Gilles M. Corcos, professor of mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and much-loved husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather, died Sept. 10 on his 97th birthday.
While we grieve his passing, my sisters, Ana, Laura and I would like to remember him for his sense of humor, his love of his family in Berkeley and his many friends in France, his Bajin home, his many adventures (some with us) and his warm generosity of attention and thought as well as practical assistance.
My father was born in Paris in 1926. He had an older brother, Alain, and they spent the years running up to the German invasion of France, living quite happily near Carnales, where his father grew flowers commercially. His father recognized the threat posed by Hitler early and hid his family successfully until the spring of 1944, when he arranged for his sons to escape through the Pyrenees to Spain. There, they were arrested briefly but later came to Gibraltar and then Casablanca, where they both volunteered for the Free French l’Armee de l’Air. They traveled by Liberty Ship convoy to the United States, where they trained as Free French Air Force pilots. My father qualified on B25s and B26s in the 17ie Detachment just as the war in Europe was ending and was discharged in America in 1946. His war experiences occupied a critical place in his descriptions of his formative life experiences. From my perspective, they seem to have had the effect of inspiring him to explore and engage in the realities, both painful and joyous, of life on a broad scale.
While he describes being a casual student up to this point, his attitude to learning was changed by his wartime experiences, and he pursued an education that culminated in a Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Michigan. During this period, he also developed two other lifetime passions: a burning interest in and engagement with social structures and geopolitics and a love of classical chamber music. He was involved in the early years of the American Student Federalist Movement and represented the movement on the executive council of United World Federalists. He also traveled to Israel, curious about that political landscape and the concept of the kibbutz.
He met my mother at the university in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They shared a love of chamber music, which they passed to daughters Nadija and Laura. (Sister Ana was more sensible!) They moved first to Southern California, where Gilles worked in aerospace design, and four years later to a professorship at UC Berkeley. Gilles’ family had always loved the mountains of France and Switzerland, skiing and mountaineering. In California, he discovered the Sierras, the early Sierra Club, and a community of climbers and ski mountaineers, including his great friend Allen Steck, a legendary mountain climber with whom Gilles shared many adventures.
He became aware of the conditions for California and Arizona Native Americans, partly through his friend Nicholas Cunningham, a doctor and amateur cellist. His first water delivery project was engineering and constructing wells on a reservation near Bakersfield in Southern California. He also remained engaged in friendship with several prominent political figures and was forthright in offering them his opinions on international and domestic issues of the day. He co-led a UC Berkeley engineering department’s stand against the war in Vietnam, including a demonstration on the steps of Sproul Hall.
Throughout his postwar life, he maintained both an analytic, critical perspective and a steady belief that survival and positive change were possible and worth the fight. He brought this perspective to his long teaching career, engaging particularly with students who brought a spark of passion and creativity to their subject as well as a willingness to do the hard work.
As Gilles approached the age for early retirement, he became involved in two new projects both linked to particular students: the start-up of a fiber-optic company which became DiCon Fiberoptics, where he served as chairman, and co-founder of NGO Agua Para La Vida, which delivered water projects in Nicaragua. APLV was born, as I understand it, out of both a desire to put engineering skills to more practical uses and to benefit a specific group of people whose situation also engaged Gilles’ sense of political concern. The technical challenges and the people and culture of the Rio Blanco area of Nicaragua provided, perhaps, the most satisfaction and pleasure Gilles had in his adult life. His connection with DiCon, engaging and technically challenging, also allowed him to fund his development of APLV and his co-workers. He took early retirement in 1990. His second wife, Anne Bleecker Corcos, was involved and supporting his new interests and later developed a literacy charity of her own.
During his later university years and on into his ‘early retirement’ and two new careers, Gilles returned to live occasionally in France, exploring his connection, particularly the area where he spent part of his childhood and teenage years. He spoke of rediscovering his comfort with his French connections as they grew, and he rebuilt the home in Bajin, where he was often to be found and where we will also gather to celebrate his life. He reconnected with French mountains and mountaineers, finding some close friends. He reunited with Bernadette, her sons and family and established increasingly deep roots in France.
At the same time, he remained loyal, committed and connected to both his enterprises and his American family and friends. As a parent, he was sometimes difficult to locate as he traveled between the U.S., France and Nicaragua. But we have always been aware of his interest and concern for us and his passion for all his connections and commitments on both sides of the Atlantic.
He was still engaged, optimistic and full of plans when he arrived back in New York and was set back by COVID-19. He asked to be cremated and buried with his parents in the cemetery in Lafayette. There is an olive tree there that he and I planted for his mother, and we made several trips back to water.
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