Touched by the lives and deaths of three near strangers

I read the obituaries every day. They interest me in a way that the articles in the fancy architecture magazines do: I enjoy the stories and the histories of the subjects — the old, the eccentric, the beautiful, the flawed — all of them have a way of speaking to me even from a distance. I am not in the market, but three recent Baltimore deaths have made me stop and take a second look.

As a law student in the early 1980s, I lived in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Ridgeley's Delight — then still pretty rough: a gun shot heard at night from time to time; a seafood warehouse stood where Camden Yards is now; Harbor East and $35 steaks were not yet a glimmer in a real-estate developer's eye. It was cheap, though, and on the weekends we could walk to Harborplace to people-watch, there was a buzz and a hum at the Cross Street Market on the weekends, and the brick facades on Federal Hill were being pointed up. At that time kids from the suburbs did not move to the city, and if they did, certainly not to stay unless there was a good reason. I got it after a few months, though: the city was cool, quirky and on the move. William Donald Schaefer was our mayor then, and my roommates and I knew he was making the city into something different and better than its reputation as a dying, dirty industrial town

My wife and I made Baltimore City part of our lives: law school, work, Center Stage and Little Italy for us, the harbor, zoo and aquarium for our kids. My children sang in the choir at Old St. Paul's, and an older Comptroller Schaefer would be there most Sundays, always alone, seated in a rear pew. Despite his fame, people left him alone, and I did, too. I often felt that he would come to that grand, Romanesque structure to be soothed by the filtered light and sweet voices of the choir to help him contemplate the great public issues that consumed his life. He didn't know me, and I am sure he never considered how our lives intersected, but right now, I can't forget how his path changed mine.

The death of a young person is a particularly cruel gut punch, often surprising, universally unfair, leaving those close to it gasping for an understanding of what has happened. The accidental death of 16 year-old Cameron O'Neil Mullen on April 5 left the St. Paul's School for Girls community reeling. My wife works there, and my two girls go to school there, but none of us were close to Cameron or her parents. The account of her life describes a remarkable young person: gifted athlete, great student, and beloved, too, in every community in which she lived.

In a way, I was relieved: My immediate family was not affected; I was spared the worst of the grieving that would come with the death of someone in my circle. That relief was quickly exploded by the depth of my 8th grader's grief. While she did not know Cameron well, she struggled bitterly with the big questions about death: Where was God when all this was happening? Why didn't God answer her parents' prayers to keep her safe? How could this have happened to someone who was so great and whom everyone loved? My inability to provide her any real comfort or satisfactory answers leaves me empty still.

Lacrosse Hall of Famer Jeff Cook died Friday, April 12. He dated a girl I knew in college, and I met him a few times in law school and in practice thereafter. While I knew he was a great lacrosse player, I was unaware of how great: Three-time college All American, a high-point leader for Johns Hopkins University, he received the Raymond J. Enners Award as 1981's top lacrosse player in the nation. He was an associate editor of the University of Baltimore Law Review, too, and worked for some prestigious firms. His star in life ascended much higher than mine, and I have found it difficult to reconcile his great success in life with the sad circumstances of his death: The obituary reported that he was found alone in his home, a month after being laid off from his job, no spouse, partner or children were reported.

Death captured the lives of three interesting Baltimoreans in the last month, each a bright light over their corner of town. Reading about these lives reminds me that death is always with us, sometimes so close to us that if flattens us, fixing a moment in our lives that leaves us irrevocably changed. Other times, it swirls about us like a mist, temporarily obscuring our view, leaving our faces a little wet; less certain about the journey, forcing us to take another look at what has passed.

Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Towson. His email is