Oranbega Retreat Center

For All Artists & Pilgrims

My Uncle Mike

In Memoriam Dr. Michael P. Reece, August 12, 1927 – June 3 2019

This essay about my Uncle, whose legacy makes Oranbega Retreat Center possible, is expanded from the words I wrote to be read at his funeral in London in June 2019. – Jenny Reece

My uncle Mike was always a bit of a surprise to me. For one thing, to see him next to his brother David, my father, was a study in contrasts. My father, tall as their sea-captain father, silver haired (even at a young age) a thoughtful scholar and a truly gentle man; his brother short, dark, boisterous, and opinionated– opinions that were often expressed so fiercely he would have to apologize to my mother, “sorry, Pauline, but it has to be said!” That his opinions were usually on the conservative end of the political spectrum made the contrast between him and my parents, life long supporters of the Liberal Party, even more acute. My first political memory is of an almost violent argument between the brothers over the Suez Crisis in 1956, when I was too young to know what all the fuss was about. 

Yet the Reece brothers were alike in their intelligence and curiosity about the world, and united in a love of music inherited from their mother. She had been a child prodigy at the piano, became a concert pianist, then an accompanist for BBC radio and a coach to many singers. Michael’s musical obsessions tended to be, as is natural for an engineer, with hi-fidelity: I remember a speaker with a huge baffle painted white that he had constructed which stood in the corner of our living room for years, much to our mother’s dismay. We were also surprised, when we visited him and our Aunt Margot in Barnes on the river Thames, that he had actually finished the boat he had been building for years in his garage. More than seaworthy, it lasted for many years of trips for the two of them around the British Isles, and especially of the West Coast of Scotland, another love that the brothers shared. 

A very memorable surprise came as we walked by the river Thames in Barnes, talking about the stars. It is a conversation I will never forget. He told me about the astronomical distances separating those tiny suns from us, about the planets that no doubt circled them, about the Big Bang from which all began. And he told me about how the universe is continually expanding. “We don’t know why, or how,” he said, “but there seems always to be more out there, something keeps creating more space. I suppose you could call it God.” This was a surprise, because Michael talked about God even less than my father, a committed agnostic who turned to my mother after he Christening of his eldest daughter to say “Never make me do that again.” I think his younger brother was even less acquainted with the life of faith and the things of the Spirit than was he. So Uncle Mike must have been perplexed by the turn my life took when I was ordained as clergy, but he, like the rest of my family, was relieved that I had finally found my path in life. Before that he had called himself my “Dutch Uncle”, giving me lectures on responsibility, adulthood, and taking care of myself as he helped out financially as I went from pillar to post as a library worker, teaching assistant, and would-be writer.

But the biggest surprise of all came after he died. My two sisters and I knew that he must be quite wealthy, for he and his wife had both held well paying jobs for years, had no children, and were not averse to opening a can of Heinz Baked Beans for supper (and eating it cold, I may add). And we knew we would be his only heirs. But we hadn’t really realized until we read the obituaries and talked to his many friends, just what a unique, and brilliant man he was as an engineer and inventor. He invented something called the Contrate Contact Vacuum Interrupter, a device that allows large power sources to be efficiently and safely channeled to smaller components. It is widely used all over the world in power plants and on electric locomotives. Opinionated as he was, he was also modest, and never boasted about this to his family. 

When he died, we sisters had no idea of the size of the legacy he would leave each of us. When it came, it astounded me. And enabled me to buy, outright, the beautiful building on the river bank in Orland which is becoming the Oranbega Retreat Center. Not only has his legacy bought the building, it has provided countless local carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, other workers, and their families, with life saving work and income during this challenging year of pandemic and economic uncertainty. And it will continue to fund the operations of the Retreat Center until it becomes self-supporting. But the legacy of Uncle Mike goes far beyond the money, however useful that is. His legacy is that of the inquiring mind, the creative spark, the intelligence that can scribble something on the back of an envelope one day, and change the world. That’s what we want to continue and support at Oranbega Retreat Center, and how we and the writers, painters, musicians –and maybe engineers too– who come stay with us will honor him. 

So thank you, Michael, my dear Dutch uncle, for your always surprising ways of sharing love, and generosity, and the explorations of your mind and soul. I will always think of you with gratitude and love, especially on your August birthday, which you delighted in calling The Glorious Twelfth, the start of the Grouse hunting season in Scotland. In your own unique and sometimes cranky way you indeed opened my eyes to a little bit of the glory that surrounds us all, into whose ever expanding embrace you now have entered. I hope you are having a good laugh as you look down on us as we go forward with our experiment on the river bank under the stars.