Hawking remembered: Edmonton family mourns loss of physicist and friend

Stephen Hawking may have been one of the most brilliant scientific minds of all time but he also had an affinity for marmalade toast, cozy slippers and was proud of the fact that he once drove over the foot of Prince Charles.

'He was this famous physicist and yet he was just a regular human being'

Stephen Hawking died at his home in England on Wednesday at the age of 76. (Yonathan Weitzman/Reuters)

Stephen Hawking may have been one of the most brilliant scientific minds of all time but he also had an affinity for marmalade toast, cozy slippers and was proud of the fact that he once drove over the foot of Prince Charles.  

While the world will memorialize Hawking as the best-known theoretical physicist of his age, Edmonton's Cathy Page will remember him as a dear and generous friend.

"He was just so down to earth and so easy going," Page said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "I came to realize that this famous physicist had his favourite shirt, he had his favourite kind of marmalade to put on his toast, he had his favourite slippers, his favourite Indian take-out place.

"He was this famous physicist and yet he was just a regular human being."

'It was still a big shock'

Hawking died peacefully at home early Wednesday in Cambridge, England. He was 76 years old.

With his theories on black holes and the origins of the universe, Hawking revolutionized physics and cosmology and provided invaluable insight into the mysteries of space and time.

He had battled the debilitating effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for more than 50 years.

"Stephen had many, many different things happen to him over the years, things happen where we thought he would die … and then he would pull through," Page said.

"But it was still a big shock that it finally happened."

Page's husband Don — now an acclaimed physicist in his own right — met Hawking during his studies at Cambridge.

Don Page lived in the Hawking family home for three years during his studies at the University of Cambridge. He helped care for Hawking, who was already largely paralyzed by disease.

Cathy Page first met Hawking in 1986, a month after she and Don married. The couple was invited back to Cambridge to act as short-term caretakers for Hawking.

She spent a month with Hawking while his wife Jane was travelling, helping him eat, dress and bathe.

Watching health deteriorate was 'tragic'

The families would remain close friends for decades to come, sharing family dinners and children's birthday parties.

"She (Jane) desperately needed a holiday and when she found out I was a medical doctor she felt comfortable leaving Stephen in my care, along with the care of the nurses," Cathy Page recalled. "And that was the first time I really had interaction with Stephen."

Within a few months of their time at the family home, Hawking would publish A Brief History of Time, which became an international bestseller, making him one of science's biggest celebrities since Albert Einstein. 
Stephen Hawking - the physicist, pop culture icon, and friend. We'll speak with an Edmonton woman who's known Hawking since the 1980s. 6:25

The combination of his bestselling book and his almost total disability — for a while he could use a few fingers, later he could only tighten the muscles on his face — made him one of science's most recognizable faces.

Signs of illness appeared during Hawking's first year of graduate school, and he was officially diagnosed. The disease usually kills within three to five years.

Watching Hawking being slowly ravaged by ALS was "tragic," said Cathy Page, but he faced his disability with an unwavering sense of humour and quick wit.

Stephen ran over Prince Charles's toes with his wheelchair.- Cathy Page

Hawking was no stranger to Buckingham Palace. One of his visits with the Queen is the perfect example of his love of comedic relief.

"Prince Charles was very taken with Stephen's wheelchair, so he wanted Stephen to perform some tricks and twirls," Cathy Page recalled. "So Stephen ran over Prince Charles's toes with his wheelchair.

"Of course, at the time, he couldn't laugh but he thought this was just the greatest thing," she said. "He thought this was even more wonderful than this hugely prestigious award that he got."

Despite his inability to speak, Hawking would still insist on giving driving directions during their outings on Cambridge's winding roads, using the lights on one of his control panels to indicate right and left.

He just faced death over and over and over again his life.- Cathy Page

On one road trip to campus, Hawking insisted on returning to one of his favourite haunts, a cafe near the university that attracted an interesting clientele.

"We went there and my husband and I looked at each other and were like, 'Oh my goodness,' " Cathy Page recalled with a laugh. "There were a whole bunch of very eclectic looking people in there… some straight out of the 1960s hippie movement, and that's where Stephen had hung out.

"That's a side people just don't see and don't even think about."

While his contributions to science were invaluable, Cathy Page said bravery will also be part of Hawking's legacy.

"I think anyone fighting so valiantly against a very, very difficult health situation — people admire that and are drawn to that," she said. "He just faced death over and over and over again his life."

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca

With files from the Associated Press, Falice Chin