Judge Wagner or AJ as he was known to his friends represented the best of us.
George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
AJ was an unreasonable man. His love and compassion knew no bounds. He was headstrong in his determination to help the less fortunate.
By modern standards, his views were progressive. A man who saw the divisive nature of our judicial system:
“I wanted to make an impact, but they just kept putting young black men in front of my bench.”
AJ saw our quote “justice system” for what it was, a system that unfairly incarcerated young black men. A system bent unfairly toward arresting and prosecuting those who didn’t have the means for lawyers.
Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he chose to walk away.
He returned to representing the underrepresented. He would eventually run for Mayor of Dayton and this is where our paths would cross.
“I DON’T CARE IF HE’S SANTA CLAUS, I’M NOT GETTING IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS SHIT SHOW!” I proclaimed to my girlfriend (at the time).
She had just returned from interviewing AJ for a now-defunct independent paper. She promised that I would admire him, but he was running against the incumbent independent Mayor and the Democratic established candidate. I knew the incumbent Mayor had zero chance and the idea of picking a fight with the entrenched Democratic Party was the equivalent of “sticking your penis in a bee hive”… but ultimately like most wise men, I relented to incessant nagging and agreed to meet the man.
I planned to spend thirty minutes in our first meeting, hear him out, and politely apologize that I wasn’t willing to pick a horse in this race. That was my intention.
Four hours later, I walked away from our first meeting wishing he was my grandfather. I settled for a mentor.
AJ vowed that he planned to make real change. He wanted to make college free for students of Dayton Public Schools and a list of progressive agenda items that would make Bernie Sanders look like a moderate. Worse, he meant it and had the data to prove it was within reach.
Much to the dismay of local party bosses, he won support and endorsements from several local established Democrats. Years later, the embers from those half-burned bridges remain.
We had a solid coalition of political operatives and one long-haired, recovering punk rocker who was adamant about the virtues of digital marketing against veteran operatives who evangelized the effectiveness of yard signs.
In the end, we lost. The most infuriating part was that it wasn’t an insurmountable gap. Looking back, maybe I should have pushed harder on social media, maybe I should have fulfilled my threat to hold AJ at gunpoint to “dial for dollars”, but in the end none of that matters, because when the campaign lost: Dayton lost.
I am not so incompetent that I believe that the winner did damage to progressing Dayton’s future, but I would be lying to admit that things wouldn’t have been different if AJ had won. The lasting influence of a fraction of his goals would have transformed our city and impacted thousands of people over preceding generations.
The next chapter.
Like all candidates who’ve suffered a defeat, AJ retreated to recalibrate his next move. There were more brainstorming sessions on the porch of “The Yellow House”. One-hour meetings that would evolve into multiple glasses of lemonade.
In retrospect, it is comical to consider. An aging lawyer, judge, failed politician, and a long-haired, rebellious twenty-something sitting on a porch convalescing. It was a Norman Rockwell painting where the Sex Pistols stopped by for tea.
But that was the magic of The Yellow House. It was open to all. I wonder how many lost students from the University of Dayton were sent to that house to find some temporary reprieve from being homesick. How many others had worn in the seat that I sat in? It brings tears to my eyes to reflect on how much time he shared with me and how much of his heart he showed to everyone. I was still young in my profession, wild-eyed, and set on disrupting everything in my path; AJ was calm, and he listened with the same intensity as he would if he were speaking to the Queen of England. You felt important in his presence. You felt heard.
We would debate issues of social justice and poverty. AJ calming sharing his ideas, me standing on my soapbox about the importance of being provocative and in people’s faces to wake them up to the society created around them.
“I want to write a book on the issues of poverty.”
“Let’s call it ‘The American Nightmare’ and raise some hell!”
Time passed and again I was on the porch of the Yellow House. AJ had a vision for building a SuperPAC for the Poor.
“You realize the fatal flaw in your plan is that poor people don’t have any money… right?”
AJ laughed and suggested that they needed a voice in government and there were compassionate rich people who would help fund it. That laugh. It was intoxicating. The kind of laugh that store Santa’s at Christmas could only revere and aspire to.
Frankly, I thought he had lost his mind, but he moved the pieces on his chess board and continued making an impact to help the poor find a voice in Washington.
It wasn’t long after that he moved to be closer to his family in Pennsylvania. AJ was to assume his role as grandfather. But he never gave up the fight. That wasn’t in his nature.
Conversations grew fewer and farther between. I made unfulfilled promises to visit. Time passed as it always does.
Eventually, I heard that he was sick again. Really sick. Visitors were restricted. I sent a couple of messages promising to visit if he got through this spell. But that wasn’t in the cards.
AJ passed away last night.
If I’m honest, I haven’t been brought to tears like this in over 30 years. I’ve lost many people over the years; friends, relatives, and grandparents… but this is different. AJ was all of those. The world is worse without him here.
He was a man devoted in his faith. Not in words alone. He genuinely carried a cross of compassion on his shoulders. He lived life in a way that would have made JC proud.
I have long left religion behind me, in search of spirituality.
The ancestors believed that fire and, more so, smoke carried prayers to the departed. As I sit here in my courtyard beside a bonfire I hope in some way that my intentions will reach AJ, wherever his soul may be.
I personally don’t subscribe to an afterlife. I ascribe to Albert Camus’ philosophy “For if there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”
However, I do find comfort that immortality and the dream of Ponce de Leon are within reach.
AJ reached people on a deeper level. He challenged my thinking. He treated me as an equal when I was a young radical and he had mastered his craft. I am a better man for having known him.
I worship my intellect. I pride myself on how clever I am. And I feel like a fool for not realizing at the moment how important those lemonade sessions with AJ would affect my character.
Tonight as the moon rises in the east, I reflect on so many lessons shared. Compassion, curiosity, and love.
AJ’s wife would occasionally check in on our conversations (usually when I was especially vocal on a topic of passion), but she always retreats to let AJ and I pontificate.
The lesson in reflection…
1) a strong man is nothing without an amazing partner beside him.
If you were lucky enough to have witnessed AJ look at Joan or speak of her, you would have witnessed love and admiration reserved for the Devine. They adored one another in a way that despite the billions of dollar budgets of Disney; they will never be able to capture. It is a love that could move mountains and all of us should aspire to love another in that way. A love so deep it makes the oceans blush.
2) never hesitate. Go.
“Risk Without Regret” emboldened on a banner, held in the claws of a raven, and permanently burned into my flesh via tattoo.
A quote from a friend. A reminder not to lament life’s missteps; after all, they made me who I am.
But you know what… it will take a long time to forgive myself for not going to see AJ one last time. To have spent one more afternoon debating and contemplating the inequalities and remedies to make the world a more just place.
But what was I? I was busy with life and its pursuits.
And what am I left with? The realization that too many have realized too late:
A life of meaning is best spent with dreamers. People who seek to lessen the suffering of others.
If there is any consolation in this self-pity I hope that it is through what time I have left on this earth, this floating rock through the vastness of the universe, that I can continue the lessons and works of my dear friend.
And in that, he will live on. He will achieve immortality as I pass on the lessons learned in compassion for our fellow man.