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Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

William Edelen

It was Albert Schweitzer who reminded us of our debt to mentors in these words:  "Sometimes our light goes out...but is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being.  Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light."

Rekindling our flame within can come from people we meet along the way. It can come from great books .plays...music and poetry. It can come through biography and autobiography.  As I recall my own spiritual and intellectual odyssey I remember with gratitude those who have kept my inner light burning. They have been mostly mavericks who, through their independence, made monumental contributions to our life on this earth. Webster defines "maverick" as "an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party"  In other words they are their own man..or own woman. They only listen to their voice within.

Over a series of articles, I would like to share with you those maverick mentors who have kept my flame rekindled.. Buckminster Fuller .... Walter Annenberg ... Charles Schulz .... Herb Caen ... Frank Waters ... and for this article, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

In his book THE DOUGLAS OPINIONS, Harvard university Professor Vern Countryman writes this: "It is now commonplace that most of the dissents of Justice Holmes and Brandeis became law during the period of Douglas' tenure on the Court. What is less appreciated is that during that same period of time even more of the dissents of Douglas became law."

During his summer vacations, Douglas always retreated to his beloved cabin in Goose Prairie, Washington. HIgh in the mountains to the west of Yakima, you reach a gas station. bar, grocery store and one pay phone, that says "Goose Prairie."  That's it.  Since Douglas had no phone in his cabin, more Supreme Court decisions have gone out over that pay phone at the filling station than any other phone in America outside of Washington, D.C.

When I was Senior Minister of the First Congregation Church in Tacoma, WA, about 400 copies of my weekly 'sermons' were mailed out each week to  those requesting copies. Douglas started reading them, sent by a friend of his in Tacoma. One day I received a letter from him, hand written, inviting me to spend a day with him at his cabin. That letter today is framed, hanging on the wall of my study.

I arrived about 9;00 a.m. on a spectacular August mountain morning. A great smile from a leathery face greeted me at the door. You could tell his wife was away: a sink full of dirty dishes. An empty bourbon bottle on the counter. We talked and walked all day until I headed for home in the late evening. At one point I talked of some of my frustrations with "preaching".  He said this to me in strong and firm language:
 

"Listen Bill....you keep speaking and writing....you are much needed...and always remember this...you never know how far those words of yours are going or what their influence is going to be. Hugo Black and I were on the front row every Sunday morning at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. to listen to the sermons of A. Powell Davies. Almost every one of Powell's sermons found their way into Supreme Court decisions. You never know....you never know how far your words are going or how important they are. You keep writing.....you keep speaking..."


The conversation that day with Douglas covered almost the entire range of thought about horses...trees... grass....mountains....law...philosophy....religion....Learned Hand...Brandeis....Holmes...bourbon...scotch... marriage...divorce...his father (a Presbyterian minister who died very young).....his living in a tent while graduating with honors at Whitman college....his passion for animals and the land....conservation....

It was a day that I will never forget. My inner light had been rekindled by an encounter with another human being. We communicated almost up until the time of his death.

He always said what he had to say with bluntness and straight forward. No double talk. No misunderstanding. "The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to keep the government off the backs of the people."  And again: "The New York Stock Exchange is a cross between a casino and a private club...filled with financial termites."

The author of 30 books with many on his passion for conservation.  In his autobiography he wrote this:
 

"The bible contains no reference to the wilderness in terms of a conservation ethic. Wildlife and wilderness are apart from man and inferior. The Christian, and Jew, had no relation to the earth, the air, the waters or wildlife. He could without fear poison the waters, pollute the air, level the forests, despoil the land. All he wanted was to "be saved". The bible and Christianity conditioned men to be vandals, converting everything from alligator skins to mountain ranges to blue waters into dollars. Man took the wealth and left only the ashes. The American Indian, on the other hand had an oriental reverence for the land and its life.  In the East the wilderness is thought of as an expression of the unity and harmony of the universe...and all life is linked together."


We talked at length on that subject on that day spent together.

Do you remember who President Reagan appointed as his Secretary of the Interior...James Watt. Watt said this at a press conference...and every time I write about it...or speak about it in a lecture...I want to throw up.  Watt said: "what difference does it make if we destroy the earth.....Jesus is coming soon." Watt was a crazed, born again, Christian fundamentalist, Jesus jazzer. President Reagan, who appointed him, made the insane comment that..."if you have seen one redwood tree you have seen them all..." combined with his classic stupidity that "trees are the biggest polluters of the air."

Justice William O. Douglas... a mentor who kept my inner flame burning....and who reminded me that "beavers and trees need lawyers too".....

Conservative, nationally syndicated columnist, James Kirkpatrick, wrote a beautiful eulogy in his next column following the death of Douglas.  Kirkpatrick ended his column with these words:

"There......was... a man."
 

Published:
  2001-05-28

Categories:
  Atheism, Philosophy

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