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In Memory of Peter McOwan: A Man of Magic

I recall when I found out that Peter McOwan, a Vice-Principal at Queen Mary University of London, had passed away. I have experienced the death of loved ones from a young age, so people passing away, even close family members, however tragic the circumstances, I have learnt to take it in my stride. Death is, after all, an inevitability. A year has passed but I will never forget how I came to learn of the passing of Peter.

It was following an end-of-year exam in the summer of 2019. My mood already quite low due to an assessment I was certain had gone awry, I logged onto one of the computers in the Nest to check my email. There was a note on the homepage of the QMUL Intranet. No grand announcement, no public alert. Peter William McOwan, a beloved colleague, had passed away on the 29th of June 2019 at the age of 57. It did not seem enough to mark the passing of a man of the stature of Peter. But in a way, it was oddly fitting, an understated recognition of a humble man whose several great accomplishments benefited so many but about which one would know little if one did not have the great honour and pleasure of working closely with him.

Peter was Vice-Principal for Public Engagement and Student Enterprise at Queen Mary University of London. He was a Professor of Computer Science in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. He was a founder of Computer Science for Fun (CS4FN), a free magazine to engage school students in the field. He ran many projects in his areas of interest in artificial intelligence and magic. But it was not in these capacities I knew him. I knew him as a kind and caring man, a wonderful exemplar of the Queen Mary way.

I had known that Peter was sick for quite some time and thus perhaps ought not to have been so shocked to hear of the news of his passing. Shortly after leaving the role as a Sabbatical Officer of the Queen Mary Students’ Union, I found myself in Mile End one afternoon and thought I would drop by the Principal’s Office to visit Peter and say hello. I was informed that he was not working that day. Upon further enquiry, I was told he was unwell and on indefinite leave. He was a private man and did not want people to know about his health, nor his absence. But it would have been easy enough to tell. The atmosphere at Queen Mary had distinctly changed without him. No longer was he to be found pottering around the entrance to the campus on Bancroft Road, all the while overseeing the latest activities at QM, ready to dispense advice from his vast repository of wisdom.

It was at that very entrance on Bancroft Road I recall first meeting Peter, together with the rest of our Sabbatical Officer team. He was the first member of the QMUL senior management team we came across and before we could even speak, he stopped us as he challenged himself to determine what our roles were from our appearance alone. Straight away, he pinpointed me as the Vice President Barts and The London, reasoning that it is only the medics who roll up their sleeves as I had done. The identities of my colleagues soon followed in what seemed to be a Holmesian level of deduction. It was only months later, in hindsight, I realized he already knew which of us was which and he was simply entertaining us with a magic trick. It is a great trick, relying upon the basic illusion of inferring what one already knows, and it is one I have used a few times since, always to good effect, always while remembering Peter.

Of course, it is always possible he did deduce who we were from our appearances. But suggesting so would ignore how finely attuned Peter was to the student body, from discussing articles in the Print (even when I had not read the paper myself for a good few weeks!) to being one of the first to wish me well on running for QMSU President.

And none of it was for show. Often in his role, he displayed great generosity towards our student societies, ensuring our volunteering groups received funding when they had no other avenues available. In every meeting he sat on, he would always guarantee that decisions involved the full consultation of all stakeholders, especially students. Even if we felt we had exhausted all that had to be said on the matter as student representatives, he would continue to press us for further comment, advising us to speak our mind and demanding our honest opinions. Like many, I am sure he had his opinion of BL-QM issues, but he was one of the few who did not treat Whitechapel and Charterhouse Square as mere ‘satellite campuses’ to Mile End.

At one of the meetings I attended, the QMUL Estates Strategy Board, whenever plans for new buildings were discussed, he would without fail, in his Scottish accent, remind everyone to not neglect the toilets. Accessibility was a necessity for him and chief among that was adequate toilet facilities! I did once flippantly propose that we should name the next toilet block we open on the Mile End Campus after him. I have no doubt he would have scoffed at that suggestion!

It was at one Estates Strategy Board where I have one of my most bizarre and fondest memories of Peter. It was in late November 2017 and I was still writing notes during the meetings I attended. When I turned the page, I discovered a discarded biscuit wrapper hidden in my notebook. “Ahah!”, Peter exclaimed, “You found it!” I looked at him, bemused, as he only chuckled. All I remember from that time as a Sabb was that the job was becoming rather stressful; it seemed we would be losing hundreds of rooms for student accommodation, the dates for graduation had been moved to an impractical time for qualified doctors and dentists, and there was another third thing which I have since long forgotten. Perhaps Peter knew all of this, perhaps he saw that I needed cheering up, or perhaps he just did what he did because he was one of the few people who have unlocked the rare secret of the appropriate seriousness with which to treat life. Above all, Peter knew how to have a good laugh. Unbeknownst to Peter, I kept the biscuit wrapper and enclosed it in a Christmas card I would later send to him. I still proudly remember the massive grin with which he greeted me when I saw him in the new year.

There is no doubt he was a special man, and this belief was confirmed when I attended his memorial on the 11th of December 2019. Held by Peter’s team, the Centre for Public Engagement, it was a magnificent celebration of a magnificent man. From displays of his projects in artificial intelligence and magic, to addresses from his close colleagues (such as co-founder of CS4FN, Paul Curzon, and astronaut, Richard Garriott), to a display of a cardboard ‘robot’ he created at the age of five. I learnt much about Peter I had not known, the highlight being a touching speech delivered by a childhood friend, the emotion in her words infused with the magic that Peter once carried with him. In the perfect tribute, the event was closed by the Principal presenting Peter’s family with the Queen Mary College Medal. It was not until his passing that his family were even aware of the significance of Peter McOwan’s contributions to Queen Mary University of London.

I spoke to many of his colleagues that day, I heard many stories. There was a sense that in his passing, the students had lost a friend among the QMUL senior management, the faculty had lost an advocate and advisor, and that Queen Mary had lost part of its essence. We can only hope that because Peter has given so much of himself over the years to our community that this essence remains in some form.

Perhaps the only thing missing from the day was the inclusion of any words from a student, given how strong a champion Peter was of the student voice. Thus, ahead of the first anniversary of his passing, I offer this article in his honour. Although the truth is while I have many fond memories of Peter (from discussing the university motto to his suggestion I spoke like Churchill!), I do not know if I am best-placed to write this. I did not know him as well as others and unfortunately never had the chance to work directly with him on any projects, although we did have some plans in place before he fell unwell. The last thing I spoke to him about was the Queen Mary mascot costume. It was not until after his passing that I would learn of his passion for magic, for science-fiction and Doctor Who, how he was known by the name Billy when he was younger, and indeed, the many health issues he overcame in his life.

But I knew Peter well enough to be unsurprised by the many fantastic stories told in his memory. There was a comment during the memorial that they don’t quite make them like Peter anymore. The truth is they never did. Peter was a man of magic and because of his legacy, that magic continues in all of us at Queen Mary today, and will continue, at least in our actions and words, if not forever in our memories.

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