Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Jolly Chuck Douthitt--the death of a saleman


Jolly Chuck and Marilyn, Merced, 2013

“I’m your Number 1 Customer!” I would say to him when we talked on the phone. He would laugh softly, then agree and say, “And all your former postdocs, too.”


 [News arrived on December 9 that Chuck passed away December 8 from complications related to an injury.]

Chuck was the quintessential salesman. For as long as I knew him, he had his nose up in the air, sniffing a possible mass spectrometer sale. He got to know students in the field and made sure he kept up with their whereabouts. He knew your family, buttered you up, and read your papers. When he was closing in on a deal, he told stories about the new work you’d be able to do with your new instrument. He dreamed big, and he let you know you were the one to break the analytical barriers with the new equipment.


When the initial quote from Finnigan-Thermo-MAT-Fisher came in, I’d snort at it, pass it along to NSF, Carnegie, or Univ. of California, so they’d see the cost. Then I’d call and ask when I’d see the Number 1 customer discount. It always came. He always clinched the deal. I purchased 7 isotope ratio mass specs from him during my career—probably not enough to be a Number 1 customer, but not bad.


If he didn’t make a sale, oh boy watch out! The table was turned, your lab might be described as inferior, and you, well, you were not invited to the Finnigan-Thermo party at GSA! When he lost a sale, he pissed people off royally. I observed both sides—this second way from afar. He wanted to win!


When the order was finally placed for a new system after months of negotiations, Chuck Douthitt became absolutely giddy and earned the nickname “Jolly” Chuck. Informally, we referred to him just as Jolly [I believe Paul Koch started this name.]


Me, Zach Sharp, Seth Newsome, Page Chamberlain, Paul Koch--Number 1 Customers, 2018

Hosting the annual Finnigan-Thermo party was a chore he loved and lived for. Anyone who was anyone in the field came. In the early days, the party was open to anyone, no matter who you bought a mass spec from. The drinks flowed, the isogeochemists got a bid rowdy, and a good time was had by all. With time, there were so many isotope geochemists that you needed a ticket to get in. Jolly would stand at the door and collect the tickets. Arrogant people like me didn’t need no stinkin’ tickets! [I was his Number 1 Customer.]


We never knew how many isotope ratio mass specs he sold in his long career. Nor could we ever figure out his profit margin. I believe he was pretty successful. A person like Chuck can, and did, have an outsized influence on the field of stable isotopes.


 Love him or hate him—he was a real character.


A few Jolly Chuck stories:


1987: The snoring at the back of the lecture room was loud enough to disturb the speaker at the front of the room. Jolly Chuck, then a much younger man, was enrolled in an isotope workshop I ran with Brian Fry. Chuck suffered from sleep apnea—had the body of someone who would. A large belly, stout frame. It kept him up at night and consequently he dozed off during talks and seminars. I had to shake him awake and tell him he’d be ejected if he snored again. He looked sheepish and apologized.


Chuck with dark beard behind Bob Michner, Woods Hole, 1987

2008: In negotiating prices for a new Delta V Plus, he offered me a 10% discount for a video of me throwing the shot put. [I was Maryland State Gold Medalist in the Senior Olympics back then.] He thought it was a particularly clever request and so did I!


2013-2014: Fast forward until I was setting up a lab in backwater Merced California. Jolly came in for the pitch and was our first houseguest in rural Mariposa. He treated my husband Chris and me to the best meal in our little town. A year later when I had a lab group, he returned and took us to lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  Student David Araiza and postdoc Christina Bradley sat and stared in amazement as he shoveled in guacamole by the fistfuls, meanwhile talking about isotopes the whole time. He tucked into fajitas with gusto, with abandon. If you’d eaten with Jolly—you know what I’m talkin’ about.


Later he and Andreas Hilkert took Chris and me out to the fanciest restaurant in Merced for dinner. Four bottles of red wine were consumed that evening. Suffice to say, I can’t drink a bottle of wine, and Chris and Andreas were designated drivers. Whoa…


Jim Ehleringer's photo of Isocamp, 2019

2018: The news came in via email—Jolly Chuck is no longer working for Thermo-Fisher. The man who represented the company for over 30 years was “retiring”? Not so fast. Apparently Chuck sent a Reply All email criticizing the Company that reached the CEO—who fired Jolly promptly.


Chuck was devastated. His life was selling mass spectrometers.


I was on sabbatical in New Mexico with Seth Newsome that fall. Zach Sharp, Seth and I invited Jolly to visit and get out from his place in Arizona, where he owned a car wash among other things. He drove over to Albuquerque and dragged himself in to the University. He was despondent. Later at a party at Zach Sharp and Karen Ziegler’s house, Jolly was way too “jolly”—drinking more than just wine. I was worried.


We kept in touch. Then, his other shoe dropped—his wife left him, did funny things with his bank accounts, and there he was without the other part of his life.


2019-2020: But he prevailed. He doted on his grandchildren, who visited him daily. Chuck chronicled their growth. He traveled to see his family. At AGU last year, he joined the Thermo booth with a sling on his shoulder looking thinner than normal. He was adjusting—figuring out how to continue to engage--always in touch with the isotope community.


AGU 2019 Thermo Booth

Charles “Jolly Chuck” Douthitt was a real character and mover and shaker in the isotope field. Without a doubt, he propelled this field of study from a fledgling endeavor to the thousand plus isotope geochemistry field it is today.


Jolly and Page, 2020

I’ll sorely miss Jolly.


  1. Won't we all miss him. I saw Chuck from many sides, potential buyer, part of a power lab (sidekick of another #1 customer!), as a fellow employee (and ticket gatherer/bouncer (?) at the annual Chuck-fest), and finally a (somewhat) respected colleague. And in each phase of this cycle I saw a different Chuck. He was one of a kind, incredibly sharp, always on the lookout for a sale with the ability to piece together a system that would especially work for you ("how much money do you have?"), full of opinion, yet visionary, and truly one who shaped the isotope world into avenues that he imagined were all so possible. You will be missed Chuck.

  2. You introduced me to Chuck during one of his many visits to GL. From that moment on I could tell a little of the number 1 customer treatment brushed off on me. Although I am in a different sales region - Chuck always had his finger on the pulse of "the sale" and curious how things developed over here. The last time I saw him was at IsoCamp. Some wine and guacamole were consumed. Our last conversation took place as I left the campus to catch my flight. Chuck was outside alone, leaning on the building and dragging on a cigarette. We chatted about his divorce from Thermo, and his commitment to supporting our community - especially those moving up the ranks. With his characteristic twinkle he assured me I was off to bigger and better things with new toys to boot.

  3. I count myself lucky to have met Chuck. My PhD advisor Luis Gonzalez introduced me. I was surprise a little Latina PhD candidate would get an invite and chatted to at the Thermo party just like the bigwigs in the field. He even visited my little lab at UTSA when I was an assistant prof. there. I'm sad I never got to purchase an instrument from him. A friendly face and smile means the world to people...especially to a young researcher full of self doubt. RIP Chuck. You touched many lives for the better.


  5. Chucky you will be missed by many as you travel through your next journey. I am so glad we reconnected at the past Finniganite Family Reunion. I always enjoyed working with you.

  6. Tis the season. I never got to see the side of Chuck that elicited nasty comments from others. He was unfailingly helpful in my failed efforts to get a mass spec when I was an assistant prof. But even when it became clear that it wasn't going to happen, he came to every one of my presentations at conferences where we overlapped and told me all sorts of gossip that I really needed to know to be able to navigate the field. I organised a small international conference called "Hydrogen isotopes as recorders of environment" in France in 2011. Damn if Chuck didn't catch wind of it and invite himself. He landed in CDG airport at around 2 AM, rented a car and got briefly stuck at a toll booth because he had no euros and his USA credit cards wouldn't work. No problem. He just blew through with the next car. I hope he sold some mass specs. What a pal!

  7. Thanks for filling in some of Chuck's recent history. I was not aware of the upheavals in his life in the last couple of years.

    I was a grad student at Caltech with Chuck in the late '70s/early '80s. He ended up dropping out after an unsuccessful attempt at a thesis project to measure Si isotopes with Sam Epstein. Sam and Chuck were *not* temperamentally congruent . Always the grinning extrovert, he was infamous as a "lady's man" in grad school (at a time when male entitlement was not questioned).

    I was never a potential customer for Chuck, but I always looked forward to seeing Chuck at fall AGU and catching up on gossip about our fellow "Techers". I missed the last 3 years of AGU, so had not seen Chuck in person for at least that long.

    Via Facebook, it was nice to see him settle into married life and revel in his grandchildren. I'm sure they miss their grandpa even more than the isotope geochemistry community does.

  8. I just discovered Chuck passed awa. We had become connected again via Facebook and having been off facebook for awhile since the fall, I looked up his page to discover he is passed. Very sad.

    I knew him in the 1990s. We were both single and met on a plane, and liked travelling so we took some trips together, on our own and with his friends. I would stop in and visit him in Dallas on my way to Mexico. He was one of a kind. A bit gruff, with a big heart.

    He had a gorgeous house in Dallas and had students for roommates, and somewhat forgave them when they broke his marble table while partying. He was a fabulous cook with an extraordinary collection of hot sauces. He had them on the counter, and the cleaner would put them away, and he'd put them back out again.

    He had an artist friend who worked with disabled kids, who made the most beautiful tiles that he put in his windowed bathroom, and all hand painted tiles and all orchids. He had a grand piano. He was willing to go on adventures between his work commitments, and I was happy to meet him at his mom's house one time. a beautiful house and community that he often went home to.

    I'll always remember him as someone who was determined, extremely intelligent, well read, broad minded, down-to-earth, savvy, kind, valued friendships, world travelled, loved science of all sorts, and definitely loves his kids and grand kids. I will miss his friendship. He was inspiring. Kitty Cochrane, Alberta

    1. Thanks Kitty for writing about Jolly. I'm always happy to hear about good adventures he had. A real character and sorely missed by many.

  9. A list of some of his publications


Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...