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  •   Blackmun Remembered for 'Human Touch'

    Justice Harry Blackmun
    In the Supreme Court Great Hall, court employee Sara Sonet mourns before retired Justice Harry A. Blackmun's casket. (Rick Bowmer — The Washington Post)
    By Cindy Loose
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 9, 1999; Page B3

    Although his name will be linked forever with his passionate defense of abortion rights, retired Justice Harry A. Blackmun was remembered yesterday for small, personal kindnesses.

    Ben Heinzen, once a young associate in the Minnesota law firm where Blackmun was a partner, stood in line outside the Supreme Court and recalled how Blackmun once came to see him in the hospital. While Heinzen was flattered by the visit, Blackmun--then an appeals court judge--worried he had stayed too long, wearing out his welcome.

    Mark Rahdert, who clerked for Blackmun in 1979, said that no matter how busy Blackmun was, he'd always pause to greet and play with children who came across his path.

    "He was a person with a human touch and for that reason inspired great loyalty," said former clerk Dan Coenen, now a law professor. "People talk about him as somebody who had great influence on public affairs. I'll always remember him for his personal qualities--his warmth, humility and discipline."

    A Supreme Court honor guard walked up the long marble stairs of the court carrying Blackmun's casket, which was draped with a 48-star American flag that had adorned his father's coffin. Blackmun's five grandchildren followed behind.

    The honor guard placed the casket on the same black cloth-covered platform that once held the coffin of Abraham Lincoln. Blackmun's widow, Dorothy, sat in a wheelchair as a violinist played the hymn "How Great Thou Art."

    Family, friends and colleagues past and present filed past the coffin in the court's Great Hall during a short private ceremony. Seven of the nine current justices attended--Justices John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia were out of town--as did the only surviving retired justice, Byron R. White.

    Meanwhile, in the chilly March winds outside, ordinary people lined up. Some were tourists who had happened by; others had come long distances to say goodbye to Blackmun, who died Thursday at 90.

    Charles Both, a local labor lawyer who joined the line, said he was leaving law school when Blackmun was appointed to the court nearly three decades ago. Both, a "dyed-in-the-wool liberal Democrat," said he respected Blackmun for the transformation of his views over the years.

    Appointed by President Richard M. Nixon, who expected him to take a tough law-and-order stance, Blackmun over time became one the court's most liberal members. He supported affirmative action and women's rights and eventually opposed the death penalty.

    "He just started understanding the lives of real people," Both said. "He didn't enter the real world--he was shut up in this court. Yet he was able to change. It was remarkable."

    Amy Campbell wasn't even born in 1973 when Blackmun wrote the Roe v. Wade decision, guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion, that helped ignite the cultural wars that continue to dominate American politics.

    But her respect for him, and that decision, brought her from Charlottesville to the Great Hall.

    Campbell, the first member of the general public to view the coffin, did not expect to become emotional. But her eyes filled with tears. It was a combination, she said, of the majesty of the place and the greatness of the man.

    "I suddenly realized how much he meant to me," Campbell said. "I thought of all those people who sent him hate mail over the years, letters that really must have hurt him. He deserved to have people stand today to honor him."

    Blackmun's funeral will be held at 1:30 p.m. today at Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, 3402 Nebraska Ave. NW.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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