Katherine Hawley (1971-2021)

Katherine Hawley, St Andrews

I’ve spent the last day trying to think of ways to express my response to the death of my colleague Katherine Hawley. What I say here will be inadequate, but I feel I that I owe it to Katherine to say something, and a Tweet or Facebook post doesn’t seem quite enough.

Katherine really was the rarest sort of person. She was the most intelligent person I’ve ever met, but she had something even rarer – maybe you could call it a sort of moral genius. Her kindness was nearly beyond comprehension. She was more generous than I thought it possible to be.

When we try to express these things we resort to anecdotes. I can’t tell much of the story, but let me try to tell some. Remember that I’m not anything special – just one of many junior colleagues. These stories aren’t about how Katherine treated me; they’re about how she treated people. You’ll see so many other stories coming in, you might find it hard to believe somebody could have done so much for others. That’s the point.

In 2017 I wrote one of my dopey blog posts, linking the public discussion of fake news with some criticisms I had of the media-training curriculum in schools. Katherine (who apparently found time to read dopey blog posts by junior colleagues while publishing some of the best philosophy in the world) invited me to work with her to turn it into a submission to a Parliamentary inquiry. My tangled thoughts would never have made the cut. But Katherine had the Midas touch; what she touched turned to gold. Out of my silly blog post she spun a page of focussed, elegant, powerful prose, which the inquiry enthusiastically included in its submission. This became a big ticket item on my CV. People have reported seeing Katherine and my photos together on media briefings around the world – how sad to think of that now. The point is that she gave my career a boost; hers was in no need of boosting. But when I tried to thank her for this she told me that I had helped her – she would have just submitted “something boring on trust”. Anyone who knows Katherine’s work knows how false that is. But her generosity was so pure that she wanted me to think that I’d done her a favour.

In 2018 the first round of university strikes occurred. In the lead-up Katherine came into my office to make sure that I was ok. She didn’t know what position I took, and she wasn’t asking. She just wanted me to feel safe either way. Some people try to recruit you to one side or the other. Katherine always made you feel like she was on your side. She, of course, gave selflessly to the cause, but never in a spirit of division or hostility.

Those strikes I supported and participated in, along with the next round. I spent many mornings on picket lines with Katherine, who braved the cold even when she was sick. When I eventually came to feel that the union was overplaying its hand and making a strategic mistake, this opinion was, let’s say, not received equally well in every quarter. My Head of School got in touch to make sure that I was coping with the heat, online and offline. He had been alerted to it, of course, by Katherine.

In a later meeting he reminded me that I was due to apply for promotion. No prizes for guessing who had reminded him. Understand that Katherine was never in any official mentoring role towards me. She must have just kept track of everyone’s situation, constantly, thinking about how she might help them. It seemed to come so naturally it looked effortless. Of course it wasn’t, but Katherine would never want you to feel bad for any trouble she took on your behalf. She helped others to help others. The effect of this is exponential, in some way that she no doubt could mathematically explain.

I feel almost ashamed to say, my last interaction with her was to ask for help, yet again. This time it was with my promotion application. She had already helped me and a colleague secure a grant from the AHRC – again, this was nothing to do with her, just generosity. She had talked me, wisely and calmingly, through a frightening dispute involving a colleague’s redundancy. I knew that she was sick and her time was precious. But others had recommended that I seek her help. The thing is, nobody else would help as much as Katherine, and nobody else could – again, that Midas touch. And so the last piece of writing I ever received from her was my own, turned into gold by her brilliance and kindness. A symbol.

I sometimes wondered how she had time to do her own work when she was always looking after the rest of us. But reading her work now, I see that this might be a false separation. The spirit of her kindness shines through it. Maybe it’s even the engine that powers it, for all that her intelligence does.

I tried to express my appreciation to her, but how could I? I hoped I could one day give something back to her, but now I never will. All I can do is try to take something from her example. If any of us who have known her are even slightly kinder or more decent than we otherwise would have been, that is a bit of Katherine living on.

I send my love and my thoughts out to her family and to everyone else who has lost her.

3 thoughts on “Katherine Hawley (1971-2021)

  1. Deeply sad news. I feel so lucky to have had her as my dissertation supervisor just last semester. She was an absolutely incredible person, so so kind, patient and interesting. May she rest peacefully.


  2. I joined St Andrews in 1995 and I am scientist. I got to know of Katherine through Academic Council (as was) and various committees. I got to know her better when I served with her on the appointment of the new Principal. Going into the process, I held Katherine in high esteem, to me she seemed one of the most able and pragmatic academics on the Arts side.

    During the process, I found Katherine to be a ferociously clever and articulate advocate for her views; she never said anything that was not carefully thought out and was always well prepared. But she argued in good faith, focussed on substance and never used her erudition to play word games. What I especially admired was she took the time to understand a differing view from the “science side”. After a particularly gruelling series of interviews one day we all shared a drink and laugh in the bar. She could tell a good story, could laugh at herself and was just a great human.

    I know how important her family was to her, I can’t imagine how devastating a loss this is to them.

    The last time we corresponded was when I congratulated on her being elected FBA. I was delighted for her and felt sure it was an overdue honour. We talked about catching up when she was next in Oxford or at Carlton House terrace. I am so sad that this won’t happen. Many many others will know Katherine better than me, but this is how I saw her.

    All deaths are sad but the loss of someone so young, so talented, so decent and so important to her family is inexpressibly awful.


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