Robert H. Page was a lawyer who practiced in Caribou, the town in northernmost Maine that's often cited as the coldest spot in the country; Walter W. Barnett was a lawyer who practiced in Washington, at the Justice Department. They had many things in common besides the law: sharp, irreverent humor, a deep love for baseball, modesty and reticence, abiding decency. They were, in the truest sense of the term, good men. Now, decades before their time, both of them are dead.
Rob died two weeks ago, at the age of 45, after 2 1/2 years of gritty struggle against a malignant melanoma; Walter died six days later, at the age of 48, of various complications following major heart surgery. They were my treasured friends, and the sudden loss of them pains and angers me, but I do not write about them in order to assuage or expunge my private grief. I write, instead, to celebrate them and the others like them: people whose names rarely make it into newspapers, yet whose lives and contributions to others are worth more than can be calculated.
I first met Rob two decades ago, when he came to Virginia to marry my sister. The marriage eventually ended, but our friendship did not. If anything, it grew stronger after Rob's illness was discovered, as his Yankee reserve gradually diminished in the face of calamity and he began to talk about himself more freely.
No one who knew Rob will ever forget the courage with which he defied his disease. He knew, after the fact, that he should have insisted on removal of the growth long before surgery was finally performed, but he did not dwell on past errors -- except to acknowledge wryly that his father, a doctor who had died a couple of years earlier, "would have been mad as hell at me" for letting the mole go unattended. Instead of self-pity, Rob summoned up all of his energies and fought his cancer bravely.
The disease was sufficiently advanced to be of medical interest, so Rob was referred to the National Institutes of Health. About a year ago he was accepted for treatment in its Interleuken-2 experimental program, and flew to Washington full of confidence and hope. By then growths in his right armpit were causing him gruesome pain, but he shrugged it off as incidental to the main battle at hand; he was a sad sight, with his right arm pressed against his side, yet it was impossible not to share his conviction that the cancer could be conquered.
God only knows he tried. In a period of several days he absorbed more IL-2 than had any other human, soaking up oceans of the stuff between bouts of nausea and debilitating weakness. The pain in his side went away, though the respite proved brief, and he went back to Maine with new vigor for the fight. Not until last winter did he begin to accept that he was losing, and even then he refused to admit that there was no hope. But things just got worse, and by the middle of May, his pain, I'm told, was more than even he could bear. Yes, much though all who loved him mourn it, his death was a release.
But Walter's was not. When I called three weeks ago to see if he could join me for an Orioles game, the news that he was in the hospital and seriously ill came as an utterly unexpected blow. Walter Barnett in the hospital? Impossible: He was one of the most energetic, life-loving people I knew. He loved his family, his music, the sports he played and watched, the law he practiced; this was not a man for the hospital.
What I had not known, because Walter was not one to talk of such things, was that a number of years ago he had undergone a bypass operation. He must have assumed that this surgery had put him back on course, because seven years ago when we resumed our school-days friendship he gave no signs of anything except robust health. During those seven years we met occasionally for lunch, talked from time to time on the telephone, attended numerous baseball games together; that Walter is now dead is to me inconceivable, not to mention unbearable.
But it is Walter's life, not his death, that I will remember. If Rob was a model of courage, Walter was a model of commitment. He was a New Englander, from a family of no great means, who managed to acquire a first-rate education and then proceeded to use it not for his own benefit but for that of others. Long before he entered the practice of law, he told a friend that he wanted to devote his career to civil rights; with no fanfare and with not an ounce of self-congratulation, that is precisely what he did.
At his death Walter held the mouth-filling title of deputy chief of the appellate section of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. He had worked for administrations strongly committed to civil rights and for others most charitably described as less committed; he took them all in stride, because he knew that administrations come and go but the law abides. At times, to be sure, he was frustrated and vexed; sitting on our front porch, sipping a pregame gin-and-tonic, he directed more than a few pungent philippics against his appointed superiors. But even in the hard times, he just kept on keeping on.
He did so because Walter was that genuine and invaluable rarity, a true public servant. He entered government not to enrich his contacts and then spin through the revolving door into lucrative private practice, but to work for a cause in which he believed and for people whom he felt had been deprived. He was no saint -- I can hear him laughing at the mere suggestion -- but, better than that, he was an all-too-mortal man who wanted, as best he could, to do what was right.
Listening to Walter talk about his "invariably diverse and interesting" work, watching the quiet way he went about it, I often wished that people who so glibly and ignorantly fulminate against "government" had even a limited comprehension of what he did, and why. Through Walter I came to understand that the "faceless bureaucracy" is actually populated by thousands of faces, and that some of them belong to people whose commitment is not to the security of a government job but to the actual work that job entails. Not merely was Walter one of these, he was one of the best of them: a wholly serious man, devoted to his work and convinced of its importance, and one of the few genuinely admirable people it has been my privilege to know.
But then precisely the same can be said of Rob, who in private practice honored the same standards that Walter did in public service. I wish they had met, because they would have liked each other as much as I liked them. They would have had a drink or two, argued the relative merits -- what merits? -- of the Orioles and Red Sox, and told tall stories about government lawyers and Aroostook County shysters. They would have laughed, and they would have made me laugh; I miss their laughter -- and them -- more than I can say.