Fearing slow death, a retired city judge takes his own life


For a man who trounced tennis partners half his age, who heard court cases into his 70s and challenged anything - be it state law or synagogue leadership - that tried to nudge him aside for someone younger, retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman had a peculiar wish:

He wanted a heart attack like the one that killed his father.

But Judge Hammerman believed his fate was not a quick death, but the progressive blindness and memory loss that clouded his mother's last years. Determined to die on his terms, he took his own life yesterday.

It was not a rash act, for that was hardly the style of the studious, deliberate Harvard Law School graduate who arrived at the courthouse at 5:30 a.m. every day until Maryland's mandatory judicial retirement age forced out the longest-serving trial jurist in state history.

The 76-year-old judge undertook 16 months of planning, untold hours of letter writing and even two gun training courses before he put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger about 9 a.m. yesterday, in a wooded area not far from his Baltimore County condominium - nearer still to an assisted living facility, the kind of place where he feared he might otherwise wind up.

Judge Hammerman detailed his reasons in a 10-page, handwritten letter that he wrote and rewrote in Dartmouth College's rare book library and sprinkled with references to Socrates, the Bible and The New York Times - complete with a lawyerly citation to the letter President Ronald Reagan wrote announcing his battle with Alzheimer's ("Page 30 of Newsweek, June 21, 2004").

He wrote of plans to mail it the night before his suicide to more than 2,200 relatives, friends and associates.

"I owe you an explanation," the letter began.

"I love life deeply," it went on to say. "There is so very, very much that I want to see unfold. But it is time to leave."

Many of those who knew the judge were struggling to understand his decision without benefit of the letter, which had not arrived at most addresses because there was no mail delivery yesterday, Veterans Day. But a copy sent to an obituary writer at The Sun arrived yesterday.

"He seemed perfectly fine. There was nothing out of the ordinary," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. He said Judge Hammerman called him at home several weeks ago to draw his attention to a newspaper article on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Judge Hammerman counted as a friend.

But Judge Bell said he could understand how Judge Hammerman might have been affected by the prospect of living with a debilitating disease like Alzheimer's.

"He prided himself in helping others rather than having to be helped by others," said Judge Bell, who noted that for more than 50 years, Judge Hammerman led the Lancers Boys Club, a prominent community service group. "I guess looking at what the end might be - the effects that Alzheimer's could have - I'm sure that deeply affected him."

Whether Judge Hammerman actually had Alzheimer's was not known for certain because, according to his letter, he had never sought a diagnosis. But there was no doubt in the judge's mind.

He filled two pages with examples of recent memory loss: forgetting the day of the week, the month, the season; blanking out on the names of relatives and close friends; deciding to jot something down and forgetting what it was by the time he had rounded up a pad of paper.

"The simplest tasks are now becoming more and more difficult to do," he wrote. "Confusion is my daily companion, and I am in a constant state of worrying about my forgetfulness."

The judge had been under the care of a doctor for his worsening vision problem, macular degeneration. He could still see well enough to preside over court cases, and his doctor did not predict total blindness, his letter states.

But he was startled by something the doctor said at his last visit: "He told me that, although not probable, my eyes could 'explode' at any time - and bingo, that would be it."

While not privy to the judge's serious health concerns, friends and associates said they knew he chafed at more minor limitations brought on by old age.

"He was an avid tennis player, and I think his knees gave out," said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan. "He used to play regularly with people younger than he was and trounce them. And I think that got to him, that he would maybe be an invalid."

While the suicide came as a shock, no one was surprised that the judge's plans had been careful and detailed in a note.

"He was pretty rational, said A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, a childhood friend who is former CIA executive director and former chairman and chief executive of Alex. Brown Inc. "That's the way he wanted to end his life and I know that he thought about it."

Robert Israel Harold Hammerman was born in Baltimore and raised on Granada Avenue in Forest Park. He was the son of Herman Hammerman, a lawyer, who did mostly real estate work for his older brother, S. L. Hammerman, a developer.

A 1946 graduate of City College, he earned a degree in arts and sciences from the Johns Hopkins University in 1950, where he was a cum laude graduate and elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honors society. In 1953, he graduated from Harvard Law School and eventually joined the firm of Gordon, Feinblatt and Rothman.

Gov. J. Millard Tawes appointed him in 1961 to the old Baltimore Municipal Court to decide traffic cases, neighborhood disputes and misdemeanor offenses. In May 1967, he was appointed to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore, which became the Baltimore Circuit Court in 1983.

He spent his first eight years there presiding over the city's Juvenile Court and is credited with bringing it into compliance with a 1967 Supreme Court decision that guaranteed juvenile offenders the same right to an attorney as adults.

Over the years, Judge Hammerman heard some of the city's highest-profile cases, including the 1995 trial of John Joseph Merzbacher, a Locust Point parochial school teacher convicted of sexual abuse.

He retired in 1998 - unwillingly - when he turned 70, Maryland's mandatory retirement age for judges.

"I'm not retiring. They're retiring me," Judge Hammerman told The Sun at the time. He continued to hear cases part time until his death.

Judge Hammerman felt pushed aside again earlier this year by changes at his synagogue. The judge had blown the shofar, or ram's horn, at High Holy Day services for more than four decades, but new leadership at Har Sinai in Owings Mills wanted more people to blow the shofar to increase participation in services.

Judge Hammerman wrote a letter to most of the congregation's 500 families expressing his disappointment. At Rosh Hashanah services this fall, Hammerman addressed the issue briefly from the pulpit and seemed to accept the change. After other members of the congregation blew the shofar, which signifies a call to repentance, Hammerman ended that section of the service with a call that lasted at least half a minute.

"It was a rather dramatic moment," said Donald E. Milsten, Har Sinai's president. "I hope that that made him feel better."

A bachelor, Judge Hammerman lived for many years at an apartment on Glengyle Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. He resided for the past four years at Pavilion in the Park Condominium in the 4000 block of Old Court Road.

In his private life, he maintained many interests, including playing squash and tennis.

"He said he was 'the most competitive person I know,'" said his sister, Caroline E. Goldsmith of Mount Washington. "He liked attending the theater and especially liked musicals. He must have seen Les Miserables more than 40 times."

Outside of the law, the judge's most avid pursuit was the Lancers, a club he helped found in 1946 as a 17-year-old Hopkins freshman. Three younger boys from the judge's Northwest Baltimore neighborhood asked him to serve as the club's adviser. He remained its guiding force until his death.

Over the years, the club's membership included Krongard, the former CIA chief; Jerry Sachs, a retired president of USAir Arena; and former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In August 2000, the club admitted girls.

The change followed a painful episode for the club and judge. In February 2000, a student at North Baltimore's Gilman School accused Judge Hammerman of looking at him inappropriately while they were showering in a locker room after a round of tennis.

The judge denied any improprieties. Gilman temporarily banned the Lancers from campus but later resumed its ties to the organization.

Graveside services will he held at 10 a.m. Sunday at the Arlington Cemetery of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 4300 N. Rogers Ave.

In addition to his sister, Judge Hammerman is survived by a nephew, Frederick Goldsmith of Mount Washington; and three nieces, Heidi Goldsmith of Takoma Park, Joy Goldsmith of Lutherville and Sharon Goldsmith of Reisterstown.

Sun staff writers Frank Langfitt, Kelly Brewington, Laura Barnhardt and Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

Excerpts of Hammerman's letter

Dear Family and Friends:

I owe you an explanation.

I have written this letter a few months before the event; with a number of small changes and additions in the months since.

I made the decision to take my life 16 months ago ...

Making the decision 16 months ago has had two advantages, one disadvantage. The advantages - plenty of opportunity to reflect and be certain, and the opportunity (not completely fulfilling) to put a lot of matters in order. The disadvantage - quite a burden to live with this, plan it and be fully active all the while ...

At the onset I decided on a gun. I never had one in my hands before. I obtained the permit and received two training sessions at the police range. ...

The reason is simple - my health. The fear that in the not too distant future I might be committed to a nursing / assisted living facility - a fate I am not prepared to accept. ...

The simplest tasks are now becoming more and more difficult to do. Confusion is my daily companion and I am in a constant state of worrying about my forgetfulness. ...

Above all else, I wish for that which seems out of reach - but which must be reached - genuine peace on this earth of ours, and decent living conditions for all, wherever they may be. Let the dream of the Bible (as written in Isaiah) come to fruition:

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares,

And their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation shall not be lift up sword against nation,

Neither shall they learn war anymore."

We have no choice but to achieve this. Let it be, let it be quickly.

My Love Always,


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