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.


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