BBC Inteview

The Dalles Chronicle reporter Neita Cecil is pictured during her interview with a researcher for BBC Radio 4 about a homeless man who was killed by a train last year. The man was a minor celebrity in the computing world for the herculean achievement of writing his own operating system.

A British radio program has devoted a 28-minute segment to the life of a man who died homeless in The Dalles in 2018. A local reporter was interviewed as part of the BBC Radio 4 podcast.

Terry Davis was hit by a train Aug. 11, 2018, and a small story in the Chronicle about the then-unnamed man’s death soon resulted in a number of phone calls to the paper from people around the world who were questioning the fact that he was dead.

From those calls, reporter Neita Cecil learned Davis was a “minor celebrity,” as one caller put it, with a small internet following as a computer programmer who accomplished the huge feat of writing his own operating system.

His followers were a skeptical lot and some didn’t believe he’d really died. A handful took the unusual step of calling the newspaper to confirm he was really dead.

After interviewing several of the callers, Cecil wrote a second story that described Davis’s achievements as well as his serious mental illness. The article noted that police and the train engineer believed Davis had committed suicide.

The story proved enduringly popular online, popping up as the most-read article on the newspaper’s website for many months afterward.

Interest in the story had died down by October, but then Cecil got a call from Elizabeth Duffy, a researcher with BBC Radio 4. Duffy worked for a podcast called “The Digital Human” and wanted to hear Cecil’s reaction to the phone calls that came in about Davis.

Duffy provided a description of the show in a later email: “Digital Human is a BBC Radio 4 podcast that mixes technology and psychology, culture and philosophy. We tell stories about being human in the digital age, with the focus very much on the human in the middle of all the tech.”

The podcast first aired Nov. 11 and is available at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n7094, the podcast’s homepage. It will be up for at least a year.

The podcast looks at the same person from different perspectives: the reporter who only learned who he was after he died and people called her to confirm his death; a psychologist who studies creativity and mental illness; computer software developers drawn to his work; the director of a French art museum that features what’s called “outsider art”; and a writer who interviewed and befriended Davis.

Duffy said, “If we don’t look at it in this nuanced way it does get swamped by Terry’s very troubled psyche.”

Davis said he was divinely inspired to write his “Temple” operating system, and one fan said he was fully lucid when discussing programming.

But another fan told the Chronicle she couldn’t use her last name in the article about Davis because he was controversial for his YouTube videos, where his mental illness expressed itself in his use of racist and homophobic language.

Cecil recorded an interview with Duffy at Y102 Radio, which included reading aloud the first small story about Davis’s death.

Cecil was asked when she first realized it wasn’t a usual story, and what the people who called her said about Davis, his work, and his mental illness.

Cecil is briefly quoted several times in the first part of the podcast.

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