Centre for Theoretical Cosmology News

CTC remembers Dennis Avery, 1940 - 2012

Dennis Avery, born in Los Angeles on 23 October 1940, died aged 71 on 23 July 2012 at Sharp Memorial Hospital, San Diego, surround by family and friends. A founding supporter of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology, he was born to R. Stanton Avery, founder of the now Avery Dennison Corporation. He devoted his life to philanthropy.

Married to Sally Tsui Wong-Avery, a fellow lawyer and Chinese court interpreter, he supported charitable causes worldwide, often anonymously. The Averys gave to AIDS clinics and language schools in China, a library in Honduras, and a rehabilitation centre in Hong Kong, amongst other projects.

Dennis was also active within his local community in San Diego. Dennis and Sally donated $6 million to The Chinese Bilingual Preschool in Kearny Mesa last year. Dennis provided the community of Borrego Springs with a Little League park. For the same community he purchased and subsequently opened to the public 3,000 acres of land previously scheduled for development. He later commissioned an artist to build 130 metal sculptures of prehistoric and fantastical creatures on the land for everyone's enjoyment.

Dennis first met Stephen Hawking when they both attended an event held at the White House in March 1998 and they became close friends. Dennis had first heard of Stephen from his father, Stanton Avery, who was Chair of the Board of Directors at the California Institute of Technology, where Stephen often visited.

Dennis and Sally's significant support for Stephen and the University of Cambridge led to the foundation of the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. They were awarded the Chancellor's 800th Anniversary Medal for Outstanding Philanthropy by the University at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. They represented the Vice-Chancellor at the installation of Elsa Murano as President of Texas A&M University in 2008. Dennis and Sally were Stephen's honoured guests when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2009.

Dennis studied at the University of Cambridge, where he was a member of Trinity Hall. He once remarked "into Trinity Hall I plopped, the brilliant and never regretted choice again, through random selection. And only later did I learn the then not yet globally celebrated Prof. Hawking had barely come to Cambridge himself". Trinity Hall later appointed him the rare distinction of Honorary Fellow. After leaving university, he went to work for the British Rail Transport Organization in West Berlin. He then worked for the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, heading the City Attorney Consumer Protection Unit, before being appointed an associate dean at the California Western School of Law, also in San Diego, in the 1980s. He was a member the California, Colorado and Washington DC bars and held graduate degrees in Law and Business.

He is survived by his wife, five children, and one grandchild. A memorial service was held at All Saint's Church in Hillcrest, San Diego, on 4 August.

Stephen Hawking gave a eulogy in absentia, represented by his son, Robert Hawking, which can be listened to here. Stephen was booked to fly out to attend the funeral but, unfortunately, had to cancel just beforehand. Paul Shellard, Director of CTC, said: "We are deeply saddened by the loss of a good friend and a generous benefactor. Dennis began supporting Stephen Hawking's work and legacy here in Cambridge back in 1998 and he was instrumental in founding the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology; we were so pleased that he could attend the CTC launch in 2007. We were privileged indeed for so long to be able to make common cause with Dennis, endeavouring to push back the frontiers of cosmology. He will be greatly missed."

Listen to Stephen Hawking's tribute to Dennis Avery
Dennis Avery, Julian Revie, Sally Wong-Avery and Stephen Hawking in 2005

Dennis Avery, Julian Revie, Sally Wong-Avery and Stephen Hawking in 2005

Stephen Hawking's Tribute to Dennis Avery:  

It is an honour and a privilege to say a few words in remembrance of my great friend, Dennis Avery. Dennis and I shared the same Cambridge College where we both became Honorary Fellows. He said once with characteristic flourish: “I am but one lawyer who briefly and by serendipity, landed in Space known to you in Trinity Hall”. We were not in college at the same time, though once we sat near each other at lunch in the Graduate Centre, and we were not to meet properly until much later. However, we also had an earlier link: Dennis had learnt about me through his father, Stanton Avery, who chaired the Board of Caltech, where I have regularly visited since the 1970s.   

But our connection goes deeper still. Since he was a small boy, Dennis held a passion for Newtonian Optics, telescopes and astronomy. I think it was my good fortune to have held the Lucasian Chair, Isaac Newton’s former professorship in Cambridge. When we did finally meet at the Clinton White House in March 1998, I was astonished by his interest in the mysteries of the Cosmos and its origin. He was very enthusiastic about recent progress in cosmology, and the growing “appreciation of what our Universe is and is not”, even if our understanding was veiled in the language of mathematics.  He wrote to me recently: “We treasure the opportunity with Newton to peak just a bit further, held aloft by courageous others, seeing what is and may be.”

And so began our great friendship. Dennis was a remarkable man, highly educated and privileged, but with a profound humility that always put the needs of others before his own. He had the ability to mix with people from all walks of life and of all ages and to make them feel special. He wanted everyone to achieve their full potential. Dennis and Sally have been to my home on many occasions and it has always been a great joy, with their warmth and sense of humour lighting up the memorable evenings. That they have even stayed on to help wash up the dishes tells you something more than words can express.

Dennis was a great philanthropist supporting good causes worldwide, from AIDS orphanages in South Africa to wheelchairs for remote villagers in Tibet. Dennis and Sally have been enormously generous in supporting my own research and legacy in Cambridge. Through their generous endowments, I was able to found the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology in 2007, creating a centre of excellence to support outstanding young researchers and workshops on frontier areas in cosmology and gravitation. They have always supported my work anonymously, never seeking recognition for themselves.

It was a great privilege for me to spend several days with Dennis and Sally in Cook’s Branch, Texas, as a guest of the Mitchell’s this April. Sally gave me a set of fine shirts, the same as she had given Dennis earlier. So, for our time together there, Dennis and I had matching shirts, somehow reflecting our shared inspiration, with minds like Newton’s “forever voyaging through strange seas of thought”.  

We will always remember and honour Dennis for his great generosity in Cambridge helping us to advance our understanding of the Universe. Dennis has left this world a better place and I treasure the memories I have of his vision and humanity. My thoughts are with Sally and the many family members and other friends who mourn him.