Tribute For Dennis Nagle, Free Spirit With an Engineer’s Mind, Dies at 78


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

In his youth, Dennis Nagle resembled Dennis Hopper’s character in “Easy Rider”: same bushy counterculture mustache and long hair, same pirate’s smile and wild glint in his eyes. And like the film character, Mr. Nagle embraced 1960s-style hedonism full on.

He was a big proponent of marijuana and psychedelics. He spent the ’70s living in England, where he ran with a fast crowd in London and, his oldest son, Alex, said, made his living in the illegal drug trade. By the time the ’80s rolled around, he had fathered four children with four women.

As disorganized as his personal life was, Mr. Nagle had the focused technical mind of an engineer. He could fix anything. He loved visual art, and throughout his life he built light boxes, attaching LEDs to tiny motors to create hypnotic patterns of light. A wellspring of knowledge lived within him.

“He taught me how to change the brakes on my car and told me all about Andy Warhol’s Factory,” said Alex Nagle, who knew his father only as a mythic character until, at 18, he tracked him down in Los Angeles. Dennis Nagle had moved there from England and was working for a company that did sound and lighting for rock concerts.

Mr. Nagle died on April 24 at the Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass. He was 78. The cause was complications of the novel coronavirus, his youngest son, Michael, said.

It was while living in Los Angeles and raising Michael that Mr. Nagle began to settle down. When Michael enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, Mr. Nagle followed him east to Cambridge, Mass. Father and son roomed together there.

In 2007, Mr. Nagle found a job as workshop manager and instructor at M.I.T.’s D-Lab, which uses design and technology to assist people in the developing world. Mr. Nagle, still a character (now with long, lush white hair), became the “shop gnome,” as he called himself. He brought order to the lab, made colorful tool boards and used his mechanical skills to teach students how to build things. He retired in 2015.

In an online tribute to him, Amy Smith, the founding director of D-Lab, described Mr. Nagle as “a fiercely loyal mentor to many students over the years and was a staunch supporter of the need to balance creativity and order, fun and work and anarchy and kindness.”

Dennis Patrick Nagle was born on Oct. 29, 1941, in Little Rock, Ark., to Bernard and Marjorie (Vaughan) Nagle. His father was a career Army officer, his mother a homemaker. In addition to his sons Alex and Michael, he is survived by another son, Ben Nagle Hyde; a daughter, Patty Holloway; and two sisters, Nora Kruplak and Molly Nagle. His three marriages ended in divorce.

Like his father, Mr. Nagle joined the Army as a young man. He guarded a missile silo in Greece, taking amphetamines to keep him awake while on duty, he told Alex. He studied engineering at the University of Rhode Island but dropped out, embarking on the long, strange trip that lasted two decades.

Michael Nagle said his father had been someone with “a tremendous amount of skill and ingenuity” who struggled to channel it into a productive and satisfying career. The job at M.I.T. was a late-in-life gift, he said, and one that “gave him a sense of belonging and balance.”



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