“For all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.”(Nobel Prize Lecture, 2009)
Last week, my former neighbor and friend, Steve, lost his life to cancer at age 55. An F.B.I special agent for 26 years, I recall jogging with a man of an outwardly, unmacho exterior, impressive bilingual skills and an extraordinary memory for detail. His captivating stories of facing dangerous drug traffickers in the field every day convinced me then to improbably imagine my friendly neighbor as a modern day “Wyatt Earp.”
At the time we were condo residents in the same building, I too was facing my own insecurities as a workaholic and struggling inner city teacher in Miami. Facing the confusing challenge of teaching disadvantaged students in a high poverty and racially segregated area, then, these casual conversations with Steve helped me immensely at the time. I remember his calm yet serious depictions of attempting to follow “the letter of the law” to chase down dangerous drug dealers in South Florida. I recall his patient will to forego violence in favor of peaceful questioning in the presence of gun toting suspects who were willing to kill to sustain their lucrative livelihood. I recaptured his frustration when the bureaucracy of the FBI rules of conduct limited his options to interrogate suspects swiftly. In sum, I had now realized that my FBI neighbor living nearby had motivated me to face my own fears of personal and professional frailty in a productive way then.
in addition to his career as the “good guy”, criminal chaser, Steve was a committed family man, who often welcomed my wife and I’s presence into his home. In spite of his 24-7 lifestyle as an FBI agent, I recall a man who always made time to oversee his family responsibilities as husband and father. While his stories around the dinner table always showed his career passion for apprehending the “bad guy”, he could detach from this serious side as “father figure” to enjoy life and laugh or rule as “head of the household” authority with his wife and two daughters as needed.
The legacy of our friendship with Steve and his family continued to blossom in spite of his acceptance of difficult FBI assignments in Puerto Rico, Virginia, Mexico, and Texas. While his stories to humanely rid the world of illegal drug dealing were no longer heard, his example of moral and legal justice continued to spark new lessons in my mind. Our borders with Latin America would not be made more secure by torturing suspects for crime lead confessions, forcing taxpayers to pay for costly walls or deporting all aliens indiscriminately. Activism not isolationism with friend or enemy was Steve’s way and he had the earned medals in bravery to prove it.
It seems odd that the most serious danger to my friend’s life came from within as the cancer rapidly metastasized in his body. Attending his memorial service in church today, I imagined this omnipresent hero returning to oversee these solemn proceedings. In typical Steve fashion, the room would have turned silent as he would slowly have told the captive audience about the simple yet risky details of his latest engagement with the enemy. I am truly honored now to remember the courageous life of my friend and mentor who provided this exemplary model for justice in unselfish service to our country.