Charlie Gilchrist was my neighbor for a quarter of a century and my friend for longer still. He will be missed in the church he served. His entry into a religious life after eight years as Montgomery County executive left the political world missing him, just as his chosen first profession of the law surely missed him when he was finally captured entirely by the political world. But nobody can miss him more than his Rockville friends.
Charlie and Phoebe may have moved away, first to Chicago, then to Baltimore, but they never really left us. They were too deeply embedded in our lives to vanish. Our children grew up together. Visits back and forth, their return for the annual neighborhood carol sing, occasional cards from Charlie, always signed "Cheers!" and phone chats with Phoebe kept us close.
Most of us had been involved with Charlie in at least one campaign, and all of us had shared countless neighborhood pot-luck suppers. We had ringside seats for Charlie's life. And what a life it was!
Everybody who knew him has at least one good Charlie story. A good many involve his astounding ability to get lost while driving a car, yet he was never in any doubt about how to direct his life. He was an amazing combination of idealist and pragmatist. Decisions came readily to him; regret was a stranger.
A talented painter, he had work shown at the Corcoran Biennial while he was still a student. But he saw a fork in the road ahead, and he made his decision. He cared too much about art to devote less than his entire life and energy to it, a commitment not practical for a young man who wanted a wife and family. So he chose to study law, a path that later led him to politics.
He was simply too good an artist to become a Sunday painter. He did take art courses from time to time, probably because Phoebe kept pointing out to him that artistic talent can also be a gift from God and should not be wasted. But it was not until illness forced his final retirement from the active ministry, from the court-appointed Special Master job he was doing part time, that he began to turn again to painting.
He leased a studio in Baltimore and began to paint. He had already chosen subjects from the Sandtown neighborhood where he and Phoebe lived until the stairs became too much. They found a one-story apartment overlooking the harbor, a painter's dream. He could have intended to paint waterfront scenes and ships, but typically, he was interested in painting people, the people of Sandtown, who had needed him and whom he had needed.
People were Charlie's passion. When he was county executive in prosperous Montgomery County, the idea that there were people here who had inadequate housing, not enough to eat and no access to medical or psychiatric care made Charlie furious. He set about using the county government to bring about change. But he didn't rely only on the county. He became personally active in working with clinic and halfway house needs.
Not that he spent all his time being a do-gooder. Charlie was, as one neighbor said this week, just a lot of fun. My husband was fortunate enough to work with Charlie as a staff assistant and used to come home chuckling over the staff's after-work bull sessions in the executive's office.
Then one day the bombshell; my husband came home and told me Charlie was going to leave government and enter the ministry.
Typically, Charlie was irked at speculation that his son's recent recovery from brain tumor surgery had caused him to offer his life to the church. Very firmly he said, "I did not make any bargains with God." Rather, that experience had brought into sharper focus what things in life really matter most. What mattered to Charlie was helping to effect change, making a difference.
Entering the ministry was for Charlie the revelation of another, more hands-on path to the service he had always wanted to render to others. He could be more direct, not dependent on the clumsy apparatus of bureaucracy to bring people what he had to offer.
When Charlie, with Phoebe at his side, became a part of the church, he just went on doing the same thing he had done before -- caring. Nothing much had changed but the wardrobe.
The diverse crowd that packed the Washington Cathedral at his funeral service made it clear that he had succeeded. Very few were there for the sake of form. They were Charlie's friends. They were the friends of a proud and humble man, one of the few action heroes of our lifetime.
The writer was a neighbor and political associate of Charles Gilchrists.