Fifty years ago wasn’t very long ago.
An ashen day in many ways. There are fires burning all around our bone dry Southern California. Thank God, there are none near our house in Beverly Hills, but the sky is an ominous grey color. It looks as if something terrible is about to happen, and sure enough, it did.
When I went to open my email, there was a message saying that two men I loved, Bob Spearman and Richard “Dick” Balzer, in my class of 1970 at Yale Law School, were dead. I felt as if I had been slugged on the back of my neck with a truncheon. I had not the faintest clue that either one of them was even ill.
Bob was a North Carolinian, a superstar student at UNC, a Rhodes Scholar, and then by total chance, sat next to me in Civil Procedure because our names are so close to each other’s alphabetically. My mother had suggested that I start to make friends by inviting whoever was closest to me in the class before lunch to have lunch with me. I did, and that was Bob. Square jawed, straight shooter, basketball player, scholar. Litigator. He was the sort of man I imagine Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird would have been in real life.
I never heard a sarcastic word come out of his mouth in a class of people who prided themselves on razor sharp wit. He had been an Eagle Scout, and it showed. Prepared, respectful, gets things done. We remained friends throughout our time at Yale. He was an incomparably better student than I was, far more serious and more attuned to the law. While I was out playing folk hero, he was studying and learned his stuff.
When he got out of law school, he clerked for Justice Hugo Black, a huge honor. Later, in a highly successful career in law practice, he argued and won cases establishing the duty of North Carolina to provide a quality education to all students, regardless of income or race. I sure hope it worked, but I have my doubts whether such a thing can be created by judicial decree out of Raleigh. That doesn’t matter. While some of us were talking, Bob Spearman was doing and doing beautifully.
This man was a birdwatcher and a nature lover and a hard worker. He was my age, and he died of dementia, which is sadder than sad.
I was incomparably closer to Richard J. “Dick” Balzer. He was a rotund, cheerful, lively student radical who was married to a clever, sarcastic woman named Eileen. He was probably the funniest man I ever knew at Yale. He could fiercely shout the slogans of the moment (“The streets belong to the people!”) and at the same time mock the pretentiousness of us student radicals who lived like princelings while “fighting imperialism” and “intensifying the class struggle.”
His killer sense of humor was mixed with a powerful core of loyalty to his friends. Once, a law student was trying to seduce two beautiful young girls in New Haven. The girls fancied themselves radicals and thought the law student was too conservative for them. Dick solved the problem by calling one of the girls, pretending he was an investigator, and was following the words and movements of the would be seducer to make sure his radicalism was roundly punished. The call (I am told) had the desired effect.
Even though Dick was overweight, he was a killer with the girls because of his extreme self-confidence. I often told him he should give courses on self-confidence. He didn’t, but I learned a lot from him. He was also a fine photographer of street scenes in and around Yale. One of my favorites is of Black Panthers around a sign urging the Yale Law Students to “Create Two, Three, Many Yale Law Struggles”… an homage to some provocateur who had written the “famous” slogan, “Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams.”
Of course, when I think of my father-in-law fighting for his life in a rice paddy in Vietnam, none of this sounds so funny. But at the time, it seemed hilarious.
Balzer, Duncan Kennedy (genius law professor/troublemaker), and I were avid foes of the Socratic method of teaching in law school. I particularly stood up to the teachers as they bullied and tricked us. Balzer was always there to insist that not only the streets but the classrooms belonged to the people.
Dick and Eileen were divorced long ago. Dick had a “new” wife about whom people raved. But I don’t recall ever meeting her and this is the problem.
I loved Dick. I loved Bob Spearman. But I haven’t seen either of them in decades. I was so close, especially to Dick, but when I left the east, I made new friends. When I went to work for Nixon. When I became a conservative, everything changed. But it didn’t have to and now I feel just heartbroken that I will never see either of them again.
Time and distance and politics are demons.
Worst yet, they died and they’re the same age I am. How long do I have? It’s all insane. I can recall sitting in the lounge at YLS with Balzer as if it were yesterday. I can recall that first meal with Bob Spearman as if it were today. But it was fifty years ago. This is getting to look hopeless. I don’t think I’m going to be young again after all.
Yale Law School library (Nick Allen/Creative Commons)