On a single day, May 31, 2021, The Washington Post carried obituaries of three very different men. They probably never met, but their lives had something very important in common.
As adults, each had made a life-changing shift in the path he was taking. And that shift redounded to improving the world.
Robert L. Smith, Educator
Robert L. Smith made decisions that changed the lives of countless thousands of young people, thousands in person, more from a distance. He died on May 24, 2021.
Robert’s family were Quakers, a faith he deeply embraced as a young person. He was attending Harvard College when World War II broke out.
As a Quaker, Robert was expected to be a conscientious objector. It grieved him as a Quaker, but he was convinced that Hitler was so evil it was morally imperative to fight the Nazis. He fought in active combat, including the bloody Battle of the Bulge.
Back home, in 1949 Robert graduated Berkeley and earned a Master’s degree in English at Columbia in 1952. He eventually became a dean at Columbia, but he never stopped being a Quaker. In 1965, after reaching the highest levels in academia, he pivoted to a downward path. For the next thirteen years, from 1965-1978 Robert served as headmaster of a Quaker school (Sidwell Friends) in Washington, DC.
He influenced the children of Presidents Nixon, Clinton, and Obama. He increased the number of Black and Jewish students. He could personally call all 1000 students, from kindergarten to graduating seniors, by name. He led children to Quaker values of simplicity, humility, and peace making. Graduates of Sidwell have taken their places as leaders in every area of United States life.
After thirteen years at Sidwell, Robert pivoted again. He enlarged his quiet circle of service to become an adviser to Congress and the Executive Director of the Council for American Private Education which, according to The Washington Post, is a coalition of more than 33,000 elementary and secondary schools. He influenced the education of all the students who attended them.
After 61 years of marriage, Robert’s wife Eliza preceded him in death. When he passed on May 24, 2021, he left three children and eight grandchildren. But the number of children he influenced for good can only be counted by God.
Paul J. Hanly Jr., Litigator
Paul J. Hanly, Jr. grew up exposed to seeing both sides of the law up close. He was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, where his father worked for a time as a prison warden before he became a hospital administrator.
But obituary author Emily Langer writes, “his maternal grandfather, John V. Kenney, was mayor of Jersey City and a local political power broker who served time in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges of income tax evasion.”
Paul studied philosophy at Cornell and Cambridge in England. His apparent attempt to understand his background then led him to Georgetown Law School, where he graduated in 1979. [Full disclosure: I graduated there in 1977 so we’d have been contemporaries, but I do not remember him.]
According to Langer, Paul began his legal career in 1979 defending corporations accused of harming the public. For instance, he represented one of the world’s largest asbestos companies. He was very successful, highly regarded, and I imagine well paid in this role for nearly 22 years.
But on September 11, 2001 everything changed. The attack on our country, according to his son, inspired him to practice law as “a public service.”
Hanley changed sides. Here’s how Langer described the pivot:
— He helped represent hundreds of victims and families in lawsuits related to the attacks.
— He helped win a $60 million settlement for victims of alleged sex abuse at a school in Haiti.
— He represented plaintiffs sickened by defective drugs and medical devices.
But Paul’s service to victims was just getting started. By the time he died Paul was best known for representing victims of opioid addiction throughout the country. These drugs, according to The Washington Post had already resulted in more than 500,000 deaths. Beginning in the early 2000’s and continuing to his death on May 22, 2021 from thyroid cancer, Paul Haney’s single-minded drive was to win justice for opioid addicts.
Beginning in 2007 he and a law partner, Jane Conroy, won a settlement of $75 million from Purdue Pharma on behalf of 5000 clients addicted to OxyContin.
He kept going, building cases and winning settlements. In 2018 he and two others were appointed co-lead counsel in multidistrict litigation against opioid producers throughout the country. In 2019 they reached a $325 million settlement in two counties in Ohio.
Paul Hanley’s work will continue. His team is on a crusade to eradicate opioid addiction. Multidistrict lawsuits are pending throughout the United States. According to Jane Conroy the work involves “thousands of cities, counties and tribes” seeking redress.
Paul’s life path took several twists and turns. It began with a search for meaning through philosophy (perhaps inspired by trying to understand family members he loved), then to personal success, and finally, inspired by a terrorist attack, to a commitment to serving those who could not speak for themselves. One imagines that was where he found his truest self and deepest satisfaction.
B. J. Thomas, Singer-Songwriter
I’m embarrassed to confess I didn’t recognize the name. I should have. I would certainly recognize “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” the song BJ Thomas made famous on the sound track of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” He died on May 29, 2021 from lung cancer.
As a singer, BJ was hard to pin down. He grew up listening with his father to country favorites, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb—music that seemed to make his father happy. BJ’s own music would also be influenced by “gospel, soul, pop, and early rock music by Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard,” according to Washington Post writer Harrison Smith.
This Texas boy started performing in his early teens with a band called The Triumphs. At the age of 23 he struck it big when his single, a version of Hank Williams’ cover, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” rose to No. 8 on Billboard. He said he wrote the song for his father.
Unfortunately, Dad’s example had a dark side: he was an alcoholic. The boy too started drinking heavily and using drugs in his teens.
In his twenties he married Gloria Richardson, whom he loved. But he had become addicted to Valium and was using $3000 worth of cocaine every week. He overdosed several times. He claimed he once was pronounced dead but was revived. His marriage failed.
In 1975 his life was in the toilet. He wanted his wife back, and turned around. He became a Christian and got sober. He and his wife reunited and had three daughters together. He’d regained the self-respect lost in his childhood and was determined to pass it on to his family.
Two years later BJ made his last Top 40 hit, “Don’t Worry Baby” and then began to devote himself entirely to gospel music. Out of seven Grammy nominations for best inspirational performance, he won four, with a fifth for best gospel performance. Although he still sprinkled in some old pop and country hits in concerts, gospel was the only music he recorded from that time on.
BJ had found his purpose in life. He said, “I want my music to have a positive effect on people. When I perform live I hope the audience will leave with their heads lifted up.”
By pivoting for good, this man found his deepest calling.