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My last post about the life and death of Dr. Margaret Burns found its way to more readers than I?ve ever had, and I followed up with a piece in Obit Magazine online (obit-mag.com) that brought this remarkable woman?s life to the attention of even more readers. From a recording of her memorial service, I learned that Dr. Burns also had been a violinist in orchestras at Duke University and in Asheville, NC, and that she sang beautifully. While I was aware of the classical music always playing via NPR in her home, I regret that I never heard her play or sing.
I?ll get back to politics in January, but first I want to say good-bye to five more remarkable individuals who died this year and whom I shall miss.
Kazuko Inoue came to New York City in 1966 to study piano at the Manhattan School of Music. She was an arduous and gifted student and became aware, I am told, that as a woman she would never realize her potential in Japan, where she grew up, so she stayed here. In 1982, she established the Inoue Chamber Ensemble (I.C.E.) with co-director Masaoki Inoue and others, and over the next 29 years she organized more than 220 concerts and commissioned more than 50 works. (Yoko Ono was a contributor.) She was deeply committed to world peace and gave moving commemorations of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that so damaged her homeland. In 2000, she became a U.S. citizen and became intrigued by the evolution of the Japanese American community as it added new generations. A long-time resident of my apartment building, she died at home on March 10 after a two and one-half year struggle with cancer.
The most remarkable fact about Marietta Moskin?s life was that along with her parents, she survived the Holocaust. More intriguing to me was the fact that when she came here as a high school student, anti-Semitism was still so palpable that she told no one of her devastating experiences in three camps and said little about them at Barnard College, where she received her bachelor?s degree. She studied economics at the University of Wisconsin and worked as an economist at General Motors until the met Donald Moskin, who became her husband. He was the first person, she said, who expressed genuine interest in her experiences. After her two children were born, she found her métier as a writer for young people. Her thinly disguised autobiographical novel, I Am Rosemary, tells the story of a girl in Hitler?s hideous concentration camps and became widely used in schools in part because its heroine, like Marietta, lived. She died at the age of 83, peacefully in her sleep.
Few people I have known have lived out their potential as completely as Derrick Bell. Born in Pittsburgh in 1930, this African American lawyer and professor confronted injustice where he found it?first at the Justice Department which he left rather than give up his NAACP membership, then in Mississippi where Thurgood Marshall recruited him to work for the NAACP, then at the University of Oregon where he fought for tenure of a Japanese-American woman and left when it was denied, and most famously at Harvard Law School, which he entreated to give tenure to an African American woman and left when he was ignored. If all of us lived up to our convictions as consistently as Derrick did, the world would be a different place. He found a home at New York University Law School, where he was a visiting professor at the time of his death in October. Students revere him for his allegorical books, most notably Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Despite his conviction that racism will never be extinguished in our society, he extended memorable and gracious kindness to all, including white folks like myself and even those who opposed him.
Eric Oatman spent most of his career writing about history and current events for junior and senior high students. As a young man, he worked at Scholastic Inc, where he rose to become Editorial Director of Social Studies Magazines, and where I knew him, and later at Weekly Reader and School Library Journal. One of the frustrations of publishing for school kids is that your readership moves on every year, but Eric became a favorite of social studies teachers across the nation who used the materials that he tended, most importantly Search, a magazine that focused on history with plays in which the most reluctant of readers could take part. Equally important, he nurtured a cadre of writers, editors and artists who learned from him how to make their subject matter come alive. Although, unfortunately, the social studies have received short shrift in school curricula of late, some of his protégés have gone on to book and game publishing that keep history alive. He lived 18 valiant years after his initial cancer diagnosis, caring for his beloved wife, Jane, as she slipped into early Altzheimer?s, and almost to the end convincing us that he would continue to beat the odds. He was 73.
I first met Al Socolov when a group who had worked with America Coming Together to defeat George W. Bush in 2004 formed a progressive political action committee in New York called ACT NOW. No one had more impressive credentials than Al, who at 15 had spoken on street corners to raise money for loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Al himself was walking history. He had taken part in the World War II invasion at Normandy. He returned home for college and at New York University Law School became a founding member of the student division of the National Lawyers Guild. As a young attorney he represented black clients on behalf of the Civil Rights Congress and took part in politically charged trials for the first Smith Act and for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. During the Vietnam War, he acted as an observer during anti-war demonstrations and as part of the Lawyer?s Guild Committee on Military Law served as a draft counselor. In 2004, he recruited lawyers to assure that elections were run fairly and continued to volunteer at ACT NOW until health issues slowed him down. Perhaps the key to Al?s s endurance for ninety years was his enormous good will and optimism that justice could be served.
I feel fortunate to have known these women and men who remind us of the importance of caring about something and someone beyond ourselves. Each of them weathered adversity, some of it profound, but what I remember about them all is the verve and discipline with which they went about their work.
For the New Year, I?ll include a poem (shared by my friend Nancy Henningsen) that embodies some of the courage that drives the lives of people like these.
A New Story of Your Life
Say you finally invented a new story
of your life. It is not the story of your defeat
or of your impotence and powerlessness
before the large forces of wind and accident.
It is not the sad story of your mother's death
or of your abandoned childhood. It is not,
even, a story that will win you the deep
initial sympathies of the benevolent goddesses
or the care of the generous, but it is a story
that requires of you a large thrust
into the difficult life, a sense of plenitude
entirely your own. Whatever the story is,
it goes as it goes, and there are vicissitudes
in it, gardens that need to be planted,
skills sown, the long hard labors
of prose and enduring love. Deep down
in some long-encumbered self,
it is the story you have been writing
all of your life, where no Calypso holds you
against your own willfulness,
where you can rise
from the bleak island of your old story
and tread your way home.