Ask for Rafe Day’s business card, and it will tell you he’s the “Parts Dude” in atmospheric chemist Donald Blake’s research group.
Ask Blake about Day, his 30-year-old lab technician who has Down syndrome, and he will tell you Day is a valuable member of the team and a good friend, beloved by both students and Blake’s son.
“We’ve learned how much Rafe has to offer,” says Blake, chair of UC Irvine’s chemistry department. “He sees things in a different way and says things that put situations into perspective. He’s able to distill something complex to the simplest terms, and then you look at him and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s true.’”
Day – who was born without one foot and wears a prosthetic leg – moved from San Francisco to Orange County as a child and graduated from Corona del Mar High School. He joined Blake’s lab at UCI in 2002 and works four days a week, cleaning and assembling instruments that collect air samples from around the world and analyze them for gases contributing to global warming.
Blake says Day is good at his job, particularly at constructing devices to seal canisters of air trapped outside planes during flight. “I’ve never had another student, postdoctoral researcher or technician be able to do it right 1,000 times in a row,” Blake says. “Rafe is Mr. Perfection when it comes to this.”
Day, he says, is also adept at lightening the mood during tough times. In late 2008, California officials put a stop on one of Blake’s contracts because of the state budget crisis. “It was a low point in terms of my career, and I felt really cheated and angry,” he recalls. “One day I was going to lunch with Rafe and he said, ‘Do me a favor: Don’t talk about the budget.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘It makes you cranky, and then you take it out on me.’”
The comment made Blake take stock: “I thought, ‘What kind of person am I to beat up on Rafe?’ He’s the one guy who’s not demanding. He just sort of brings out the best in people.”
When Blake’s son, Tim, was in the hospital recovering from abdominal surgery, Rafe came to visit. “Like the Chris Farley skit on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Rafe said to Tim, ‘You having a good time here? Ooof, that was a stupid question,’” Blake relates. “That was the only time in six months that I saw Tim laugh.”
Day says his job enriches his life. He has taken trips to collect air samples and attended UCI chemistry lectures. Last summer he flew on NASA’s DC-8 laboratory during the agency’s Student Airborne Research Program, in which Blake participates.
“This group of students fell in love with Rafe,” Blake says. “They set him up on Facebook. He now has 50 friends, and 30 of them were in the summer program.”
Day often can be seen walking laps around Ring Mall, listening to music on his iPod, and sometimes he works out at lunchtime in Aldrich Park. Recently, Chancellor Michael Drake approached Day, who was wearing a UC Berkeley football jersey, during a walk. “We’ll have to get a new shirt for you, Rafe,” he teased.
“I like UCI very much,” Rafe says with a grin. “I’m happy here, and I’m doing nice things.”