Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In Praise of Famous Men

For the longest time, I listed James Agee's and Walker Evans' seminal work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as my favorite book. I still like it very much, though I would not be able to narrow the choice of favorite book down to ONE favorite.

But the title has such an evocative ring to it that it gets me to thinking of famous men I have known.

One such man was a friend of ours. I first met Fred Speaker--that was his name--when I worked for the state medical society. He was the legal counsel for that organization. Even though he was an attorney whose legal career was very successful, perhaps he would have preferred people to identify him as a Penn State football fan. I don't know why he was so crazy about Penn State football, but he was. In fact, he converted--an appropriate term, since it was a near religious experience--my husband and me into becoming Penn State football fans.

When Penn State was playing Notre Dame during its 10 year series in the 1980s, Fred saw to it that we got tickets to all the games Penn State played against Notre Dame, including those at Notre Dame's campus. Sometimes he used his connection with a priest friend of his, who called upon a bishop in San Fransisco (or somewhere) to get tickets. For that particular game, we sat with Father Dan, who seemingly forgot he was supposed to cheer for Penn State. When the Notre Dame band marched onto the field, Father Dan was excitedly yelling--GREAT KILTS! Not your average football cheer.

Back to Fred. Besides being a Penn State fan, Fred had two things stand out in his distinguished legal career. He was appointed by President Nixon to run to National Legal Services program, for a time. At some point while serving in that capacity, he crossed swords with Vice President Agnew, who tried to use his influence inappropriately. Rather than give in to political pressure, Fred resigned in protest.

But the pivotal event of his career was his order to dismantle the electric chair in Pennsylvania. The story of that event is told in Fred's
obituary that appeared in the New York Times. He had occasion to visit the state prison at Rockview, where the electric chair was housed. Herewith the rest of the tale from the Times:

(He entered the) state's death chamber, where he saw the big wooden electric chair sitting starkly in a room with an overhead exhaust fan to remove the stench of death and holes in the floor so the official witnesses to an execution could have a place to throw up.

As Mr. Speaker later recalled, it was all he could do to keep from throwing up himself, as he suddenly realized that for all the legal trappings and statutory authority, executions, which he had previously supported, were no more than premeditated, cold-blooded ''administrative murder.''

''All I had to do was see that electric chair,'' he said. ''I looked at the place where somebody pulls the switch and burns somebody to death. That just wiped out all the great philosophical views that I had.''

Biding his time until the day in January 1971 when Governor Shafer was replaced by a Democrat, Milton J. Shapp, Mr. Speaker, who was planning to drive to Washington with a friend, listened on the car radio until the new Governor had been sworn in.

Then, mindful that he would be Attorney General until his successor had been approved by the State Senate and sworn in, he got out of the car and mailed an official letter to the Rockville prison warden, ordering him to dismantle the electric chair and citing an accompanying legal opinion he had signed declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as ''cruel and inhuman punishment.''

This bold act was something that I always admired about him.

One time, when Fred was talking with my husband, he remarked that he didn't want only to be remembered as the person who stopped the death penalty (for a time) in Pennsylvania. My husband asked why--and Fred demurred that he hoped he would do other great things. He even ventured to say that his obituary would read--the man who ordered the dismantling of the electric chair. He was most prescient in that thought. My husband reassured him that that deed alone was great and worthy as anyone's life achievement.

Fred has been long gone, having died some 13 years ago. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, held in the local Catholic cathedral. I suspect one thing would have meant more to Fred than all the accolades spoken about him: among the floral arrangements sent to honor his memory was a wreath from Coach Joe Paterno.


Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Thanks for the interesting story about an interesting man.

I hope the day will come when the US joins the civilized world and abolishes the death penalty. Unfortunately, there are still so many who see "death by the State" as a form of righteous justice. And of course there are those like Bush, "Kill them all and let God sort them out." Seems he carried to burden of "State Murder" easily.

Jayne said...

What a great story. We should all strive to live a life to be remembered when we're gone.

NCmountainwoman said...

Nice tribute to a wonderful man. I did a search on him and found his life very interesting. How fortunate you were to know him.