Nelson Daily News reporter Steve Thornton wrote a two-part profile of David Drake in 1987. Photo courtesy of Steve Thornton

Nelson Daily News reporter Steve Thornton wrote a two-part profile of David Drake in 1987. Photo courtesy of Steve Thornton

David Drake, Nelson mathematician and poet, dies at 88

‘I knew the sun was joking’

David Drake was known to readers of the Nelson Daily News for his complex mathematical and philosophical letters to the editor that were incomprehensible to most people including the editor himself.

“He was a regular visitor to the Daily News,” Bob Hall told the Star following Drake’s death at age 88 in Nelson on Sept. 2.

“It was easy to dismiss him as just another quirky Nelson character. But over the years I developed a special place in my heart and mind for him, even though I could not fully understand him.”

Reporter Steve Thornton felt the same way. In a 1987 Daily News article about Drake he wrote, “Conversations with him reveal a soft-spoken, highly intelligent person with an active but not wildly stretched ego, and a deep and fascinating imagination.”

Drake had a PhD in mathematics, knew many languages, taught at several universities including Notre Dame in Nelson, and perhaps suffered from schizophrenia.

Many readers criticized Hall for running Drake’s letters.

“But I also know a lot of people enjoyed them,” Hall said, “whether they understood them or not. If you meet David Drake and you talk with him, it doesn’t matter what he is saying because you know this is a passionate, smart person and whatever level he is on, or whatever has happened to him in his life, there is more to it, more to the story.”

Eventually the paper stopped publishing the letters and told Drake he would have to buy ads. For several years thereafter, until the Daily News closed in 2010, readers were confounded with display ads featuring Drake’s formulas and ideas expressed even more tersely than in his letters.

Rose Ware was the newspaper staff member who sold him the ads. She had known Drake all her life, having grown up in Nelson with his children. She says she and Drake became good friends during her time at the Daily News.

“He was a fascinating human being,” she told the Star, “with the most infectious laugh, very highly intelligent. It was very difficult to understand his methods and theorems but when he sat there and explained them it made so much sense.”

But later if she tried to recall what he had told her, the meaning had disappeared.

“We would go for lunch sometimes and when the paper closed we became pen pals, because after the paper closed he didn’t visit, he didn’t go out of his home, so I would write him a letter every week and he would write back and I have got all of the letters.”

They also wrote poems for each other. Ware and Drake exchanged poems and letters until the day he died.

Math genius

Drake was born in Colombia in 1931 and moved to Seattle when he was two.

According to his daughter, Andromeda Drake of Nelson (see photo below), he was an academic prodigy headhunted by Harvard University out of high school on a scholarship.

At Harvard he earned an undergraduate degree studying linguistics, sociology and several languages.

He entered medical school but did not attend classes because he spent all his time reading Freud, Jung, and other psychologists. He quit after two years.

Drake was then accepted into a PhD program in mathematics and, while teaching at Harvard, successfully completed his thesis on lattice theory, an advanced, abstract form of algebra. By then he was 28 and married. Andromeda and her two sisters were born in Colorado where Drake was teaching.

The family moved to Canada in response to the Vietnam War draft. Drake taught at several universities starting in Montreal, but, according to Andromeda, couldn’t hold down a job for more than a year.

“By April he was always out of work. He wouldn’t go to class. He just wanted to work on theories and writings. One year he did not show up to class at all and just gave everyone in the class an A.”

The last university at which he taught was Notre Dame in Nelson. He and Andromeda’s mother split up and he lived alone in Rosemont and later in the woods near Nelway.

Living with the birds

Andromeda told the Star that being the teenage daughter of David Drake was mostly just embarrassing. Sometimes he didn’t recognize her.

“I would be walking on Baker and pass him, and I would go, ‘Hi Papa,’ and he would ask, “Are you a child of mine?”

In her later teens she saw a documentary about schizophrenia. “I thought, that is my dad.”

But Drake was never diagnosed because he lived outside the system, never depending on the government and never causing problems for anyone. He lived first on money from his family and then from a small inheritance, much of which he spent on newspaper ads.

In his cabin near Nelway he lived in voluntary poverty with no electricity or plumbing and in a close relationship with wildlife.

“There are chipmunks and birds that gather at the feeder just outside his window,” Thornton wrote, “and his bedroom – in fact his whole home – is a box seat at the arena of animal behaviour. He spends countless hours watching the antics of the critters outside his window …”

He told Thornton that many of those animals lived in his house because Drake saw little difference between indoors and outdoors.

He also told Thornton that he enjoyed skiing, hiking and swimming.

“Putting that all together with a dash of religion and a hefty dose of philosophy,” Thornton wrote, “Drake figures he’s got a pretty interesting book in Walden West [his work in progress at the time] about the techniques of living without conveniences, his animal observations, speculations about animal psychology, and ‘signs and wonders from God.’”

Family ties

His house was a disturbing mess, says Andromeda. She was the only one of Drake’s children who had contact with him. After she married and had a son, her relationship with her father began to change.

She would invite him for Christmas and Easter dinners.

“He would come, walk in the door, have a bath. I would have clean clothes for him, and then he would stay until the next day. If it was really cold I would have him come and stay with me because I was afraid he would freeze to death.”

He needed the bath. One of Drake’s hallmarks was his overpowering odor.

“He’s aware of his rank odor,” Thornton wrote, “and it’s the price he pays for living the way he does. Cleanliness holds ‘a low priority to a whole lifestyle that is back to nature.’”

Andromeda says her relationship with her father kept getting better until his death.

“I always felt a lot of love toward my father, and at different stages of his life he was either more or less accessible, and I was willing for it to be whatever it could be. If he did not recognize me on the street, that was OK, I still loved him. And if he could come for supper and be willing to change his clothes, I was happy about that too.”

Tying his shoes

Andromeda says her father had a strange combination of genius and ineptitude.

“He could never do up the laces of his boots. He did not live in his physical body well enough to do anything. I am five years old, looking at him, looking at my parent and thinking, ‘You can’t tie your shoes. I am a little worried about you.’”

She says his perception of other people was unusual.

“He was not social. People did not have any relevance for him. People were like little tiny black bugs over here and he was studying all the butterflies over there. It was not that he was unkind or ungenerous, he just did not notice people.”

Andromeda says if her father had not been ill, he would have accomplished a lot.

“He always wanted to win a Nobel Prize. His ego was tied up the production from his brain and he thought he deserved recognition. He wanted to be famous but he was petrified of fame. Local fame was perfect for him because he was so paranoid.”

Drake thought his ads in the Daily News were influencing political decisions in other countries.

“People wondered about his ads,” says Andromeda, “does that have a meaning I don’t get? Well, they did have meaning but do I remember what they were? No. Once he started paying for ads he would leave out some of the content to make the ad smaller to save money. It was a form of shorthand, so even if you were educated enough to follow the math, you would have to fill in the blanks.”

In care

When Drake was 81, Andromeda got him into Kiwanis Village and later for a year at Mountain Lakes.

As dementia gradually set in, Andromeda said he became a bit more social because his theories did not overwhelm his mind as much. But he had no social skills, so did not do so well at Mountain Lakes.

Drake eventually became ill and stopped eating and drinking.

“They called me on a Friday morning said he had not eaten since Wednesday and I went up and he was just a skull. And he was dead by Monday night.”

People sometimes speculate about the blurred line between genius and madness. According to Thornton, Drake had a different take on that.

“I think the line between sanity and stupidity is very thin,” Drake told him.


Two poems by David Drake

Vacant Lot

I was aware of only that the breeze

a golden haze of pollen bees had swirled

about the sunlit leaves of the lilac trees.

We seldom see what happens in the world,

someone else walking wondered why to stare

at blackbird wings thrusting into the air,

and yesterday’s news rustling among the weeds.

Zen Encounter

the sun was silent

standing still

letting himself be seen by me

waiting for my reaction

i knew the sun

was joking with a straight face

i walked out into the open

and thirstily drank water

undisturbable serenity

the sun turned in another direction

and walked down

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David Drake’s daughter Andromeda Drake: “I always felt a lot of love for my father… If he did not recognize me on the street, I still loved him.” Photo: Bill Metcalfe

David Drake’s daughter Andromeda Drake: “I always felt a lot of love for my father… If he did not recognize me on the street, I still loved him.” Photo: Bill Metcalfe

A sample of one of David Drake’s ads in the Nelson Daily News. Courtesy of Andromeda Drake

A sample of one of David Drake’s ads in the Nelson Daily News. Courtesy of Andromeda Drake