Robert Sturtevant Howard Fye ’08 used to love talking philosophy.
Fye took several philosophy classes at Yale and would chat about the subject for long periods of time to Edwin Forman, his primary oncologist.
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One of Fye’s favorite stories, Forman said, was that of Socrates, who, found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth, ended his life surrounded by wailing friends who begged him to run away as he prepared to drink the hemlock that would ultimately kill him.
“[Socrates] said, ‘I don’t know why you’re crying. I’m going one way, you’re going the other. And who knows which is the right way?’,” Forman said. “Robbie found that comforting.”
Fye — a Renaissance man with passions for law, sailing and painting — passed away in his Middletown, R.I., home last Tuesday following an eight-and-a-half-year battle with cancer. He was 23.
The Silliman College senior died peacefully after a recent relapse from osteosarcoma, the most common type of malignant bone cancer, which he had battled since being diagnosed at the age of 14.
In a Friday e-mail to Silliman students announcing his death, Master Judith Krauss said Fye was “a part of the fabric of Silliman … showing the rest of us what it meant to ‘be a friend.’”
“He was a gift to those of us who were privileged to know him during his years at Yale,” she wrote in the e-mail.
Those close to Fye remembered a kindness, sense of humor and devotion to Yale that helped him mask his struggle from friends and professors.
“Part of the reason he survived for so long was because he never let [the cancer] define him,” his older sister Jessica Fye said. “No matter how many times that he had x months to live, he never started living his life as if [he had that long]. He always kept looking forward. That was why he could get so much done — he never stopped moving.”
Fye delayed his matriculation at Yale for one term, and over the course of his college career he took nearly every weekend and, later, terms off to receive treatment for his condition. Despite the progressive nature of osteosarcoma, he forged friendships and continued his studies at Yale with the goal of attending law school.
Although he took classes this past fall, the recent relapse became so painful that he had to take a leave from classes before Thanksgiving break.
Surgeons at a Massachusetts hospital operated on the cancer, which pushed on the femoral nerve in Fye’s pelvic area and caused immense pain. After treatment, he was transported to Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., where he stayed for three days, Forman said.
Among his friends and acquaintances, Fye was known for his altruism and upbeat demeanor.
French lector Soumia Koundi said Fye was always smiling when around the other students in her French 131 class last semester. And despite showing signs of gradual weight loss and fatigue as the fall progressed, Fye was still smiling, still “trying to do his best,” she said.
Shortly after Fye was moved to Hasbro, Charlene Flash ’98, a pediatrics resident who attended to Fye twice over the course of his illness, notified Silliman officials that he had been readmitted. Krauss and other members of the college community kept in close contact with Fye’s family all through his Yale career, she said.
Upon hearing the news on Dec. 19, Krauss and Silliman Dean Hugh Flick traveled to Middletown to see Fye, who opted to receive home care during his last weeks.
It was there that the two gave Fye an engraved silver frame “honoring his accomplishments at Yale … similar to the congratulatory certificates [they] award … on commencement day,” Krauss told the News in an e-mail Saturday.
Fye was delighted to receive the award, Forman said, but by then he knew the cancer, which was resistant to chemotherapy and had metastasized to his lungs and liver, had grown beyond treatment.
“He went home knowing he was going to die, hoping it would be sooner rather than later,” Fye’s doctor said. “It didn’t happen right away, and that was a little frustrating for him.”
Still, Fye was more worried about the stress that his illness caused for family and close friends, and he tried to comfort them until the end, they said. Within three weeks, Fye’s system had begun to shut down.
Forman, the chief of pediatric oncology at Hasbro, said Fye loved his fellow classmates but accepted that he would have to stay at Yale longer to finish his degree while they moved on.
“[Fye] did say it was very hard,” Forman said. “It was hard to see his friends going on with life. They were eager to go on to their professions and marriage — just going on — and he would just come back and need more credits [to graduate]. He knew they … would be decades ahead of him. He accepted that, but not without pain.”
In an undated letter addressed to Charles Guggenheimer ’55 — the chair of the committee in charge of the Yale Club of New York’s scholarship program, of which Fye was a beneficiary every year since enrolling — Fye wrote of his early passion for computer science and economics and his excitement about “expanding [his] academic horizon.”
“Words cannot express my joy at being at Yale,” he wrote in the letter.
Pursuing a degree in economics, Fye performed well, eventually earning a Richter Summer Fellowship to conduct a statistical analysis of Connecticut casinos last year. During the same summer, he interned at Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. in Providence, working on scenario analyses of how the closing of several Rhode Island U.S. Navy laboratories would affect the state’s economy.
Michael Doherty, a resident of Providence and a research manager at RIEDC, said he met Fye while working alongside him during Fye’s his summer internship. Doherty, who said he remembers Fye’s work ethic and sense of humor, attended a two-day wake for Fye that began on Saturday.
“I was so impressed with Robert’s extraordinary outlook and resilience,” he wrote in a Jan. 10 Providence Journal online guestbook entry for Fye.
Fye was “one term shy” of completing his credits and would have graduated in the spring, Krauss said. Although he chose not to write a senior essay, he did complete the required senior worksheet for his major last November, economics undergraduate registrar Qazi Azam said.
Fye was an enthusiastic and devoted member of his residential college, serving in 2005 as captain of Silliman’s team in the Relay for Life, an annual fundraiser for cancer research. His team placed second in funds raised amongst the colleges. Fye did not captain the team the following year, but he was still “very involved” with the program, Krauss said.
“Any event Silliman sponsored — Rob was there,” she said. “He helped when he could.”
Fye’s other extracurricular activities included the Boy Scouts of America, in which he earned the highest rank possible, the Eagle Scout. He also published several comics for the Yale Herald and was a devoted member of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity.
In 2002, Fye graduated from Middletown High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society, served as captain of the math team and competed in varsity tennis and swimming.
Fye is survived by his father, Robert; mother, Mary-Louise; Jessica, a stocks researcher; and brother Alexander, a junior at Brown University.
In two phone interviews with the Fye family, relatives talked of his passion for life and his strength in the face of a debilitating disease.
When Fye was forced to undergo life-threatening surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital during his third year of college to remove a piece of tubing used for chemotherapy that had become stuck in a vein leading to his heart, his family rushed to New Haven to see him. But when they found him, Fye was simply reading a book, a bandage on his surgery wound. When he saw them, he asked whether the family could go to Yorkside Pizza to get some food.
“When we get back to the hospital, they were a bit miffed because they didn’t know where he went for a couple of hours,” Robert Sr. said. “[Fye] just went on with his life.”
Alexander said Fye was the “peacekeeper” of the family, the one who “you can talk to and confide with.”
“I can’t recall any conversation in which he didn’t try to make me smile, make me laugh,” he said in a phone interview Sunday.
Later in the phone conversation, Jessica echoed Alexander’s sentiments.
“He was the only person who could make me laugh my unbridled, real and really embarrassing laugh — my laugh-out-loud laugh,” she said.
Many of Fye’s friends at Yale said they will miss the inspiring senior walking around Silliman’s courtyard.
Erik Wing ’06, who met Fye freshman year when they lived in the same Silliman entryway and later became his roommate, said he could depend on Fye for anything.
“I miss having somebody that will feel dependable,” he said. “More than any other friend, he was more steadfast. You felt like there was nothing that he couldn’t help you sort out.”
When asked over the phone Thursday what she will most miss about Fye, Krauss paused slightly. “His gentle sense of humanity,” she said.
Funeral services will be held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport, R.I., at 11 a.m. today. A bank in Middletown is currently accepting donations for a scholarship in celebration and memory of Fye’s life.
Silliman will host a memorial service for Fye “late in the spring term,” Krauss said in the Friday e-mail to the Silliman community.