Eulogy for Walter Wriston
February 24, 2005
I loved Walt Wriston. We live in an age of extraordinary self-consciousness; its fashionable representatives tend to evaluate themselves by their image rather than their long-term accomplishments. The goal is effect rather than achievement; frequently, the two are confused with each other. Walt represented other priorities. His ambition was to do, not to be. His impetus was a sense of duty; he did not strive for personal empowerment – that fashionable term would have been sardonically dismissed – but for an opportunity to serve, which implies values beyond the personal.
Lucky is the society that produces guides to take it from where it is to where it has never been, to bridge the gap between a familiar past and an as-yet uncertain future, which requires courage, dedication and selflessness – in other words, character.
These are qualities that Walt exuded. He disdained the national self-doubt that infests so much of the intellectual community. To him, America's shortcomings were challenges to transcend, not failings in which to wallow. Walt believed deeply in freedom, initiative and service, yet he never invoked these values to draw attention to his own importance. The celebration of life for him was to enable his society to live up to the best within it. As self-effacing as he was brilliant, Walt sought fulfillment in solving problems for which he was content to leave the credit to others. Several times mentioned as a potential secretary of treasury, he dismissed such speculation with some self-deprecating remark – though Walt would have been one of the greatest.
My appreciation of Walt would not be complete without touching on some of his less well-known qualities. I will begin with the saga of Walt's stump remover. Walt owned the only mechanical stump remover in our corner of Connecticut. He also thought I was somewhat challenged in the field of economics. Taking both facts into account, Walt decided to teach me the dangers of monopoly or the advantages of competition. Every spring, he offered to lease me his stump remover for a fee that included wondrous marginal costs such as travel time, depreciation and insurance against attacks from rabid animals. As the number of stumps on my property multiplied, so did Walt's formal bid, making him the Tiffany of stump removers. Unfortunately, the economics lesson was undermined by Walt's sentimentality, for which the market makes no allowance: I knew that if I got serious, he would remove the tree stumps for nothing.
Then there was Walt's brief career as a movie star. Milos Forman wanted him to play a bit part in a forthcoming film. Walt was enthusiastic until he found out the role Milos had in mind was that of a crook. This he would not do even in a make-believe world – except perhaps to give himself an edge in tennis. When partnering with his friend Oscar Dunn, he would put up a little placard to challenge their opponents: “Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.”
All of us were so proud that President Bush last summer expressed the nation's gratitude by conferring on Walt the nation's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom – though by then he was no longer strong enough to make the trip to Washington to receive it in person.
It would be wrong to think of Walt in his last months as some kind of invalid. During the months of his illness, he would often answer an inquiry into his health by saying: “I still put in a day at the office.” He kept working, simply adding the conquest of his illness to his tasks. Walt researched the subject, both its formal and its exploratory approach. When one talked to him about his condition, one heard a lot about the science of cancer treatment but nothing of his own travail.
All this sounds a little old-fashioned. And yet Walt was the most modern of men. He was ahead of his time in understanding modern technology – first for banking and, after his retirement, for society at large in both its positive and negative aspects. He was the kind of American – optimistic, humble, caring – who historically has made this country the hope of the world.
Everyone whose life was touched by Walt Wriston will be diminished by having to live in a world without him. So will the nation be. But the magnitude of our loss testifies how much Walt has ennobled our lives by sharing part of his with ours; it is a legacy that will never end.