Sic transit gloria mundi

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1409)

Muscular delicacy

John Clute and David Langford, of Lord Dunsany

– o O o – 

Roberta Pournelle left our stage on August 3rd (1935-2020).  She survived her husband Jerry (1933-2017) by three years.

There was no public church service.  Interment was at Forest Lawn on the 14th.  Forest Lawn said “We’ll provide ten chairs.  Don’t bring any more people than that.”  I said I’d not go.  There were plenty who had a better claim.

Christened Roberta Jane Isdell at her birth in Victoria, Idaho, she was reared in Seattle by a family of readers and singers.  She put herself through Univ. Washington working as a secretary at Boeing. She met Jerry in 1958.  Their romance included aerospace, fencing, philosophy, plays, religion, science fiction, writing.

Jerry had several careers, some of them simultaneous.  To name two sometimes neglected, he was was board chairman of the Seattle Civic Playhouse, and founding President of the Pepperdine Research Institute.  He eventually earned fame with science fiction and user’s tests of computer hardware and software.

With these, and four children, and visitors, and dogs, he came to call the Pournelles’ house in Los Angeles (Studio City neighborhood) Chaos Manor.  It may not be fair to say Roberta was Lady of the Lake – there was a swimming pool – nor was it plain who captivated or restored whom – but anyway mistress of the manor.  At the end a woman who’d known her for decades said she was queenly, the kind you felt glad to be with.

Meanwhile Roberta taught English for thirty years at the Kirby Center for Delinquent Minors, twenty miles southeast in Commerce, California.  When I last looked she and Jerry went to St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, Sherman Oaks.  She sang in the choir.

Stories abound of Roberta and Jerry’s different styles.  Waiting in what seemed an endlessly slow line to be seated at a ceremonial banquet, you might hear Jerry bellow “Donner, party of 16!” – then after more waiting, “Donner, party of 15!”  You might also see Roberta quietly finding the shyest contest winner and engaging in conversation for ten or fifteen minutes, then quietly finding the next-shyest and doing it again.

The electronic may see the very moving eulogy by Jennifer Pournelle, Ph.D., [here].  She is Jerry’s daughter by a previous marriage.  As it happens I was the lawyer who arranged her adult adoption some years ago.

My appreciation of Jerry can be seen [here].  As I just now wrote to a friend – whose politics I have never asked about –

James Blish in his novel Doctor Mirabilis (1964) about Roger Bacon (1220-1292) has a character observe that we human beings are part honey, part aloes.  Exploring whatever agreements and disagreements I may have had with Roberta seems immaterial to me now.

R.I.P.


The Donner-Reed party was a band of migrants to California snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-1847.  Their sufferings were terrible.  Some resorted to cannibalism.

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