A Fitting Farewell
The following story appeared in the September 2, 1998, edition of the Miami Herald. It was written by Curtis Morgan, and titled "Researcher's Ashes Tossed in Storm's Eye." We reprint the story here for the benefit of those who may have known or worked with Mr. Partagas over the many years he was involved in hurricane research.
As the P-3 Orion research plane bumped and rolled through one last circle inside Hurricane Danielle, Peter Black placed a simple cloth sack into a chute and sent its contents into the atmosphere. And at 10:05 p.m. Sunday, latitude 28.0 north, longitude 74.2 west, 400 miles east-northeast of Miami, Jose Fernandez Partagas finally got a send-off fellow weather scientists know he would have appreciated: His ashes were scattered into the howling heart of an Atlantic hurricane. "I found it quite a moving experience," Black, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration research meteorologist, said Tuesday. "It just seemed very appropriate to do it in the eye of a hurricane."
The ceremony, a rare honor, was a gesture of respect for an eccentric but affable researcher who lived to study hurricanes and died, nearly destitute, doing just that. It also rescued Partagas from an obscure burial. After his death a year ago in August at age 62, police found no relatives. His father had died in Cuba, his mother in Miami and he had never married.
When no one claimed the body, the National Hurricane Center did. "They didn't want Jose to go to a paupers grave," said Jim Gross, a center research meteorologist. Gross stored the ashes, awaiting a scheduled storm flight with the right conditions for a brief ceremony, attended by six scientists and most of the 11 crew members. "We think Jose would have been honored, happy to have it done this way," Gross said.
Partagas was born and schooled in Cuba, receiving a degree in meteorology from Havana University and working at the National Observatory, said friend Luciano Blanco, a retired physicist in Miami who went to school with him. Partagas left Cuba in 1961, worked as meteorologist for the Bahamas aviation department for a time, and earned his masters degree from Florida State University in 1964.
He also worked for many years as a research associate at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, typically gathering data for projects. Though he wasn't on staff, he also became a fixture at the National Hurricane Center, said Gross, where his expertise was widely respected. He translated advisories and sometimes served as center spokesman for Spanish-language media.
In August 1997, Partagas was found dead in the place he had spent nearly all his waking hours the last decade - on his favorite couch in the University of Miami library. Though he rented a small Coral Gables efficiency, he practically lived in the library, arriving at 7:45 a.m. when doors opened and leaving at 1 a.m. when they closed.
Over the years, Partagas had become a library legend. He seemed, as Black says, every bit the "absent-minded professor," of gentle, absorbed demeanor, short and slight with thick glasses, unkempt hair. He befriended staff and students, who often helped him with food and money. In return, he had offered his wisdom. Many of them were more than 100 people who turned out for a memorial last year.
For the most part, Partagas kept his difficulties to himself, but his troubles were obvious. Though he wore a jacket and tie, they were threadbare.
Partagas published more than 70 scholarly papers, but he did his most significant work in the last three years. With a modest NOAA grant Gross help secure, he was reconstructing the tracks of hurricanes dating back to 1850 - work that will be used to update NOAA's official history of tropical climatology. It required scouring old newspapers for shipping reports and other evidence. "After hours and hours of work, he'd find a storm nobody's ever heard before, and to him that was like finding a relic in a archeological dig," Black said.
No one else had the patience or passion to tackle such tedious work, Gross said. "He couldn't have been happier. He was just dedicated to his work."