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Grief knows no rank [Commentary]

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We got the dreadful news of the president's murder at a retirement luncheon at the old House of Welsh for our boss, United States Attorney Joseph Tydings.

Stunned and subdued, we straggled back to our fourth floor offices in the nearby United States Post Office and Courthouse. None of us had ever met JFK, but we were unmistakably caught up in the Kennedy call to public service, and we all felt, through Joe, a link to the president. Most of us knew that Joe had been to the White House earlier that week to receive a presidential blessing for his forthcoming campaign for the U.S. Senate.

As I left Joe's office late that afternoon, there, in the empty corridor, stood Roszel C. Thomsen, chief judge of the U. S. District Court for Maryland. He had come down the stairs from his fifth floor chambers and was waiting, somewhat awkwardly, to encounter someone he recognized.

He asked me if I thought it would be "all right" if he expressed his condolences to the U.S. attorney. Of course, I replied, and the chief judge, composed but clearly distraught, entered Joe's office. I remember being strongly moved by the judge's gesture. And jarred by its incongruity.

In the world in which I worked, judges did not come to the fourth floor. Lords of the Manor did not mingle with the yeomen in the village down below. I suspect that Judge Thomsen had not set foot on the fourth floor since President Eisenhower appointed him to the federal bench almost a decade earlier.

More than a staircase separated our worlds. The judges' domain on the floor above was marked by quiet corridors and magisterial courtrooms where these robed federal judges — the high priests of our civic religion — performed their function as neutral guardians of the rule of law.

There was nothing neutral about our workplace one floor below — a mix of frenetic assistant U.S. attorneys, F.B.I. agents, postal inspectors, and investigators from the Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service, who vigorously investigated and prosecuted federal crimes. We were advocates. Neutrality was not our job.

The differences in background between Thomsen and Tydings accented the impact of the judge's visit.

Thomsen, nearly three decades older, born and bred in Baltimore's Roland Park , was a highly respected member of Baltimore's civic and legal establishment. He was a superb legal craftsman. Although he had been active in Baltimore GOP affairs and held public office as the unpaid chairman of the Baltimore City School Board, he was by no means a politician.

Tydings, on the other hand, was primarily a politician. The adopted son of Maryland's three- term Democratic U.S. Senator Millard Tydings, Joe was bred to the Maryland Democracy. As a member of the House of Delegates from Harford County, where he lived at Oakington, the Tydings estate on the banks of the Susquehanna, he was a "shiny bright" liberal reformer who had been an early supporter of JFK's campaign for the presidency. The world of Baltimore lawyering, so much a part of Judge Thomsen, was foreign to Joe. In those days, he was more comfortable at a cotillion than a courtroom. Like almost all of us, Joe Tydings' career as a serious trial lawyer began as an on-the-job trainee, primarily under the stern tutelage of Roszel Thomsen.

Yet, here was our chief judge descending to the alien precincts of the fourth floor and asking permission to pay a condolence call. I suppose it was, in part, an official act — the leader of Maryland's federal judiciary paying a diplomatic visit to Maryland's ranking representative of the fallen federal executive. But it was also personal and poignant. The judge understood how deeply Joe felt the loss of the president. He respected Joe's need to mourn in private. That was why he had been reluctant to intrude and had asked me, with diffidence, for permission.

My brief encounter with Judge Thomsen that day may seem unexceptional to many. Perhaps it is necessary to have known Judge Thomsen and Joe Tydings and to appreciate the rigid hierarchy of our courthouse in order to understand the powerful and lasting effect the moment had on me.

What Roszel Thomsen's unprecedented visit on that dreadful day demonstrated for me was the leveling effect of grief. It seemed to me then — and seems to me still — that his visit spoke the universal language of compassion, unmitigated by age, or station, or provenance. What I learned that day was that grief, and the imperative to comfort one another in moments of deep sorrow, knows no rank.

Stephen H. Sachs was United States attorney for Maryland from 1967 to 1970 and state attorney general from 1979 to 1987. His email is steve.sachs@wilmerhale.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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