Cai Mourned at Campus Service

Parents and friends reflect on student’s vibrancy and intellect

Unnamed photo
Sophia Wen

A congregation of mourners gather inside Memorial Church yesterday for a memorial service for Peter W. Cai ’10, who died from sudden cardiac arrest on Saturday.

Family and friends recalled Peter W. Cai ’10 as a compassionate and intelligent young man yesterday at a remembrance service in Memorial Church.

Cai’s parents and girlfriend, Christine Li ’10, were among the many who spoke to the packed hall about their memories of the 20-year-old, who died from sudden cardiac arrest near Weld Boathouse on Saturday after completing the men’s race of the semiannual River Run.

Quan Cai, Peter’s father, described walking with him in a stroller when he was a baby.

“People would always turn to look at him, and I wondered why,” Cai said. “It was because he would always smile at the people looking back.”

Cai kept his warmth and sociability far beyond his childhood into his college years.

“Peter is no longer here, but I still see him smiling,” Cai’s mother, Ming Ding, fondly said of her son, an Adams House resident. “I can hear his sweet voice, saying ‘Hi, Mom!’”

Li, Cai’s girlfriend, stood out from the black-clad congregation, choosing to wear a green shirt and jeans because “Peter’s favorite color was green, and he loved when I would wear this green shirt.”

Li described seeking out Cai even before meeting him.

“I confess that I Facebook-friended him before freshman year because I thought he was cute,” Li said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

The pair started going out during their first year at Harvard. Li said that their first official date was in downtown Boston, where they went ice skating.

“He didn’t know how to skate,” Li reminisced, “but he was happy to be there and happier to pull me down with him.”

Cai’s mother told a story about how Peter, originally named Wei, got his first name.

“When Peter was three years old, our friends told us to give him an American name” she said. “We tried a dozen names, but none stuck. Finally, one day, Peter was watching television, and he turned to me and said, ‘Just call me Peter, like Peter Rabbit!’”

While those closest to Cai remembered his abundant spirit, those who knew him in a professional context spoke of his dedication and reliability, as well as his wide breadth of knowledge.

“When Peter wrote to me as a freshman asking to work in my lab, I couldn’t believe his resume,” said biology professor Thomas P. Maniatis, in whose lab Cai conducted research. “It read more like an application for a junior faculty position.”

Maniatis told the mourners that he scheduled a meeting with the molecular and cellular biology concentrator, expecting to meet a brilliant student but one with a big ego.

“Instead, I was taken in by Peter’s homely manner, his energy, and his sheer intelligence,” Maniatis said. “Peter did not disappoint during his time in my lab. He accomplished more in a summer than most do in an entire undergraduate research career.”

The funeral will be held in Cai’s hometown of Pittsburgh, although final arrangements have not been made, according to Adams House Master Sean G. Palfrey ’67.

At the conclusion of the service, as the congregation dispersed somberly to reflect on a world without the smile of Peter Cai, the clouds in the overcast sky gave way to reveal a bright sun and a blue sky.

—Staff writer Prateek Kumar can be reached at kumar@fas.harvard.edu.