I got a call from Mario’s wife Annette this morning telling me the sad news. Mario had a heart attack last night and died suddenly.  The family is in shock, as am I. He was a good friend and colleague. We worked together for over 20 years.

Mario was a happy and funny guy. He loved his family, his life and his work. We had endless conversations on a variety of subjects from family issues to politics–and occasionally about physics and the lab. He was one of those people at the lab who would go beyond the superficial work conversations with me to talk about his life. I was fortunate enough to hear some of his life experiences–growing up in an immigrant family in Marin, playing football in HS and more interested in partying than studying, working on cars, hanging out with neighbors in front of his house drinking beers (which I did with him once–think of the show King of the Hill), meeting a loving wife who could put up with him (his words), his love for her and his children–and being especially proud that his kids all went to college. Our political conversations went all over the place and I was invited out to his house in Sacramento once to meet his neighbors–who apparently wanted to meet this radical Berkeley friend of his–many were Trump supporters.  It was an interesting set of conversations not commonly found in Berkeley.

Years after HS, Mario tired of manual labor (truck driving and other jobs – he had arms like a bricklayer). So, he went to college and earned a Masters degree in Physics. If I recall correctly it was Mike Lampton who hired Mario–recognizing his ability to figure out how to get a job done without much supervision. Mario worked with Ossy for years–and later with Chuck Carlson (and me). Chuck brought him on to test microchannel plates for our plasma sensors, and to build up our test equipment for several projects. In particular Mario assembled the ion gun that was essential for testing the mass spectrometer I, and a large number of engineers, developed for the MAVEN mission. When I think of the human infrastructure and institutional memory within the lab, Mario was definitely a key piece of that and will be missed. But more so, those of us who knew him as a friend will sorely miss him.

Jim McFadden

25 Responses

  1. Jim, thanks for that great essay on Mario. I, too, am shocked to hear of his demise. I worked with Mario on Maven and Parker Solar Probe, He was great to work with. I was amazed at how diligent he was on keeping a perfect notebook for all of his testing. He was very cooperative and capable. I will miss him, too.

    – Ken hatch

  2. Mario was a great guy – I worked with him off and on over the years since the 90s. He was always friendly whenever I saw him, and helpful when I asked him questions, and had thoughtful things to say.
    I remember wrestling with whether I should go to grad school, and Mario gave me good thoughtful advice from his own experience about getting a Masters – which is what I ended up doing. Mario was a real part of the SSL – I’ll miss him.

  3. I learned about Mario from my wife Susan Lea, who was Mario’s professor of physics at SFSU, and who gave me a hint that this one guy would be a smashing success doing practical research work. I hired him. WOW– he took on every task that I could assign him, and always pressed to know more. I will miss him.
    Mike Lampton

  4. Mario was one of those students you never forget. He worked hard, and seemed to enjoy every minute. I remember him telling me stories about his prior life as a piano mover! When he graduated, I recommended him to Mike who was looking for help. Years later he still insisted on calling me “Professor Lea”. He has passed way too soon, and I will miss him, but remember him fondly.

  5. Mario was always a calm, steady, and competent presence in his corner of the lab. He got difficult tasks done and never got visibly stressed out doing it, even if those around him were losing it. Mario helped me out quite a lot when I was a new and very green instrument lead on MAVEN. Even after I left Berkeley, he helped me out from time to time, sharing design specs and giving me some great tips on designing a calibration electron source. On a personal level, he was always friendly and pleasant to talk to, and happy to have a long conversation at 2 pm on a random Tuesday. The lab, and the world, will miss Mario.

  6. Mario was a wonderful, good natured, and conscientious human being. He was great at getting a job done and I could count on him doing it efficiently and properly. He was someone we could always turn to for help. Moreover I was glad to have considered him to be a friend. I enjoyed hearing about his kids (He was extremely proud of them all) and he enjoyed hearing about mine. I will miss our discussions together. Our lab will sorely miss Mario – as will the world.

  7. I’m shocked and disheartened by this news. I too have worked with Mario for years…and when we weren’t turning and burning on some project or another, conversation would turn to family and politics. I had little appreciation for his political bent, but certainly recognized the issues we all deal with in our lives and how that affects the mindset of the national discourse. And of course….family issues happen no matter one’s politics, so we both found humor and comfort in knowing that we aren’t the only ones dealing with Kids, spouses, etc. I also know he loved his family very deeply. I believe family was his motivating factor and I feel very bad for them. He would have done anything to be around for you all… guiding and providing as necessary. Alas, in these terrible times, it wasn’t to be. I’m so sorry for your loss. Please take care, everybody.

    1. Steve: Mario’s son and I especially enjoyed your comment about his politcal bent. I’ve been his sister in law for 32 years and I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with him on anything. It gave us a good laugh.


  8. In recent years, Mario and I would share baby stories. His of his kids (from long ago, with hazy memory), his grandchild, and mine of my own young children. Whenever I saw him he’d smile and ask me how my kids are doing, and seemed genuinely interested in the almost daily changes of a young person’s life. Our work overlapped often from when I started at SSL, and we collaborated on several programs. I have an image in my mind of trying to solve a problem at the lab.. Mario would put his finger to his chin, cock his head, and sigh “hmmph.” He seemed curious, always ready to solve a challenge, and enjoyed the collaborative aspect of the task. I still don’t believe he’s left us, but I trust he’s at peace, and pray the family will be, too.

  9. Mario was an absolute joy to be around. Whether we were discussing topics of work or life in general, he always presented himself as a human element that was easy to empathize with. I am going to miss randomly bumping into him at work, knowing full well that a smile and interesting conversation would be the only consequence of our meeting. Mario will be tremendously missed but he will forever remain in our hearts and minds.

  10. This is so sad. Because Mario’s lab is across the hall from my office, I bumped into him on a regular basis. It was always a treat when he wanted to stop in the hallway and talk because I always went away feeling better. He usually had a huge smile, but even the few times he was grumpy, he still had a great sense of humor so that at the end of the conversation, we would both be smiling. He was clearly a family man, with a slideshow of family pictures running on his machines round the clock, and the pride he expressed in his children. We spoke all the time about his son with a new baby, his other son who transferred from community college to studying and graduating physics at Berkeley, and his daughter with a bright future who could have gone to any college, but chose to stay closer to home. The success of his family was a source of strength for him.

    Mario also had a great sense of humor. He liked to talk of the politics of the area where he lived and compared it to the politics of Berkeley, but he always did it as a way to express humor, so it was always fun. And when he complained about a University issue, it always led to a laugh. I think a perfect example of his humor is a time when we spent a couple days trying to figure out why our detector wasn’t detecting anything. The problem turned out to be something not plugged in right, a simple problem with a simple solution. Mario’s explanation of how he figured it out: “That’s because I am a simpleminded simpleton.” That kept me in stitches for a week. I’ll miss him.

  11. Mario and I would often run into each other in the hallways when we were rushing to work or fix one problematic issue or another. We would chat for a few minutes to see how each other were doing and what was going on with our kids and family. The way he spoke about his wife and family, I could tell he loved them so much and was very proud of his kids. We often shared “dad” advice with each other, and ended up laughing with comedic solutions. He was truly a dedicated worker who loved his job even though he “bitched” sometimes about the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the “system” – like we all do at times, but the greatest thing was that in the end, we felt each other’s futility, made fun of it and always laughed and made jokes about it. He was one of the most down to earth guy I met. Anyone who was friends with him could tell that he was blessed with the gifts of great affability and camaraderie.

  12. Mario was an inquisitive practical scientist, a family man, a trusted colleague, a kind human being, and a good friend. Mario was so proud of his family, especially his children and new grandchild, and he spoke of them often at work, and it showed in everything he did. When it came to work, Mario was unswayed by vague opinions and stuck to the facts, having a remarkable ability to pry away at the layers with said impartial facts until he knew all the necessary details. And yet, somehow, he kept a genuine curiosity and an open mind about other ways of attacking a problem. It made him an excellent scientist, and earned him respect as a man that knew his stuff and stuck to his principles without any ego (a remarkable feat!). Together we commiserated about the absence of good barbecue in the bay area, talked about cars (of which he knew far more than I did), and discussed our personal experiences and opinions from graduate school. How many mornings or afternoons were highlighted with an hourlong conversation with him on family, work, or the state of humanity I’ll never know, but in this newfound, alien feeling of his absence I wish I’d taken him up on the offer more often. It was a pleasure to know Mario as a colleague and a friend, and it will be difficult to return to an SSL without him.

  13. I have been working with Mario quite a lot back when I was doing the floating/mounting of the STATIC carbon foils. A process which I took over from him as he was involved in this before, so I learned a lot from him. I even set up my foil-floating lab initially in a corner of his office and so we happened to talk about physics and the world and everything else quite a bit. Mario was always down to earth and had a unique and often refreshing perspective on things. It is very sad to hear these news.

  14. Mario and I crossed paths on a few projects, but more often in the hallways. I enjoyed his sense of humor about most things and, as someone said previously, his camaraderie. He and I also crossed paths in our scientific ‘family tree’. A mentor of his, Saeid Rahimi at Sonoma State, was the post-doc in a lab where I worked between undergrad and grad school. Mario appreciated and continued his connection with Saeid and Sonoma State. Condolences to his family, I will miss him.
    Ed Wishnow

  15. Hearing the news, I was so shocked and sad that I could not respond for a while. I had the privilege and pleasure to know and work with Mario. He was a wonderful human being, a scientist with a great sense of humor, curiosity, responsibility, sense of mission, and he had a marvelous down-to-earth attitude. A few years back he contemplated retirement, but decided that he was not ready for it. He did not want to hang around a golf course, he wanted to to things and make a difference – put his dent in the universe, at the Lab. It was always fun to see and interact with him. His presents definitely made the Lab a better place. Thank you Mario, for having made our lives better! It seems to me that he fully accomplished the goal: to live life the best way one can possibly can.

  16. This is very touching!! I recognize most all of you as Mario loved what he did and who he working with! As I’m only a sweet natured infant teacher ( and the talk of physics is beyond me ) he loved to share stories of all of you and your lives too! He was anxious to get back to work as he missed his routine and the friends he had there ! Thank you for this lovely tribute!!

  17. So sad. I have fond memories of working on CHIPSat with Mario. And, over the intervening years, we’d always stop in the hallway to chat. He will be missed!

  18. I met Mario very often as his lab is just across the hallway from my office and we shared a printer. One thing I certainly remember is his love for his family and how proud he was about his daughter who learned German. Occasionally he tried a German word or phrase on me and I tried to correct his pronunciation, but mostly with little success. He will certainly be missed by everybody on the third floor of the SSL addition.

  19. Thank you everyone for the beautiful flowers !! I’ll try and share a note from my son , Mario , who is graduating in May from Berkeley ❤️

  20. Many people wonder why the phrase “Klaatu Barada Nikto” means so much to me and where it comes from. Some are aware that it was first heard in the 1950’s sci-fi movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in which an Alien named Klaatu comes to warn the human race of their own destruction through war. My Dad was a huge fan of these hokey, black-and-white films and I’ve watched them with him as long as I can remember.

    Klaatu himself was a supergenius. The first scene of him entering an American physicist’s study room and immediately solving his decade old physics problem would always be paused by my dad and followed with something like “Mo, this will be you some day”. My entire life my Dad preached that education is the most critical thing anyone could have to lead them to a happy and successful life. He knew this because he was a bum living out of his car until his late twenties. Upon meeting my mom he realized how much love he had to give and he knew the first step into a new life was to go back to school. Being as stubborn as he was, he picked the hardest major that could come to mind: Theoretical Physics.

    After creating a profound career for himself, having 3 kids, and finding a wife who brought out the only good he had inside of him, his only objective was to have his children be happier and more successful than he was. So of course he was beyond ecstatic when my brother had his first born son, my sister got accepted to UC Davis, and myself graduating with a bachelors in physics from UC Berkeley in less than a month. I always liked to believe I was my Dad’s favorite as I was pursuing his dream and he NEVER hesitated to let me know how proud he was. Literally sent me 1000+ word emails just saying how perfect I am while being under the pressure of deadlines and midterms.

    Last night, April 22nd, my dad suffered a major heart attack in the company of my mom and I. I would like to believe he was dead before he hit the ground as he didn’t have a pulse by the time we were able to get down to check. The entire month, unable to work due to the stay-at-home order, he would continuously question what he did to be so lucky. He had everything he dreamed of having in life: successful kids and a beautiful grandson. All while getting paid to sit on his ass because of how badly his company needed him to stick with them after COVID. He cooked me a dinner just an hour before he collapsed with absolutely no signs of illness, even testing NEGATIVE for COVID within the last month.

    Saying goodbye to my Dad last night was something I never expected to happen so soon. Before he saw me graduate. Before he walked his daughter down the aisle. Before he was able to teach his grandson mathematics. The entire week he would tell me “I could die right now with no regrets. Every decision I made in life has led me to the perfect one I have today”. It’s impossible to say he saw it coming, but I think he’d agree when I say there was no better time to die. Completely happy. Beyond happy. I think my Dad died because he was the happiest man in the world. That’s what I’ll tell people.

    My dad would always keep me on my toes with conceptual math and physics problems as long as I could remember. Quizzing me on Maxwell’s equations and constants like the electron unit charge. The one question I always had the answer to was when he’d tell me “Save the earth”, in which I’d respond “Klaatu Barada Nikto”. The phrase doesn’t have any meaning aside from gibberish to stop robot Gort from destroying the planet, but to me its been a remembrance of the love my father has for me even before he was gone.

    tldr: This is the darkest time imaginable for millions of people around the world. You don’t realize who could be a victim until it reaches you. Please love those around you and reach out to those who might be struggling. Never take anyone’s love for granted, you don’t know how temporary their life may be.

    Save the Earth.

      1. Dear Mario Junior, Thank you for sharing such a wonderful connection with your Dad. Thank you for following in his footsteps and even working on DESI has brought a little sample of Marckwordt to LBL. We wish you and your family all the best now and forever!

  21. I laughed when I saw the “Klaatu Barrada Nicktu” in Annette’s message. Bill Donakowski, Mario and I had a long conversation about this movie one day. It was as favorite of us all; we all agreed that if the scientists ran the world, things would be better. I was at the lab when Mario was hired. He was sent to us from Professor Lynn Cominskly at Sonoma State University. Mario had great regard for her, and vice versa. After his first project was coming to an end, he was very stressed and kept coming to me and saying “how long do you think I’ll have a job?” I told him that no job was ever guaranteed at SSL, but that if you were good at your job, somehow, the projects just came your way. That certainly happened for Mario as he was a great employee who worked for so many projects at SSL I lost track. I am so sorry to have lost him, and in such a shocking way. But I’m glad to hear that he was happy and I know he was so proud of his children and spoke often of how much he loved where he lived in San Rafael.

  22. The story as I have heard it goes something like this. Mario and his brother, Clark, were in a bar. In the midst of a conversation, one of the patrons sloppily stated, “Well you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out!” Not missing a beat, Mario said, “As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist.”

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