In 1984, Charlie Gilchrist--halfway through his second term as Montgomery County executive and seemingly poised to run for governor--shocked everyone around him by announcing that he was training to become an Episcopal priest. Once ordained, he lived in the lost neighborhoods of Chicago and Baltimore, ministering to the wretched, walking streets that had no trees but plenty of guns and drugs. He was so happy in the Lord's service, he was sometimes described as "beatific."
Over the past 35 years, Gilchrist transformed himself from a tax lawyer into a politician, then from a politician into a priest. Over the past few months, he was trying to become a recovering cancer patient.
He didn't quite make it.
On Thursday night, at around 11, Gilchrist lay in a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and quietly exhaled one final time. He was 62. Phoebe, his wife of 37 years, was at his bedside, along with his sister, Janet.
No one was kidding himself--everyone knew Gilchrist was terminal when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February. He was so weak that doctors suggested hospice care for the dying cleric. Since then, though, Gilchrist had responded well to weekly chemotherapy treatments, which bought him some time and comfort.
But last week, death accelerated toward Gilchrist with a shuddering velocity.
I last saw Gilchrist 10 days ago, when a Post photographer and I visited his new art studio, inside a sturdy brick building in a south Baltimore neighborhood called Pigtown. A dynamic St. Albans high school art teacher had unlocked young Charlie's talent for painting. Now, he had rented this high-ceilinged, plank-floored space and was preparing to paint again. He hoped to render the children of Sandtown, the neighborhood where he and Phoebe had lived and ministered for the past three years.
We began to climb the stairs to Gilchrist's second-floor studio. Without saying so, we all wanted him to go first, so we could back him up. But he was having none of it.
He propped himself against the doorjamb and shooed us past. One foot was in the alley outside; the other was on the door sill, a good 12 inches higher.
"Go on, go on," he said, in a soft, weary voice. "I can make it."
We filed past--first me, then the photographer, then Phoebe; all of us reluctant to leave him.
"Charlie . . . " his wife began.
He was getting impatient now.
"Okay," Phoebe said, with a practiced combination of cheer and exasperation. "Do what you want."
Up we went. Toward the top of the dark stairs, I turned and looked down at Gilchrist, a sliver-thin silhouette backlighted in a shadowy doorway. He was rocking back and forth, readying to vault himself up into the door. He was all angles and lines and fierce concentration.
I turned away, unable to watch, and kept climbing. I flashed back to a similar scene a couple of weeks earlier in the same stairwell.
Coming down the stairs that day, Gilchrist's left foot had overshot the last tread and lunged through empty space. The next two seconds were an agonizing eternity. Before anyone could reach for him, he was headed for the floor. The air rushed from Phoebe. Though he had not enough strength to stop himself, he contained the fall and landed on all fours.
"Damn!" he cursed, under his breath.
"Oh, Charlie!" Phoebe blurted.
"I'm all right," he said, still down.
I reached down to pull him up, putting one hand under each armpit. I felt: The corduroy of his tan jacket. And ribs. Nothing else. I lifted him as if he were a papier-mache man.
This time, though, he made it up the stairs without help. At first, he was probably proud that he'd made it by himself, then immediately furious that his life had been reduced to such tiny victories. This was a man who jogged during his lunch hour; who was personable and charming but exited lazy conversations that had no point. His whole life had been about "do"; now, he could not.
One wall of the studio was filled with his artwork--ink drawings of street scenes in Chicago and Baltimore, charcoal sketches from a drawing class, an acrylic self-portrait of a sober-looking Charlie.
"You look so happy," Phoebe teased.
Their marriage was about quiet smiles. They had locked eyes across a Harvard Christmas party when Gilchrist was in law school. "Who's that?" he asked his buddies. On the other side of the room, she was asking the same thing. More than once, Phoebe was asked how she put up with all of Gilchrist's career changes, all the moves, the ever-declining income. When you get annoyed with someone, she said, you remember what brought you together in the first place.
Once, Gilchrist was as tall, sturdy and handsome as a Shaker highboy. Now, so thin, so frail. His glasses, even, too big for his face. Phoebe Gilchrist saw the desiccation, but she saw more. What was it, she was asked, that attracted you to Charlie? "Well," she said, smiling. She looked across a cafe table at him and saw the face she saw four decades ago. "You can look at him."
When his friends looked at him, they saw this:
"A good man." That was the first thing everyone said about Gilchrist.
They also called him a private man who shunned publicity. I went with Gilchrist to his church in Sandtown and to the National Gallery. I watched them pump poison into a valve in his chest during a chemo treatment. Friends wondered why he was giving a reporter so much access during such a difficult time. So I asked him.
"I guess I just want people to know that 'cancer' doesn't mean the end of everything," he said, smiling. "That you can still be productive."
Gilchrist lived the last months of his life the way he lived most of the years before--by constantly questioning his own behavior. Sometimes, friends considered it self-flagellation.
"Charlie would always say, 'If they say I'm guilty, I must be guilty,' " recalled Montgomery Circuit Court judge and longtime friend Paul McGuckian. "He was always lashing himself on the back for something he had never done."
More than a lot of people, Charlie understood damning hubris--the inability of humans to humble themselves before others and God. Through intelligence and will, Charlie had transformed himself many times. He had accepted that he would soon die. Any other thought would have been arrogant.
I prodded Gilchrist once: Why don't you shake your fist at God? Is this the thanks you get for turning your life over to Him?
Gilchrist refused to take the bait. If he was mad at God, he would not tell.
He once said, "I've never seen a miracle." He did not expect one for himself.
Instead, he simply shrugged his shoulders.
"People say to me, 'Why you?' " Gilchrist said.
"I say, 'Why not me?' "
CAPTION: The former Montgomery County executive in his Baltimore studio.
CAPTION: Charlie Gilchrist, who went from law to politics to religion, in 1982 as Montgomery County executive.
CAPTION: Gilchrist helping 3-year-old Shaquantia in 1996 at the New Song school in the Sandtown section of Baltimore.