Quiet N.H. Home Is Where Souter's Heart Has Always Been
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.