Jewish World Review May 9, 2002 / 27 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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A graduate seminar in courage | "I neither move nor speak. My feet are strapped securely to the wheelchair leg supports; my hands and forearms rest on a pillow. Except for the fact that I can still manage a smile and still have full control of my eye muscles, I could almost be taken for some outlandish display in Madame Tussaud's wax museum." -- Brian Dickinson in a column for the Providence Journal, July 1998.

The inevitable came Monday. In the old days, such news might have arrived by Western Union. Or maybe by telephone if it was about family. Now it comes by e-mail. This time the word was on the editorial writers' Listserv -- "Journal columnist Brian Dickinson dies."

In its own way, this news was about family. The National Conference of Editorial Writers is such a small group for a national organization -- only a few hundred of us -- and we've come to know one another so well through so many conventions, that we tend to keep up with one another's births, deaths, divorces, job changes and general deterioration.

Brian and his blonde bombshell of a wife Barbara, as sharp as she looks, were the stars of an editorial writers' tour of the late and unlamented Soviet Union back in the '80s. From Moscow to Irkutsk, Baku to Novosibirsk, they led the charge.

Then, early in the '90s, Brian was involved in a car accident, and noticed he was having trouble with his balance after he should have completely recovered. But it wasn't the aftereffects of the accident, it was the onset of ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.

Both he and Barbara knew the prognosis. I can remember easing Brian's wheelchair down the back stairs of Bookbinder's restaurant when the editorial writers met in Philadelphia back in 1993. I've been wrong about a lot things over the years, but I was never wronger. This is a family of fighters.

Together with the help of their twin boys, Jonathan and Matt, and their other son, Andrew, Barbara and Brian gave ALS a helluva fight. Also the insurance companies and hospitals and the whole awful bureaucratic apparatus that comes with a major illness.

The Dickinsons showed not just grace under pressure, which is the very definition of courage, and not just incredible endurance, but wit and even hilarity. When last I visited them in Providence, I spent most of the time laughing at Brian's jokes, which he transmitted by computer.

Thanks to a television camera that could track the movement of his eyes, an almost wholly immobilized Brian would move from letter to letter of the alphabet, pecking out his thoughts. It might take him a day, maybe two, to finish a column, but he met his deadlines. For years. His last column appeared October 3rd -- it was about the lessons of September 11th. I couldn't think of anyone better to instruct us in courage.

The disease slowly immobilized his body; it never touched his mind, his temperament, his spirit. He remained the same guy who, back in the fall of '83, led our group of visiting editors in singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as the tour bus passed KGB headquarters in Moscow.

Brian Dickinson looked at the world unafraid, with eyes wide open, so he could report on it to the rest of us. And when his world became that of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he reported every detail of that, too.

Brian was delighted when he was introduced to the technological wonder that let him stay in touch with his readers. ("This machine is astonishing in what it can do. When I get better acquainted with my new friend, I'll report how it works. In the meantime, I have to turn my attention to the Boston Red Sox, and hope they don't fold in the playoffs.")

He would live to marry off a son to the lovely young nurse who'd accompanied him home from the hospital after a nasty bout of pneumonia, welcome two grandchildren into the world, and write columns that never failed to educate and elevate. For the past decade, together with Barbara, Brian conducted a kind of graduate seminar in courage and dry good humor.

Over the almost 40 years that I've been going to the editorial writers' annual convention and family reunion, I've been offered some valuable lessons, but the most important aren't about writing and editing. They're about friendship and courage and grace and, I realize at times like this, the triumphant, ever soaring human spirit. When Brian Dickinson died Monday at 64, he was in his prime -- as always.

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