Donald Preece died on Monday night.
Many mathematicians who have been to British Combinatorial Conferences will remember Donald for the Conference concert, over which he presided as a labour of love for many years. But that is not the greatest debt the BCC owes him. He came to the rescue at short notice when we unexpectedly found ourselves without a conference venue in 2001, and with John Lamb’s help organised a very successful conference at the University of Kent.
I first met Donald at the British Combinatorial Conference at Aberystwyth in 1973. I have told the story here. In brief: He wanted some designs, I had some designs, but my designs did more than he wanted in one respect and less in another. He took my offerings, and by hand managed to add the extra property that he wanted, leading to our first joint paper in 1975. It took me a quarter of a century to figure out what it really was that he wanted, and to come up with an infinite sequence of examples.
That set the pattern for our later collaborations. He was brilliant at constructing examples of beautiful objects by hand. Then I had to figure out what he was doing, and try to come up with a generalisation.
I got to know him much better after he came to Queen Mary as a research professor, I don’t remember the year. We worked on various things, including primitive lambda-roots (we produced a long set of notes, too long for a paper but too short for a monograph, containing lots of open questions, one of which was subsequently solved by Müller and Schlage-Puchta; the rest are still open as far as I know.
At Queen Mary, Donald flourished, taking up rock-climbing and abseiling down tall buildings for charity. But before too long the health problems began; I suppose these have finally got the better of him.
But he had one final flourish to end his career. He was the driving force behind the rebuilding of the organ in the Great Hall at Queen Mary. At the same time, he set himself the task of tracking down all the surviving pipe-organs in churches and halls around the East End of London, and produced a book on his findings (which he typeset himself, in LaTeX of course). I was delighted that one of his compositions was played at the grand opening concert for the refurbished organ.
On Monday, he was taken to the Western Infirmary in Edinburgh with breathing problems. While there, he had a severe brain haemorrhage from which he died.