An accomplished scientist, Robert Michael Dirks relished his role outside the office as "a fantastic father" who enjoyed going on hikes with his two small children in the picturesque Westchester suburb of Chappaqua, his older brother said Thursday.
"In the end, he always just wanted to be with his family, no matter what they were doing," William Dirks, 38, of Portland, Oregon, told Newsday in a phone interview.
Robert Dirks, one of the five passengers killed in Tuesday evening's Metro-North crash, was devoted to his two young children, Owen, 5, and Phoebe, 2, his brother said.
"He was just super, super sweet, a nice individual," William Dirks said from his parents' home in Spokane, Washington. "It was just so incredible that this happened. He wasn't a risk-taker. He was just going to work. He used to go to work really, really early . . . so he could come home and play with his kids before they went to bed every night."
Robert Dirks was an avid chess player in his younger years, his older brother said, until he became too good to play friendly games with his pals. It was then he turned to playing bridge while working toward his PhD in chemistry at Caltech, where he met his wife, Christine Ueta.
"More important than my brother winning was him just enjoying playing with his friends," his brother recalled. "But his main interest was his family."
William Dirks spoke of his brother's devotion to his children in anecdotes, one of extra time spent with Owen, who was trying to overcome a fear of swimming.
"There would be 16 kids in the water, all screaming. Fifteen were out of joy, one was screaming out of fear and that was Owen," the brother said. "He would take extra time to take Owen to the pool, give him one-on-one time to get him used to the water so he could just take it at his own speed."
William Dirks described his brother as "brilliant," "hardworking" and "self-directed."
Robert Dirks excelled in his career involving the development of novel computational chemistry methods, according to D.E. Shaw Research in Manhattan, where worked for eight years.
"Robert was a brilliant scientist who made tremendous contributions to our own research, and to the broader scientific community," the company said in a statement. "He will be deeply missed as both a colleague and a friend. Our hearts go out to his wife Christine and their children."
As much as Robert Dirks excelled in his professional life, he remained "patient" with fatherhood, his brother said.
"I really respected him and really loved him," William Dirks said. "He was such a good person. He knew how to engage people, help them work through things."
Robert Dirks was born in Bangkok, Thailand, before his family emigrated to British Columbia when he was a 1-year-old, then moving to Vancouver then Spokane, where the brothers grew up together and went to high school.
Their stay-at-home mother, Suree, is a native of Thailand and their father, Mike, a schoolteacher for more than 50 years, is from Washington state.
Robert Dirks was "very regular" in his daily routine. He would wake up early to catch the train around 5:30 a.m. from the Metro-North station on the other side of the Saw Mill River Parkway, his brother said.
"I think he liked to sit in front because it was the quiet car. He could read or finish up some work he was doing," his brother said. "I think that's why he was in the front car."
William Dirks said he found out about his brother's death early Thursday.
"When I heard the news, I was feeling overwhelming sadness," William Dirks said. "Then I just went on a long walk to try and calm myself down. Then I packed my things and drove to Spokane to be with my parents to help comfort them, to see if there was anything I could do."
The family is trying to find ways to grieve.
"We're devastated," William Dirks said. "He was one of our favorite people in the world."
Mike and Suree Dirks on Friday will be flying to New York on their way to their late son's home in Chappaqua, to grieve and console with Christine, and to help out with the children.
"I'm sure she'll be hit the hardest," William Dirks said of Christine. "Her life is going to change the most."