Ellanor Stengel Fink was a student at Wheaton College when she went out on a blind date with David Hackett Souter, a law student at Harvard, who had just returned from a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. They dated for the next several years while he went through law school and she pursued a government major at Wheaton.
Today, she is the mother of three children who is very involved in volunteer activities with the Montgomery County schools, and she is chairman of the board of elections of the town of Somerset. She is a registered Democrat. Her husband is general counsel of the Investment Company Institute, the trade association for mutual funds. As she watches Souter going through the rituals of confirmation to the Supreme Court, one thought that goes through her mind is that "it is positively weird to see the face of your old friend looking out from the front page of your newspaper. It's especially strange realizing you're of an age for somebody to be nominated for the Supreme Court."
Fink, 45, has not spoken with Souter, 50, in 20 years, although they have corresponded on occasion. But she has vivid and extremely positive recollections of the man she, and other friends in those days, called Hackett.
Souter, with little federal court experience and, thus, almost no paper trail on where he stands, is one of the more mysterious nominees to have been named in recent times to the Supreme Court. He has never married. Fink is probably one of the women who has been closest to him during his life. Her recollections of the kind of man he was when she knew him well ought to reassure women and men who are concerned about how he will evaluate the great privacy issues of our time, such as abortion rights.
"I have no idea how he would vote on abortion," she says. "I doubt that anyone knows how he would vote. He's not an ideological person. What's characteristic of him is he's tremendously fair-minded. He wants to know and to listen to everybody and to reach a fair position based upon the law. The one thing you can say is he will be fair and he will listen to all sides and he will tell you how it is.
"Having never married, I know everyone is wondering does he have the empathy to understand women's issues, and I think he would. It's not as though he's lived in a cave for the last 25 years. He has many friends and I'm sure many women friends and I'm sure he's very aware of the impact of abortion on women's lives and men's lives, as well. He's very well-thought-of by his friends, both men and women."
Fink knew Souter's parents and describes them as "very warm, friendly, lovely people. A traditional, close family.
"To his toes, he loves New Hampshire and the rural life. He seems to get a lot of strength from the farm, from his roots. His idea of a great vacation was to put on a back pack and hike for seven days in the woods alone.
"He is exceptionally bright and wonderful to be with intellectually. What doesn't come across in the accounts I've read is what a warm, friendly guy he can be. He comes across as a steely intellectual. All head and no heart. He is a very bright person and very interesting, but he's not all brain. He's a friendly, warm person and extremely considerate.
"He's very funny, loves to tell stories, loves Robert Frost -- at least when I knew him. He takes great delight in the life of the mind, but he's not an absent-minded professor at all. He's very much grounded in the day-to-day. He's somebody, I think, who really would be sensitive to different opinions and different backgrounds. He's not someone who's coming from his personal opinions and then twists the law accordingly. He really reveres the law.
"He is very much of an individualist, with strong feelings about the rights of individuals to control their lives, but I think he also has strong feelings about an individual's duty to the community. He feels very strongly about the country in a very quiet, unassuming sort of way.
"To understand Hackett, it's helpful to know what New Hampshire is like. It's a very special kind of place. It respects individualists and it's very tolerant of others. There's a strong streak of independence. All of those things are valued. It's such a physically beautiful place up there, you can understand very well how he loves it so. It gets in your blood."
She said he never spoke of a desire to be on the Supreme Court. "He wanted to go back to New Hampshire. He used to joke about wanting to be a pig farmer and how much he liked pigs, but all of us knew it was unlikely he was going to make that his life's work.
"I don't know what 20 years has done to him, but I think they're going to have to work very hard to find any blemishes," Fink says. "He's real class. There's a true quality to him."