As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2020. Above, the author as a baby with his father, Donald Walsh, and his older brother Robert.
I wish you could stop by my house today, as you always did on Sunday mornings until the end came in 1993. I’d make a fresh pot of coffee and cue up Stephen Sondheim on an infinite jukebox we call Spotify.
Much has changed since you died.
You’d be happy to learn that your boy Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and saddened to know that another hero of yours, George Carlin, is gone.
Remember when you played Carlin’s “Class Clown” album for me as we cleaned the gray beach house in Narragansett? I think I was 13 years old. It was the first time I heard the comedian voice his take on Muhammad Ali’s defense for not going to Vietnam — “I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” Thanks for showing me, in that moment and so many others, how wordplay could be powerful, insightful and funny.
You can catch most of Carlin’s bits on a cool video-sharing platform called YouTube now.
You would have loved the internet, which hosts such things. I can see you binge-watching World War II movies, clips of Bill Russell’s old Celtics teams, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Netflix, a movie-streaming service, has your name all over it, too. I’d like to watch “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” with you, just to hear you say, once again, that the Academy blew it, that Spielberg’s masterpiece deserved the Oscar in 1983, not “Gandhi.” You always loved the underdog.
Speaking of which, the Red Sox have won the World Series four times since you’ve been gone. What in the name of Bill Lee (another hero of yours) is going on?
Championship banners aside, though, in some ways, the world hasn’t changed much at all since 1993. As I watched the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, I wished I knew more about your days as assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University in the mid-’60s. According to a cousin, you and Charlie Baldwin, Brown’s activist chaplain at the time, once spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.
You continued the work when you returned home. Mom saved the letters to the editor that you wrote, advocating for civil rights and supporting the desegregation of Providence public schools, which Robert, James and I attended.
This year, from mid-March to May 25, the op-ed pages of most newspapers were “all pandemic, all the time,” as one editor put it. But after George Floyd’s death, remarkably, COVID-19 was no longer the top story. That just shows how deeply the history and hurt of racial injustice are embedded in America’s soul.
Words spoken 52 years ago by your biggest hero, Robert F. Kennedy, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., still resonate today: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”
Your youngest grandchild, Juliana, born after you left us, marched in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Providence a few weeks ago. On the morning of the rally, I texted her a photo of you from your days at Brown and said that you would have been proud of her. If the two of you get to meet in some celestial place, I can imagine you sharing another RFK quote with her: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”
It’s hard to believe that you and I last spoke 27 years ago.
Still, every day and especially these days, you’re always with us.