Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Emru Townsend

Emru as I remember him.

Emru Townsend passed away last night after a lengthy battle with leukemia.

I can't remember how and when I first "met" Emru. He was probably the one to contact me in the days when the internet was mostly usenet groups and email lists. He approached me to write about the production of Monster By Mistake and I was grateful for the opportunity. He was the editor of fps, a Canadian magazine devoted to animation and my TV special was an early example of an all-cgi half hour. He gave me another chance to publicize the show when it went to series and I continued to write reviews for fps thereafter when it migrated to the web.

Emru and I were also members of Apatoons, a private publication about animation that's been going on longer than The Simpsons.

I only met Emru face to face two or three times, and I think that all the meetings may have taken place at the Ottawa Animation Festival. The one thing that struck me about Emru in person was his great baritone voice, one that was made for radio.

Emru was someone who made things happen. Lots of people have ideas or complain that the world is deficient in some way. Emru turned ideas into reality. Creating a magazine from scratch and getting it distributed is not an easy task, and it doesn't get any easier when the subject matter is animation. Emru attracted people like a magnet and was able to organize them so that there was a tangible result.

That organizational ability served him well during his illness. He used all his media savvy to publicize his situation; he needed a bone marrow transplant and had to find someone who was a match. He and his family (especially his sister Tamu), mounted a campaign that included a website and blog, email lists, newspaper articles and radio interviews, all focused on publicizing the need for people to provide samples for the bone marrow database. His ethnic group, the Afro-Caribbean community, is under-represented and one goal of his crusade was to register more people in that community so that they would have an easier time if they were unfortunate enough to be in Emru's position. For all the work that Emru did with fps, with the Siggraph organization, with the larger animation community, it will probably be dwarfed over time by the work done by him, his friends and family to expand the bone marrow database. We'll never know how many lives that database may save in the future as a result of their efforts.

Emru's illness was not easy or pleasant. In addition to the effects of the disease itself, he suffered with the problems associated with chemotherapy: exhaustion, fuzzy-headedness, and mouth sores. It suppressed his immune system, so he spent time in hospital wards where he could only be visited by people wearing masks and gowns as he was in danger of infection. There were other complications having to do with his heart rate and his legs swelling. Through all the treatments and over 40 transfusions, Emru wrote about his illness. There was no self-pity in those reports; Emru approached his illness like a journalist, documenting everything he went through dispassionately. This is what's known as grace under pressure.

Emru found a match for the transplant and underwent the procedure in September. Unfortunately, it didn't relieve his condition. He knew several weeks ago that there was nothing else doctors could do for him and that it was only a matter of time. Time ran out yesterday evening.

I've lost a friend, animation has lost an advocate, and the Townsend family now has a hole it in that will never be filled up. Emru is survived by his wife Vicky, his son Max, his sister Tamu, and his parents and in-laws. I know something of what they went through and I don't envy them the pain and uncertainty that has dominated their lives since Emru got sick. There's nothing left to say except that I hope that his family can find solace from how much we'll miss him and most especially from the way Emru lived his life. We're richer for having known him.

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