Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2004 / 17 Shevat 5764
The stalker called ALS
Maybe it's just folklore. Or a statistical anomaly. Or a personal impression. But why does Lou Gehrig's disease seem to strike the especially talented? Sometimes it's a physical talent, sometimes a talent for virtue, sometimes an intellectual gift . . . or all of the above. This disease seems to mark out the best among us.
Its official name is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and it was another obscure malady until Lou Gehrig got up in front of the microphones at Yankee Stadium on that Fourth of July in 1939, and was coaxed into saying a few words.
In the now gritty old films, his words still reverberate over the public address system: ". . . today . . . I consider myself . . . the luckiest man . . . on the face of the Earth."
Modest, even-tempered, always grateful, Lou Gehrig's talent wasn't limited to the ball field.
Why is it that ALS seems to strike my heroes in particular?
There was Franz Rosenzweig, my favorite theologian, or maybe anti-theologian. Before he was 35, he'd scaled the heights of German historical scholarship, published his groundbreaking dissertation on Hegel and Schelling, and been offered a prestigious lectureship by his mentor, the great Meinecke, at the University of Berlin. Inexplicably, he turned it down. Professor Meinecke always attributed his protege's decision to the effects of having served in the ranks during the Great War. Herr Dr. Meinecke just couldn't imagine a bright young man's falling in love with the idea of God.
Franz Rosenzweig would go on to revive Jewish thought in his jaded time, first philosophically and then poetically. He would join Martin Buber in producing the best translation of the Old Testament in German since Martin Luther's. He would die shortly thereafter in 1929, at 43, of ALS - after being housebound for seven years.
Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS in 1963, remains the great apostate of science, exploding the steady-state theory of the universe by peering into what he once called The Mind of G-d. Which is how he described the mounting evidence in favor of the Big Bang theory, the idea that the universe was indeed created in a great burst of light. His rivals, still gamely holding on to their different theories, have never forgiven him for leaving their faith.
I first met Brian Dickinson of the Providence Journal on an editorial writers tour of another exploded theory, the Soviet Union. He came down with Lou Gehrig's disease early in the '90s, and carried on for a decade - with the help (and extraordinary devotion) of his wife, Barbara, and their two boys.
For the last few years, Brian was writing his column by moving an eyeball to pick letters and words off a computerized screen. Only his eyes and mind and biting sense of humor remained youthful. Like Franz Rosenzweig's.
Last week came word that another friend had died of Lou Gehrig's. Political junkies here in Arkansas will remember the name. So will veterans of the Peace Corps. And villagers in Nepal. And anybody who ever came in contact with Tom McRae. Especially people struggling to get a start in Arkansas, in Mississippi and in Kentucky, which is where he traveled, organizing revolving loan funds and small-scale banks.
On his death, the obituaries spotlighted Tom McRae's political career, though I can't remember his ever winning a single election. Though he was the best man in a couple of races, including one against Bill Clinton for governor of Arkansas.
Every election is a contest to see how much of his dignity a candidate will sacrifice to get elected. Tom McRae never gave up an ounce. He would not pander, or agitate, or pose, or play the demagogue. He was always himself, and he always spoke to people as persons - not demographics.
Tom was the great-grandson of an Arkansas governor, Thomas C. McRae, and he had the natural aristocrat's talent for instinctive democracy. He spoke to everyone the same way - civilly. He was neither distant nor sentimental, just himself.
Tom's McRae's good manners came naturally. So when he was sandbagged by Hillary Clinton at one of his own press conferences, he proved the perfect foil. You could see him trying to decide whether to reply politely to the lady - well, the woman - or open a door for her. He had no idea that gentility had died in American politics circa 1959.
That was both Tom McRae's least successful and most successful moment. It all depends on how you define success. He defined it right. Life is about more than sound bites, or even winning elections. So is being a gentleman.
The news of Tom McRae's passing got me thinking of absent friends, and about great thinkers who had little in common except the disease that stalked them - and that each of them defeated in his own, shining way.
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