic. He was a physicist and a profoundly talented scientist in the field of number theory and mathematical analysis of prime numbers. He attended Northwestern State University of Louisiana for his senior year of high school and graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans. He was a graduate of Centenary College, receiving a BS in physics. In preparation for graduate school, Eric took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) and received a perfect 800 on the quantitative portion, which is a phenomenal accomplishment. This, along with a recommendation from the 1977 Noble laureate in Chemistry, Dr. Ilya Prigogine, awarded Eric the Louisiana Board of Regent’s Fellowship to Tulane. He subsequently earned his M.S. in physics and completed the course work for a Ph.D.
Eric was a unique and multi-talented individual who was usually known by only one facet of his personality. To his colleagues, he was a physics/mathematics researcher with insights and an approach to problem solving like no other. Many researchers in theoretical chemistry, mathematics and physics took note of Eric’s unusual ability to find unique perspectives to any problem, presenting life-long researchers with possible solutions to problems they had long grappled with. Early in the 2000’s, Eric’s collaborator, Dr. Jonathan Sondow of Princeton University, felt they were on the right track to prove the Riemann Hypothesis, which, to this day is considered an unsolved mathematical theory implying the distribution of prime numbers as related to zero. Eric requested that they hold off submitting their work for peer review until they had completed the additional rigorous testing that validated their proof. At the time of his death, Eric believed they had succeeded and was preparing a manuscript for publication on their test results. Unfortunately, the world may now never know the results of their work, as Dr. Sondow preceded Eric in death two years ago.
Although science was his passion, most people in Eric’s circle did not know him as a scientist. Like most scientists, he had an artistic soul. Some knew him as their friendly neighbor, a gifted handyman who enjoyed fixing, for free, anything broken whether the task involved electronics, electricity plumbing, computers, mechanics or carpentry. He jokingly referred to himself as the “benevolent warlord” of his New Orleans neighborhood and considered erecting a pyramid of pink flamingos and garden gnomes in front of his home. Artistically, he was known to some as a musician and sometime composer on cello, piano and accordion. After learning the deaf could not honor their dead with a dirge because they could not hear, he composed “A Requiem for the Deaf”, with many bass chords so they could feel the music. He once composed “Mother’s Waltz” consisting of a beautiful melody, except for an occaisional sour, off key note to signify that sometimes mothers make mistakes. Others knew him as a designer of Mardi Gras costumes and, even in New Orleans where creative talent abounds, Eric’s Mardi Gras costumes attracted some attention and his photo wearing one of his creation was featured in an official calendar and in the Jan. 8, 1994, issue of the Gambit.
Socially, Eric loved to entertain and was always a welcome guest at other’s parties. He was a scintillating presence with his wit and humorous quips. Once a TV producer dining a the next table stopped by Eric’s table where he sat in hilarious conversation with friend, dropped her card on his table and told him his overheard “performance” was the funniest thing she had ever heard. Laughter always followed his comments and people tended to gravitate to him at gatherings. However, people quickly learned not to get into a debate with Eric as they could never win. As a student, he had been removed from the debate team and made a judge because all other students refused to debate him, knowing they didn’t have a chance to win. He was a fine cook, prepared the food for his own parties, and presented it with rare elegance. The last time I saw him a few weeks ago, he had mad a delicious pulled pork, and served us all with a casual aplomb. He had a reverence for food and was troubled to find most people treated it far too casually.
Eric was always on a path to provide solutions to others. His remarkable insight led him to practical ideas on how to prevent New Oreans from ever flooding again, how to control a hurricane so it would be less destructive, how to deal with nuclear waste safely, and how to minimize damage from a nuclear disaster as occurred at Fukushima in 2011. Other researchers and scientists that he met felt that Eric was gifted to find solutions and novel ideas from an early age. Sometimes his ideas were initially considered outlandish, but through extensive research of the literature and seeking confirmation from the top world experts in each specific field of interest, his ideas were found to be legitimate and he was encouraged to proceed by any researchers world-wide. Unfortunately, he never had the resources or funding to further develop the ideas. However, he believed strongly in the scientific method and had no patience for poorly conceived notions with no substance, but often foisted on a vulnerable public as truth.
Perhaps the most definitive, but little known, character trait of his personality was his spirituality and there was a mystic quality about him that was hard to comprehend and even harder to accept. He once had a dream in Latin, a language he had never studied or experienced otherwise, and on awakening one morning he remembered a series of words which he quickly wrote down. Upon obtaining a translation, he was told that it was a sentence that stated: “The laws of the Lord and Creator are beyond alteration.”, and that it was written in “an archaic form of poetic Latin that is never seen anymore”. Further, “All the words are spelled correctly an the sentence is grammatically perfect.” He also once dreamed, and wrote down as he slept, a phrase in runic Norwegian that was confirmed by linguistics experts to be correctly written, but in a dialect used in 900-1100 AD. Eric rarely, if ever, shared these experiences with anyone outside the family as he felt it would make him look “just too weird.”
Although Eric was baptized a Lutheran, he was not conventionally religious, but adhered to Christ’s philosophy intuitively. He knew the teaching of the Bible very well and if anyone had a question on a specific biblical subject, he could immediately refer them to the right part of the Bible for an answer. He had abiding respect for all of nature and strongly felt the biblical command to care for the land. Although his public persona was one of fun and laughter, he suffered greatly and painfully. He was distraught and grieved daily about how the planet was being abused. He cared intensely about others and instinctively practiced Jesus’ humanitarianism in doing what he could with his limited resources to relieve the suffering of the poor. Among his many other acts of kindness, he once took in a homeless man off the streets into his home for a shower and to launder his clothes so he could go for a job interview. He fought injustice wherever he found it and, basically, gave up his career in seeking justice, unsuccessfully, for his father who had been mercilessly exploited by his “caretakers”. Lately, Eric had been particularly distressed by the political situation and the way our society has deteriorated into one of distrust, hatred toward others, and a breakdown in ethics and social norms that renders deceit and lying acceptable in our elected officials.
His marriage of five years to a brilliant young applied physicist, whom he loved dearly, ended because she found him “too intense” to live with comfortably and apparently because of the increase in psychological stress he was currently experiencing, his heart failed him despite having no known history of heart disease at the time. Our hearts are broken too, and the void in our lives is unfathomable. Our one consolation for his sudden death is to recall his belief and often repeated lament that he did not belong in this world. Maybe it really was time to end his suffering, but family and friends would like to express their thanks to eh Natchitoches paramedics for their valiant and prolonged effort to resuscitate. Thanks also goes to our friends and relatives for their support, and to our house guest and long-time family friend, Jake Warfield, whose compassion, strength and “insistent“ caretaking are enabling us to survive this tragedy. Eric’s ashes were interred at Prospect Cemetery, a place where family members of five generations already lie.
Eric is preceded in death by his father, Lt. Col August Baxter and a beloved uncle, Dr. Harry Baxter.
Left to mourn his death, but believing his spirit lives on, are his mother , Dr. Addison Sandel Baxter; older brother, John Brandt Baxter; his adored aunt Jessie V. Grimes; and the many cousins whom he loved even when they didn’t understand him.
His brain has been donated to a medical research institute for study and his organs were donated for the benefit of others.