They say deaths come in threes. This week’s trifecta included Walter Cronkite, Frank McCourt and Siegfried Baumgartner. I knew them all. Well, everyone knew Walter Cronkite. But I did feel somewhat closer to him having student taught under his sister in St. Joseph, Missouri when I was 22 years old. He defined television news for my generation. He epitomized a time when the news was the news as opposed to todays’ 24-7 edutainment cycle. I met Frank McCourt the first week on my job at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He was a featured speaker at our big Kennedy Center 75th Anniversary gala having won the Pulitzer Prize for his poignant memoir Angela’s Ashes. We bonded over the fact that his brother Malachy’s wife Diane had done the carpentry work in our old Waterside apartment. Malachy and Diane had been close to my sister-in-law in their fights for the rights of the mentally retarded in New York. I remember the twinkle in his eye and his Irish brogue when he addressed the gifted young writers in the audience, “Ye’re lucky. Ye found yere voices ere-ly.” I loved that he had been a beloved creative writing teacher at Stuyvesant High School and that like my own father, he had been able to attend college on the GI Bill. Siegi Baumgartner was a handsome Austrian married to the lovely Liliane from France. His mother Vera had arranged home-stays for the group of high school students I took from suburban Kansas City to Europe in the summer of 1976, my first trip across the pond. She did this out of gratitude to the Americans who brought food and hope right after World War II. They were among the first Europeans I actually came to know as friends. We exchanged Christmas cards and letters before the days of email. I returned to Austria several times to visit them. We spent a magical evening at the Vienna Opera hearing Teo Adam in Meistersinger von Nuremberg. It included a two hour break for dinner and the most transporting finale I have ever witnessed. After losing touch with Siegi and Lili I found them again through the Internet. We had hoped to meet in France this summer to compare life notes.
I am moved by the passing of these three pieces of the puzzle of my life’s journey. I celebrate their lives. I am thankful for their gifts to me. As I look at my garden on a beautiful July day, I have the feeling that some of their newly released atoms may be floating around– the bud coming from the lotus in the water lily pond, or the tiny yellow flower on the heirloom tomato plant or, further away, possibly even in the birth cries some newborn somewhere who will in turn touch many lives in a positive way.