Walter was a WWII vet. He commanded a tank in Czechoslovakia and France. His service to his country was especially important to him. He would have loved knowing so many boxes were sent to troops in his name.
One sunny day, almost 30 years ago, having nothing more important to do, Richard and I moseyed on over to a justice of the peace and officially tied the knot. We had already been cohabiting without legal recognition for five years. So I suppose in practice, Walter had been my father-in-law for 35 years, not just a measley 30.
A few weeks after we were married, Dad told us that he and Mom had a serious issue they needed to discuss, and asked if we would join them for supper.
Richard and I were mystified. What could it be? Was somebody ill?
When we arrived, he and Ginny ushered us into the living room. They sat side by side with solemn expressions on their faces. "Son," he addressed my husband with great gravity. "There is something about my past I've never told you that your mother and I think you should know."
We were stunned. What could there possibly be in Walter's past? Walter looked like an extremely tall version of Marcus Welby. I used to jokingly call him "Walter Reichelt, PhD" and tease him that "Father Knows Best" when he began to pontificate. He was the epitome of a 1950s TV Dad.
Walt was a 6 foot 4 inch nuclear physicist with an impressive shock of white hair. He had a top secret security clearance and seemed to know a little bit of everything. Neighbors came to him for all sorts of mundane advice that didn't involve small particle collision. And Virginia was a Daughter of the American Revolution. She spoke with a genteel North Carolina accent and never said anything worse than "Geezy Peezy." They could have replaced Tony the Tiger on a box of Frosted Flakes. They had 2.5 kids (Richard's two brothers are twins), a car and a nice house (but no picket fence).
"You know, my parents came from Germany," Walt began. "We lived in a German farming community in New Jersey. And before the war broke out, my father often spoke glowingly of Hitler. But I didn't share his views. And we didn't know yet about the concentration camps.
"I was very proud of America, and very proud to be an American, and as soon as I was old enough, I joined the army to fight Hitler. I thought you should know about this, Laurie, because you're Jewish. We love you and we are so happy to welcome you into the Reichelt family. When you have children, we're going to love them as if they are our own, if that's alright with you and you still want us as grandparents."
I was deeply touched. My decision to live in northern New Mexico was made in part because I wanted my children to enjoy as close a relationship with Walter and Virginia as I had experienced with my own Grandma and Poppa. Grandparents were important to me growing up. Walter's goodness of heart meant more than the fact that he wasn't Jewish, or that I might have abhorred his father's pre-war views about Hitler.
Rich and I took the kids over to visit frequently. They loved to spend the night because Grandma and Granddad had a TV and let them eat french fries. Chloe and Mom would draw pictures or play the piano. Dad and Ben would build contraptions.
When our daughter was born, Walter and Virginia attended her naming ceremony. And when our son was born, they came to his brit milah (circumcision). They participated in Ben and Chloe's Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Walter wore a yarmulke for each ceremony. I raised my children as Jews and their grandparents doted on them.
It's easy to mistake dare-devilry for heroism. Carl Jung once said that true heroism evolves from an individual's conduct of the mundane apects of life. For me Walter was a hero because when his son brought home a Jewish woman for his wife, something that would have been an anathema in his own parents' generation, Walter not only welcomed me, but he actively participated in his grandchildren's Jewish education.
Walter was a confirmed atheist, or at the very least an agnostic, and his favorite sport was arguing with loved ones about religion. The Torah says that man is created in God's image. It is written in the Zohar: "With Beginning --- created God." When we live our lives with intention, as Walter did, we create god in our world. Walter helped to create a world that was the antithesis of Nazi Germany through his conduct as a father, grandfather, and community member. And he did it very quietly. I don't know if anyone else in the Reichelt family knows this story. I never mentioned it to them.
Some of you know that recently I've become the subject of negative press in New Mexico from media outlets that don't think it's appropriate for County employees to be sent to a conference to learn how to incorporate social media into community organizing. I've received a surprising amount of hate mail and hate tweets from a few anonymous individuals. Most of the content is noise, bigotry and name-calling and does not even appear to come from Rio Arriba County. It is filled with code words intended to incite anger at people of color, women and gays.
Our lives are given to us by God. No human being can take them away. They can only intimidate us to the point that we fail to live the lives we were gifted.
Walter was a hero because he fully lived the life God gave him. I intend to not let myself be intimidated by a few haters, and to continue learning from other activists new ways to build local power and to develop a strong local voice. I'm embedding a video featuring some of the people and activities that make NN a great place to be. It's not comprehensive. It's just some folks I was able to shanghai in the community room between workshops. I love Netroots Nation because of its inclusivity, its atmosphere of inclusion and tolerance, its willingness to allow individuals to assign their own meaning to events in their lives, and its focus on community-building activity.
I hope you enjoy it, and thank you for being there for me.