By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
WEARE, N.H., May 2 -- When he joined the bench of the nation's high court, David H. Souter packed his belongings into a U-Haul and drove down Interstate 95 from his boyhood home here to a rented Southwest Washington apartment. But the Supreme Court justice never took to the federal city, and after 19 years his things are in the same boxes.
"He never unpacked," said Thomas Rath, one of Souter's closest friends. "A few years ago, he said, 'I figured I'd take the pictures out of the boxes and hang them up, but I figured in a few years I'd be coming back to New Hampshire and I'd have to pack them back up, so I might as well leave them in the boxes.' "
At the relatively young age of 69, Souter is giving up what he once called "the world's best job in the world's worst city" for a life of simple solitude in Weare. It is a rural hamlet that fascinates him so much, he has told neighbors he may someday write a history of the town.
When he departs this summer in his Volkswagen sedan -- he dislikes flying and always drives himself to and from Washington, leaving at odd hours to game the traffic -- Souter will cross the Piscataquog River, drive past country stands selling maple syrup and fresh eggs, and turn down a narrow, unmarked dirt road.
Here, at the dead end of Cilley Hill Road, is home. The crooked, rusty mailbox and the metal horse-and-buggy sign on the red barn door bear the name Souter. The brown paint on the wooden colonial farmhouse is peeling away, the second-floor curtains are drawn, and the windows are sagging with age.
A rusted wheelbarrow sits out back, and a bird's nest rests atop a lantern on the shadowy bare-wood porch. The creaking, unkempt house looks so haunted that some people who passed by said they assumed it had been abandoned. The only sign of cultivation is five daffodils blooming alongside the weeds.
But Souter's home is tranquil, with the quiet broken only by the buzzing of insects, the chirping of birds and the whistling of wind through the soaring pine and maple trees. Souter once wrote in a letter to the late Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun that he is at peace here during the court's recesses.
"The restoration comes not only from the landscape and air, though they play their significant part, but from the people," Souter wrote. "I feel a strong need to be in New Hampshire for as much of the summer as I can manage it."
The farmhouse made national news three years ago, when property rights activists tried to seize it by eminent domain to build a hotel. They were seeking revenge for Souter's vote in a 2005 ruling that a Connecticut city could take a group of older waterfront homes for development. Their effort failed.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush elevated Souter from obscurity to the Supreme Court, in large part because Souter's old friend, Warren B. Rudman, then a U.S. senator, vouched for his conservatism. Souter had served two months on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit and before that was a New Hampshire Supreme Court justice. But on the bench in Washington, Souter showed his quirky independence in spurning the right, which made his New Hampshire neighbors more proud and possessive of him.
"He's my hero," said Joe Fiala, 49, a truck driver from Weare. The only time they met, he and Souter posed for a photo, which Fiala later posted on his Facebook profile. "Whatever he says is probably right. He looks at things so dispassionately; he just applies pure logic to things in front of him and doesn't see them emotionally."
Washington is filled with people who rose from rural roots to political stardom and became fixtures in the capital. But that's not Souter's story. He has famously shunned Washington's glittery social scene and leads an unusually reclusive life for a public official. He dislikes schmoozing at cocktail parties, refuses media interviews and rarely poses for photographs.
"Everything that the social scene in Washington stands for is not David," said Bill Glahn, a close friend. "Washington is just not his cup of tea."
Souter is well liked, gentlemanly and funny, known for telling stories in his deep New England accent. (At his confirmation hearing, he reportedly said "lore" for "law," "floor" for "flaw" and "sore" for "saw.") But though he is friendly with many in Washington, he has few friends there. A lifelong bachelor with no surviving immediate family, Souter is particularly close to retired justice Sandra Day O'Connor and to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and often joins their families at Thanksgiving.
Souter has a self-awareness about his shyness in public, even joking about his awkwardness to colleagues. "In a perfect world, I would never give another speech, address, talk, lecture or whatever as long as I live," Souter wrote to Blackmun. "I know you get a kick out of these things, but you have to realize that God gave you an element of sociability, and I think he gave you the share otherwise reserved for me."
A disciplined man, Souter has been known to work 12-hour days and keep a daily diary. But he cares little for material goods. He appears almost gaunt, and it has been joked that his black robe adds color to his attire.
Rather than dining out for lunch, he usually has yogurt and an apple at his desk. "And he eats the apple the old-fashioned New England way: He eats it right through the core," Rath said. "There is nothing left but the stem."
Souter is the court's wealthiest justice, but perhaps its most frugal. He arrived in 1990 with reported assets of $627,010, but thanks to a shrewd investment in a New England bank, he now is worth between $6 million and $30 million, according to his financial disclosures. Yet he resides not in a glamorous Georgetown townhouse but in the same mundane Southwest Washington apartment. One night in 2004, during a jog by himself around nearby Fort McNair, he was mugged.
Souter, friends said, never much liked Washington. So he is returning to Weare, a blue-collar and decidedly fiscally conservative town where the big political fight of the day is over whether to charge public high school students to ride the bus to school.
Souter, an only child, moved here with his banker father and homemaker mother when he was in the sixth grade. About 15 miles south of the state capital, Concord, Weare was settled by farmers in the 1750s. Residents are friendly, driving down the road with a hand out the window because there always seems to be somebody worth waving to.
"You don't see many fences around here," said Ricky Hippler, 22, a proud Wearite, born and raised, who works as an auto mechanic and volunteer firefighter. "Everybody knows everybody -- except I don't know Souter!"
Charles "Chip" Meany, 66, the town's code enforcement officer, said the justice is "not a pretentious person, even though he has the right to be." A few years ago, Weare proposed naming its new middle school after Souter, but he wrote the town a letter respectfully declining the honor.
Weare is the kind of place where "people tend to live and let live," said Souter's sixth-grade teacher, Betty Straw, 83, whose ancestors were early settlers here. Souter's neighbors here are fiercely protective of him, some refusing to talk to reporters.
"He wants his seclusion," said Jimmy Gillman, 56, who lives across the dirt road.
A solitary soul, Souter enjoys hiking mountains and strolling through nearby Clough State Park. At night, he goes for long walks alone, a flashlight guiding him down Weare's winding roads. Residents can tell he is home by the police cruiser that drives up and down his street by the hour.
Souter is a ferocious reader -- he has thousands of books piled up in the farmhouse -- and friends said he is eager, finally, to organize them into a library.
"He's given his whole life to public service, and I think it got harder and harder for him to go back to Washington the last couple of years," said Rath, whose daughter held the Bible at Souter's swearing-in. "This is where he belongs. It's a very different world here, one where it's no surprise to bump into him at the Shaw's market. He likes that. He's very comfortable here.
"Here he's just David; he's not Mr. Justice," he continued. "Everybody needs a place like that."
Research director Lucy Shackelford and staff researchers Madonna Lebling, Magda Jean-Louis and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.