Uncle Gene's occasional visits were looked forward to by our family. He was always so generous to all of us, bringing or sending exotic gifts from his foreign travels and residences. I loved him. He fascinated all of us with his interesting stories and unique lifestyle. He was somewhat of a mystery and as I've become an adult, he's someone I wished I would have gotten to know better. With all that's been written about him, to only now find out the profound magnitude, legacy, and gift of his life, it's sad to realize that sometimes you know more about a person when they pass on, than you did when that person was alive.
My great uncle Gene passed away last Thursday, December 16, 2010. The New York Times called him the “savior of Tibet’s literature.” He was the world’s leading scholar of Tibetan Buddhism; “an academic maverick who singlehandedly preserved for posterity the enormous heritage of Tibetan texts on philosophy, history, and culture.” His life and work are the subject of an upcoming documentary called “Digital Dharma: One Man’s Mission to Save a Culture.” Uncle Gene is my grandmother’s brother and was always a role model to me from my childhood. I collected stamps when I was young and about every month I’d get a big manila envelope addressed to “Master Gary _____” full of old stamps from all over the world. He was kind of my ideal “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
In 1968 he was hired by the Library of Congress New Delhi Field Office and became the director in 1980. He was transfered to Indonesia in 1985 and then to the Library of Congress Middle Eastern Office in Cairo in 1994. My grandmother went to visit him in Egypt while he was there and brought us back all kind of cool treasures. At family gatherings Uncle Gene would tell stories of when he worked on a liaison team between the U.S. Government and the mujahideen in Afghanistan (as in bin Laden) when we were aiding them against the Soviet invasion. Apparently he had some pretty interesting close encounters. Library of Congress? Um, yeah… In the trailer for the documentary “Digital Dharma” Uncle Gene says concerning the communist take over of Tibet, “We were really putting Tibetans to work at CIA missions.” I was so fascinated by all that.
Since his death they’ve decided to have a public memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC, the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The Dalai Lama will be there along with all kinds of dignitaries from governments and monasteries across the world. It’s been amazing to read all these things people have written about this man who made it his life mission to literally save the literary tradition of an entire civilization from extinction. Venerable Professor Samdhong Rinpoche who is the first Prime Minister of the Tibetan Exile Government believes Uncle Gene is deserving of the title “Rinpoche.” This is an honorific meaning “precious master” and is usually reserved for reincarnated Tibetan lamas. He said, “I don’t think anybody else has done such tremendous and such huge comprehensive work in the preservation of Tibetan literature.”
The Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama released a letter to the family written by Samdhong Rinpoche. “He is the man responsible for saving the vast treasure of Tibetan culture by publishing thousands of Tibetan rare books in early years and subsequently converting them into a digital format. His digital Library is the most comprehensive in the world. His sudden demise is a great loss for the Tibetan people and humanity in general.” What a remarkable man.