I am a product of the 1960's. That decade was for me the period of greatest growth and greatest learning. What happened then forms me still, each day, as I struggle to understand what the hell is going on in our world.
Two deaths this past week have knocked me for a loop: Marion Barry, former Mayor of DC, died yesterday; Mike Nichols, former comedian and great stage and film director, died last Wednesday.
As a white boy growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside DC, Marion Barry, in his dashiki, mesmerized me with his demands for equality for African Americans. He was one of the people who made me understand what African Americans had endured in the history of the U.S.A., and who made me think about justice, equality, and what it means to be a human being. I owe Mr. Barry a lot.
As a young gay boy in the late 50's and early 60's, I was entranced by the comedy sketches of Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They spoke to me of New York, sophistication, and a life beyond the life I endured with a tyrant of a father. I had an album of their routines and I listened to it constantly. When I was a Franciscan novice, it was the tradition of the house for the novices to present a skit in honor of the Novice Master on the Master’s feast day. Our Master was Fr. Theophane Larkin. The Feast of St. Theophane Venard is February 2. So, on February 2, 1967, a fellow novice and I replicated, from my memory of it, a Nichols and May skit about a woman who has a meeting with an undertaker to arrange for her dead husband’s funeral. I can’t remember anything more about the content of the skit, but I do remember the hearty and fairly constant laughter my brother and I got from the performance. Afterward, Father Master told us how much he had enjoyed the skit, but said he felt a little strange having a skit about an undertaker performed in his honor. I’ve never again been so great a fan of any performer that I would be able to replicate from memory a 10–minute piece of performance art. Mike Nichols grabbed me again, later in 1967, when I saw The Graduate, a film that, in its way, defined life for people like me who were just hitting 20 and starting life.
All the people who meant so much to me in the 60's are dying. . . one by one. For me, there have been no icons in the years since who can replace the ones that made the 1960's such a great time to be alive. Who in DC today has the wit and grace and moxie of Everett McKinley Dirkson, the great Senator from Illinois and leader of the Senate Republicans, who, with President Lyndon B. Johnson, got so much done in the realm of civil rights in such a short period of time. Senator Dirkson and President Johnson knew that politics and compromise are arts, not obscenities. Who in the government today has similar compassion, wisdom, and vision to change us into something better than we have been? Where have all the flowers gone?
I thank God for being born when I was born and having had the experience of that time and those places. I am today a much more vocal proponent of the values that the Church and society gave me back then, but the values and the understanding of life that produced those values were given to me in the 1960's by my Franciscan brothers, and by people like Marion Barry and Mike Nichols. Thank God for their lives and their contributions to so many other lives.
Some other of my personal icons from that time who have died this year:
Ben Bradlee, Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate years
James Garner (an early crush from his time on Maverick)
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., from the TV show 77 Sunset Strip
Maria von Trapp
Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows)
May their souls rest in peace. All of them, in my book, were great. All of them are a part of my life forever.