Sunday, March 21, 2004

Clarence Darrow Day

This story's personal. My dad passed his hero-worship of Clarence Darrow to me, and I tried to pass it on to my son Ben. It all came together on one particular day.

Date: Sunday, March 21, 2004
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

You can never know what's in a name, but you can hope.

My wife and I gave our younger son the middle name of Darrow. We did it mainly to honor my father, who long ago had taught me to appreciate the iconoclasm, intelligence and courage of attorney Clarence Darrow.

If that would inspire Ben to emulate Darrow's willingness to stand up for the unpopular, the underprivileged and the underdog, so much the better.

Darrow was the controversial Chicago lawyer who represented labor in the bloody struggles of the early 1900s, who defended the freedom to teach evolution in the 1925 "Monkey Trial."

Against tides of hostile opinion, Darrow kept the wealthy thrill-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from the death penalty. He won acquittal for Henry Sweet, a black man accused of murder when a mob tried to block his family from moving into a white Detroit neighborhood in 1925.

He was idealistic and cynical, honest and conniving, an orator who could wring tears from juries (judges, too) as he paced the courtroom floor, his thumbs jutted behind suspenders. He became an American archetype, portrayed on screen by Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, Henry Fonda, Kevin Spacey.

I've known Darrow stories for ages. They are part of my patrimony, handed down from a man who was neither an attorney nor a teacher, but a Chicago-area businessman with an active intellect and a sheaf of idiosyncratic opinions.

Every March 13, for some 30 years, my father has dropped whatever he was doing to drive down to Chicago's South Side, to a lagoon just south of the Museum of Science and Industry on the old grounds of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, perhaps the most wondrous of history's World's Fairs.

Darrow lived near this spot, and for decades he'd stroll to a vaguely Japanese bridge across the lagoon to talk, think or be interviewed. When he died in 1938, his ashes were scattered there.

The famous agnostic mocked all notions of an afterlife or reincarnation. But he joked that if he were ever to come back, friends should look for him at 10 a.m. on the anniversary of his death.

Since 1957, a hard core of Darrow loyalists has done just that: gathered at that bridge on that anniversary, not really expecting to see Darrow come back to life, but to rededicate themselves to causes he championed. And so keep his spirit alive.

Year after year, my father, Carol, joined the academics, biographers, civil rights attorneys and liberal aldermen and judges who would say their few words about Darrow and how he'd still find plenty of things to kick about if he were around.

And they'd toss a wreath onto the lagoon, usually to watch it skid on the mid-March ice.

Fourteen years ago, the tribute took place just a couple of hours after I called my father to tell him of the birth of a grandson.

A boy, I told him. We're naming him Benjamin Darrow.

Would you believe today is Darrow Day? he answered.

I hadn't known.

Flustered, excited, he hurried off the phone to get to the event on time.

My father is 82 now. He has been battling cancer for a decade.

This year, he turned terribly sick. So sick that one doctor recommended we line up hospice care.

When I saw that March 13 this year would fall on a Saturday, I told my father that, whatever happened, he should know that Ben and I, for the first time, would come to Chicago for Darrow Day.

He was very happy to hear it. "Things will be coming full circle," he told my sisters emotionally from a hospital bed. "I started it, and now Ben will continue it."

So we flew to Chicago a week ago Friday.

The next morning, Ben and I made our way to that bridge and lagoon just west of cold Lake Michigan.

The surprise was that my mother and father came with us, leaving their apartment for their first trip in weeks to go someplace other than a doctor's office or emergency room.

About 100 people were there, most of them with gray hair sticking out from knit caps or taken over beards.

Speakers talked about Darrow as if they wished he were still here to do battle.

A retired appeals court justice, a black man, said Darrow would still be fighting against racial inequality.

An Arab-American activist said Darrow would be aiding Middle Eastern-looking people who suffered after 9-11 because "a lot of people in this country can't tell the difference between a Palestinian and a Pakistani or an Indian-American."

Former Chicago Alderman Leon Dupres noted Darrow's groundbreaking opposition to capital punishment, a resonant issue in a state that recently saw a Republican governor clear Death Row because so many convictions were under question.

"I think that as long as the United States doesn't abolish capital punishment," Dupres said, "we have to continue meeting here every March 13."

The Rev. Gene Winkler of the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple noted that Darrow hit his stride in the Gilded Age, when there was "a huge gap between the rich and poor growing daily ... and people were indifferent to people who were not of their class.

"That sound familiar?"

Then attorney William Campbell Jr., the event's master of ceremonies, asked the crowd to wish a happy birthday to one 14-year-old who has Darrow as his middle name.

A hundred voices said "Happy birthday" to Ben, maybe the only teenager there.

My father, skeletal from his illnesses, hunched in the seat of his walker, smiled hugely. His eyes looked wet.

Ben's still not sure how closely he can identify with a broad, stooped man born before the Civil War, who in every photograph looks serious to the point of scowling.

But a local TV station asked for an interview, and Ben said with aplomb that he admired Darrow's bravery in standing up for people no one else would defend and causes few people liked.

He loved the morning.

"It was really inspiring," he told me.

Spoken like his grandfather's boy.

No comments:

Post a Comment