Cherishing Memories and Loss
by Alice Dear
Excerpt from a forthcoming memoir
The unparalleled, unpredictable, unpresidential 2020 election season begs frequent reflections of earlier campaigns when policies were considered, debated and led to reasoned choices at the polls. I happily joined the alumni of the Clinton administration recently in a virtual meeting between former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater as they discussed, with pride, the legacy of the Clinton Era, 1993-2001.
Although my six-year period of public service formally ended in 2000, my continued involvement in development work in Africa, and particular interest in U.S. policies that impact Africa, have kept me engaged. In August 2020, as the African Development Bank, affectionately referred to on the African continent as ADB, prepared for its annual meeting and reelection of its incumbent president, social media was peppered with updates on the election drama unfolding as the U.S. government tried unsuccessfully to block President Adesina’s reelection.
The interplay of African and U.S. politics in real time brought back pleasant remembrances of the agony and ecstasy of my journey to a presidential appointment back in 1993 that I recall as vividly as if it were this past year. This past minute.
But it was an unexpected text from Betsy this past week that added a deeper dimension and reminded me of how quickly life events change our world. Betsy was a law clerk to my deceased life partner, Walter R. Stone, Rhode Island Superior Court Judge. Her touching message reduced me to tears as the memories poured forth.
“I just went to visit the Judge at the cemetery on this beautiful day and am thinking of you too and hoping you are well and managing during these crazy times. I hope you feel him with you all the time. I sure do and wanted you to know you are in my thoughts.”
The message lifted my spirits and as I thanked her for honoring Walter, it struck me that her weekend visit was just shy of the three-year anniversary of Walter’s death. Embarrassed that I had lost track of the date, I acknowledged that subsequent tragic events had blurred my calendar and mind. I hesitated, but then decided to share with her the challenges I’d faced since Walter’s sudden passing due to complications from kidney disease. She would better understand the importance of her message. It allowed me time to smile.
Exactly six months after Walter died, a fire broke out at St. Nick’s Pub in the Harlem brownstone adjoining my five-story townhouse on the corner of 149th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. The pub had been closed for several years, but had been leased as a film site for the 2019 movie, Motherless Brooklyn, directed by Ed Norton. The fire originated in the basement during filming. A firefighter, Michael Davidson, was killed in the blaze. Demolition of the burned building further damaged my property beyond the smoke, water and firefighting destruction. It took a year to get gas lines re-piped and pass inspection with the city’s Department of Buildings. Meanwhile, with no heat to the building in the winter of the polar vortex, pipes froze throughout, which caused even worse damage than the fire.
The consequences shook me to the core. Yet, I maintained a brave face and seemingly handled the crisis with equilibrium.
I was forced to relocate for two years and sheltered with angelic neighbors. With repairs finally completed in my four rental units and commercial space, I found new tenants, and shortly after the start of the new year, I moved back home with plans to quickly finish repairs downstairs in my duplex apartment. Then 2020’s severity of COVID-19 changed those plans. The good news, at least, was that I had a home where I could shelter in place.
Betsy’s warm response and photo of the “Brown Bear,” as Walter called himself, lifted me higher, brightened my days and allowed me to remember much better times.
“… I often wonder what the Brown Bear would be saying to all that goes on these days. I miss his smile and his uplifting outlook on life in general … how he really loved life no matter what it brought him. Wendy [court stenographer] rescued his bear and Jazz cat for me and made pillows from his chamber drapes for all of us. The picture of him being silly and hugging his brown bear is on my wall and I greet him every morning of my workday and remember him telling me not to take things so seriously.
He told me long ago that if he could come back as any animal, he would be a – I can’t remember if it was a hawk or an eagle, but I tell you that while I sat on the bench in front of his grave there were three hawks flying above. Maybe it was him, his daughter and his Mom. I hope you feel him all the time and that you are smiling more and more these days. I am well and plugging along and I’m so happy you reached back to me. You are in my thoughts and prayers. Alice, stay safe.”
Since Betsy reached out to me, I have taken needed time to reflect with joy on my farewell to Walter three years ago.
Providence, Rhode Island, Oct. 5, 2017
I entered the historic Sayles Hall from the main green of Brown University where carefree students lounged on the grounds while others chatted in small groups enjoying the early days of autumn. On this unseasonably warm evening amid a flurry of activity as participants took their places, I sat quietly in the first seat in the front row, on the right side of the enormous hall, and finally exhaled. Two weeks of preparation and attention to the details of funeral rites had denied me the needed opportunity to be still and mourn my loss. Family, colleagues and friends assembled that night in a service of worship and thanksgiving for the life of my beloved partner.
This venue and much of the Order of Service had been selected by the deceased, The Honorable Walter R. Stone, Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court. It was in this very hall that his daughter Morgan had been eulogized sixteen years earlier following her untimely death resulting from an asthma attack while attending the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico.
The granite and brownstone building was built in 1881 with a donation from W. F. Sayles to memorialize his son, William Clark Sayles, who died at Brown in 1876. In a letter from W.F. Sayles to the Corporation in 1878, he wrote, The building is to … commemorate the virtues of one, who, though dying young, had lived long enough to appreciate the value of learning …
These words also suited the young Morgan, a much loved graduate of Lincoln School in Providence, and her seasoned father of 73 years.
Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, Chaplain, led a procession of some 30 judges of the Rhode Island Superior Court whose angled seating on both sides of the room served as an honor guard. Colors were presented as a uniformed member of the Providence Police Department stood at attention on each side of the dais. Tears rolled silently down my cheeks as Belinda Philippe’s Amazing Grace touched my heart.
As tributes were offered by the judiciary, military friends, the president of the Rhode Island Foundation, and the former chair of the Black Heritage Society – institutions so important to Walter – the lasting impact Judge Stone had as a veteran, attorney, judge and philanthropist became apparent. His colleagues and dearest friends shared personal stories from what one dubbed “Wally’s World,” admittedly edited for the occasion, reflecting the complex and enigmatic, generous, and often-raucous Walter Ray Stone.
Inspired by the spirit of the tales shared, I expanded my brief scripted words on behalf of Walter’s extended family and shared, impromptu, the story of how we met:
In July 1993, President William Jefferson Clinton announced his intention to nominate me to the position of U.S. Executive Director of the African Development Bank, Africa’s premier financing institution headquartered in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Although I was busily winding down my international consulting business in preparation for the appointment, I could not turn down an invitation to a luncheon being held for the president of Namibia, His Excellency Samuel Nujoma at the New York residence of the Namibian Ambassador to the United Nations.
I had been a supporter of the independence movement in Namibia, known as SWAPO, the Southwest Africa People’s Organization. It was led by the revolutionary, anti-apartheid activist Sam Nujoma from 1966 to 1989. An important leader in the national liberation movement, Nujoma became Namibia’s first president, and I was delighted to be among the group selected to welcome him to the U.S.
While I had no intention of being political in my remarks at the memorial service, I could not allow a teachable moment to pass. Just two weeks earlier, POTUS #45 had been derided in the press and social media for praising the health care system of a nonexistent African country, NAMBIA. While he likely was referring to Namibia, he could have also meant Zambia or Gambia. The critique rolled off my tongue before I could self-censor. Laughing along with the audience, I resumed my story.
I was standing at the buffet table in the sun-soaked garden when the suave, debonair Walter Stone sauntered over and introduced himself. Barely giving me an opportunity to reciprocate, he quickly asked, “And what do you do?”
That question competed as one of the sorriest pickup lines, right behind, “What’s your sign?” I was not impressed, and quipped, “I’m unemployed!”
Not at all put off, my glib interlocutor commented, “Well, you are very well-maintained to be unemployed. What did you used to do?”
I had to give him credit for a quick comeback. I introduced myself more fully, adding that I was formerly an international banker focused on Africa and was awaiting a presidential appointment to the African Development Bank.
“Oh, in that case, you’ll have to appear before the Foreign Relations Committee,” he knowingly informed me, seemingly impressed with himself.
Okay, this guy does seem to be more aware than most people about the appointment process, but is he showing off or does he actually think he’s telling me something I don’t know?
“Yes, that’s true,” I conceded. “I’m required to appear before the Foreign Relations Committee prior to the Senate voting to confirm the appointment.”
“Well, I’m from Rhode Island, and my Senator Claiborne Pell chairs that committee. I think I should write you a letter of recommendation.”
“You don’t even know me. And besides, my Alpha Kappa Alpha Soror, Beverly Ledbetter, General Counsel at Brown, has already written a recommendation. So, Rhode Island is covered, but thanks for the offer.”
“I know Beverly, but you can never have too many recommendations, my dear!”
Walter then beckoned to someone standing behind me. His 10-year-old daughter Morgan appeared. He later confessed that Morgan was complicit in “our meeting,” leaving me wondering what kind of father inappropriately designates his young daughter as his “wingman” and tells her to “watch this” as he put his charm on full display. As he went to great length explaining to Morgan my eminent appointment to a position that carried the rank of ambassador, it became obvious that he intended to impress us both with his knowledge of Washington politics.
Who is this guy? I wondered, acknowledging that he was clearly intelligent and politically savvy, although with dubious parenting skills. He earned points from me for being an activist and supporter of SWAPO due to his presence that afternoon to welcome President Nujoma. I gave him credit too soon, before I learned that he was actually there to promote boxing in Namibia, as he had already begun to do in South Africa.
I was not impressed that he was the general counsel for the International Boxing Federation and wanted to promote what I considered a blood sport in a rapidly changing Southern Africa. Our differing opinions led to ongoing debates during which Walter managed to reframe the argument from the perspective of development opportunities the boxing industry would create at the end of the era of apartheid. After all, he reminded me, Nelson Mandela himself was a former boxer.
Six months after our meeting, I appeared before the Foreign Relations Committee. To my surprise, Sen. Pell informed his colleagues that he had received a powerful letter of recommendation on my behalf from one of the most respected attorneys in Rhode Island and a partner in one of the most prestigious law firms in New England. If there were no objections, he would read the letter so that it would be entered into the congressional record
As I concluded my remarks at the memorial service, I felt relieved, as if I had unloaded heavy baggage from my shoulders. I invited the judiciary and other friends to a reception with family at the Hope Club where we would continue exchanging stories. Just as the ceremonies at the wake the night before, where Walter’s brothers of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and the Order of Masons paid individual farewell tributes, the following day’s burial with military honors saluted the Marine patriot and Vietnam veteran.
Our meeting that summer day in 1993 was certainly unusual but I never viewed it as part of the journey to my presidential appointment. Rather, it was the beginning of Walter Stone’s insistent and multiple intrusions throughout several seasons of my life. Of course, Walter’s narrative placed his letter as the key factor to my unanimous Senate approval.
Perhaps it is only in retrospect that one is able to clearly see, understand and appreciate the significance and impact of another on one’s own life. Slowly, the more I reflect on the past 25 years, I am surprised at the extent to which Walter was present, even during periods when I thought I had permanently distanced myself.
Walter was a great raconteur, and I can never do justice to his incredibly imaginative stories, embellished with each retelling. His failing health robbed him, unfortunately, of the time to write the tales he relished sharing with eager listeners.
I believe he sent a message to me through Betsy to calm my spirit. I now understand that he is an integral part of my journey in ways I had not earlier contemplated. The reflections on our years together and apart bring joy and laughter and are healthy components of the grieving process, a process that I never had the time to fully experience. I now embrace time as my new best friend, knowing that the best thing I can do is enjoy and remember the fullness of each day.