Science mourns the tragic death of friend and colleague Constance Holden, who was struck and killed by a truck near AAAS's Washington, D.C., headquarters on 12 April 2010.
A lively presence in Science's offices, with fiery red hair and a gregarious, straight-shooting personality, Tancy served Science's News Department for 40 years as a reporter and news writer, earning the admiration and affection of her colleagues and friends. In addition to her role as a top science journalist, she was also an accomplished painter, specializing in oil portraits, and an avid enthusiast of piano playing, cats, and a good argument.
On this page, we offer some staff remembrances of Constance Holden, and links to some of her best stories from Science. We hope they provide a small glimpse of the colleague that we knew, loved, and respected.
For 40 years, Constance Holden wrote for the news section of Science. The staggering range of her stories -- on policy, research, and the intersection of science and society -- mirrored her insatiable curiosity. Her exceptional understanding of the biological and genetic bases of human behavior was recognized in 2004, when she was honored by the National Mental Health Association for stories exploring new developments relating to schizophrenia, depression, and other mental health issues.
The judges said about those stories that "she took seemingly complex subject matter and wrote it clearly, so that the public could understand it and get excited about it." They could have been talking about the thousands of other pieces that she wrote for the magazine, in print and online, since 1970. Here are a few of our favorites:
Tancy was a true original. Warm, funny, curious, direct, and always willing to challenge the conventional wisdom. She was fearless in tackling controversial issues, delving into areas such as behavioral genetics long before they were fashionable, sometimes to the consternation of her editors.
She was the founding editor of Science's Random Samples page, which she edited for 20 years with her singular wit and style. It is hard to imagine the page without Tancy's voice, and her delight in quirky and off-beat stories. It is also hard to imagine our office without her laughter and infectious personality. We are certainly a much, much quieter place today.
Tancy had a way of staying fresh and young at heart. Even after her many years at the magazine, she brought a lively voice to our occasional writers' meetings, in which we mull over some aspect or another of our craft. And I had to admire the breadth of her interests beyond work--her painting and piano playing. One small quirk of hers I found particularly endearing--at least as I remember it from when I worked in the magazine's D.C. offices. When, for whatever reason, Tancy's computer would stop working, she would yell at it, loudly enough to be heard in the hallway. In that reaction, I considered her a kindred spirit. I will miss her spark.
It's quiet in the office this morning. And I don't think the noise will come back any time soon. Today, we are silent because we are mourning the loss of a dear friend and colleague. Tomorrow, the office will be silent because the voice of one of its most outspoken and gregarious members is missing.
Tancy, I'm going to miss the way you laughed at a ridiculous story. I'm going to miss arguing with you about whether Twitter is a complete waste of time (you're right by the way -- it probably is). I'm going to miss the way you livened up our news meetings with your blunt assessments and in-your-face attitude -- you made us all see things from a different perspective, and you made us all laugh. And I'm going to miss the apple fritters you brought me in the mornings to "fatten me up" (I think it may have worked a little).
Tancy, you were a rare and powerful element. The silence will be overwhelming.
Tancy and I often talked about cats. In fact, the very first story I wrote for Science was a Random Sample about a feline mystery illness that, it later turned out, was caused by poisoned cat food. I guess as a cat lover she could relate, and it was the kind of quirky topic she couldn't resist.
I loved her cat paintings, and when I left Washington for Europe in 2004, Tancy gave me the most beautiful farewell gift a colleague has ever given me: an amazingly vivid and funny portrait of our two cats. It will always remind me of her creativity, her sense of humor, and her kindness.
On a palette of institutional taupe and marble gray, Tancy was a streak of flame red.
No coffee was strong enough for her. If you brewed it insipid or "sour," she would pour it into a Thermos (if she was in a good mood) and make another pot. Bags of medium-roast on the office shelf made her roll her eyes; anything with artificial flavor disappeared.
What she liked, she relished. The short list included sour-cream doughnuts from Coffee Express across the street, where the staff called her the "double-shot-espresso lady"; and caprese panini from the Italian Gourmet Deli, the former Corona--though once, when they substituted the wrong kind of pimiento on her sandwich, she nailed them to the wall and made them swear never to do it again.
My top edits she mostly tolerated. Anything she disagreed with, she ignored and assumed I would ignore her ignoring, which I mostly did.
I'm sorry that she won't get to hold her art open house, or take that riding vacation in Ireland, or try out that new duet partner, or retire to do even more painting, traveling, and piano playing--something that she finally seemed to be talking about more than semi-seriously. I hope somebody adopts the jungle of potted plants in her office. They wouldn't last long with me.
Naturally, it took a five-ton truck to bring her down. Note, though, that it was from behind, and witnesses say her feet were off the pedals and on the ground. I wouldn't have given a 60-ton tank even odds against her in a fair contest.
I'm going to miss her like crazy.
Tancy had an outspoken, contrarian personality and a deft, no-bullshit touch as an editor. I recall the skirmishes that sometimes broke out with other editors when she wanted to slip some provocative study into the news page that she handled. She had a restless mind and many passions--music, painting, traveling to Australia, black cats. She was also a good friend and neighbor in Mount Pleasant. Life will be much duller without her.
Soon after I started at Science 8 years ago, Tancy stuck her head in my office. As usual she wasted no time getting to her point. "You have a Renaissance face, and I want to paint your portrait," she said. I didn't really know what she was talking about, but who was I to refuse her? She went on to paint portraits of many of us, and in Tancy style noticed details the rest of us didn't, like one staffer's blue eyes that she considered luminous enough to be a portrait on their own.
I loved arguing with Tancy because she was direct without being abrasive, but at the same time slyly controversial. She was one of the most open people I've ever known, sharing her joys, her disappointments, and her insecurities -- her thrill over reconnecting with a college friend from years ago, or her deep sadness over the death of her cat. When I was an intern at Science I sat in a cubicle across from her office, and delighted hearing her chat comfortably with scientists or swear at her computer when it gave her trouble. After I moved to Philadelphia from Washington, D.C., two years ago, she always gave me a big hug when I visited the office.
I will miss her terribly.
In 2002, when my husband bought his motorcycle, I told him I would buy something equally extravagant for myself. I chose a painting of Tancy's that I'd always admired when it hung in the hallway at Science: a Hubble image of the Eagle nebula. My husband flies across terra firma on his Ducati, but whenever I look at that painting I'm flying through the galaxy. I don't believe in an afterlife, but from now on, I'll be picturing Tancy somewhere out there in the Eagle nebula. Tancy, you were one of a kind. We will never see your like again.
When I started at Science in 2001, Tancy let me stay in her basement apartment for a month. All she asked in return was that I feed her cats when she went away on the weekend, and clean out their litterbox. I clearly recall the excellent piano from upstairs in the evenings, one nice meal we shared, and the skillful paintings stacked in every corner of the basement bedroom, which I enjoyed thumbing through. And of course her generosity, which, with Science's Next Wave being a bit stingy with reimbursements in those days, saved me a lot of money on hotel bills.
For the past two years or so I was Tancy's next door neighbor on the 11th floor. While we did not work together directly, our proximity meant we had a lot of "water-cooler" talk. Tancy was indeed special. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
Shortly after I came to Science, Tancy learned that I play the piano. She told me she had two pianos at home and that I should come over to play concertos with her. I insisted that she wouldn't want to hear me play--I wasn't terribly comfortable playing for others, and after not having played regularly for years I was extremely rusty. But she persisted with the invitations for months until she wore me down, and we made plans to play Mozart one weekend. When I got to her house I was in awe of her beautiful paintings filling the walls, and of the two pianos in the living room. After I insisted a few more times that I was going to sound terrible, we sat down to play. It wasn't false modesty on my part--I knew how things were. Sure enough, what came out of my fingers did not sound good. And Tancy didn't pretend that it did. I appreciated that so much. There was nothing cruel about it, she was just very matter-of-fact. It made me like and respect her all the more. We played together for a while that afternoon, and she played some lovely solo works for me as well, even sight reading some Brahms I had brought with me. Then she made me a cup of tea and we talked about her paintings and other things, and I remember how touched I felt to have had her welcome me into her home. We never played the piano again after that one time, although she continued to tell me I should come back over to play again. And how I wish I could.
I will always admire and respect Tancy for all of her valuable design input over the years. I worked with Tancy for many years on the weekly layout of Random Samples. Her keen artist's eye for the page and help with creative possibilities will always be remembered. I was fortunate to be able to see quite a few of Tancy's beautiful paintings during this time. The paintings brought much happiness to many and will continue to be a lasting tribute to her memory.
What I shall always remember about Tancy was her willingness, based on her intrinsic sense of integrity and leavened with experience, to vocalize uncommon and sometimes politically incorrect positions, thereby contributing constructively to the diversity of opinion essential for any publication to flourish.
The tragic news about Tancy has deeply shocked the editorial team at Science's Cambridge office, and at the end of this sad week we would like to add our tribute. Although few of us on this side of the Atlantic knew her in person, we highly appreciated Random Samples and her many other contributions to Science's pages, and we will miss her as a colleague in our joint endeavour to produce the magazine: she made a unique mark. Some of us are cyclists too, and we particularly feel the loss of a fellow traveller. Our deep sympathies go to all her colleagues in Washington, and to her friends and family.
Tancy always said something kind to me whenever she saw me in the halls. For example, she told me once shortly after I received a promotion that she thought my job was tough but I was doing it well and I should "hang in there." This meant a great deal to me because she had a funny, blunt style; I felt that I could count on her to shoot straight with me. I first worked with her in the late 1980s when I was a public information officer at the National Academy of Sciences. I particularly remember calling her once to pitch some mathematics story. She responded by explaining to me in some detail the difference between "incremental" advances and truly newsworthy developments -- her point being that I should only phone her regarding the latter. She did this in a plain-spoken but humorous and compassionate way. It was a very important lesson for me to learn at that early stage of my career.
I didn't know Tancy very well, but I remember her clearly from my first years at AAAS, when my department shared the 11th floor with the News Department. She had such a presence in the hallways, and there was something about her style that made me think that if AAAS was her kind of place, I would probably enjoy working here too. Several of her stories were reprinted by our media partners, including the Financial Times and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Her colleagues there were particularly enthusiastic about her superb story on the West African runners.
I can see Tancy walking into the building with her red hair and beautiful billowy skirts. Even though we didn't work together we almost always chatted about clothing and jewelry. She was always very warm and friendly and usually had something funny to say as well. Sometimes we even chatted briefly about business -- "How is business?", she'd ask. I know she loved working in the News Department at Science, and this is a tremendous loss for us.