"After reading as much as I could by and about [William Sloane] Coffin, I made a pilgrimage to Strafford, Vermont, where he and his wife, Randy, were living. When I arrived at their home, I was surprised to see just how weakened Bill had become from a stroke and other ailments. He sat in a tattered Barcalounger, his legs covered by a heavy woolen blanket; he looked visibly smaller than the last time I had seen him, and his speech was slurred. What remained unchanged, however, was his fiery spirit.
"It was clear from the opening moments of our conversation that while he rarely left his living room any more, Bill continued to travel great distances intellectually and spiritually. On one side of his chair was an impressive stack of books on religion and politics and on the other was a small folding table with a telephone and various notes on it.
"For the next two hours, Bill spoke to me with great insight, passion, and humor about the great moral and spiritual issues of the day, from abortion to the environment to interfaith cooperation. Famous for his quick wit and mellifluous speech, it was striking to see him slowly choose his words and work hard to articulate them as clearly as possible. Although Bill made a few self-deprecating remarks about his ability to communicate, his methodical pace actually had a calming effect on me to focus on the substance of the conversation without being overwhelmed by the fact that I was interviewing William Sloane Coffin!
"Among the many things we discussed that afternoon, Bill was most concerned, nor surprisingly, about the need for the emergence of a new generation or religious leaders willing and able to carry forth the work of social justice and environmental responsibility that was so important to him and his peers. As our conversation wound down, he paused and said, 'This may sound like a crabby remark, but the world has too many "old turks" and "young fogies." ' He wanted more of us 'turks' to take risks and speak out for justice. But he was also careful to add that one must always be mindful of the thin line between righteous indignation and self-righteousness. Work for social change, he warned, could breed in one disguised as holy impatience. Related to this, he said, 'Never hate evil more than you love the good.' Because the result is that 'you will become a damn good hater! And the world has enough of that kind of activist.'
"After completing the interview, Bill insisted that I have a drink with him. But he was also concerned that I make it home before the Sabbath. 'What would "Father Abraham" [Heschel] think if I caused you to violate the holy Sabbath!' he exclaimed.
"Over the next few months I spoke to Bill several times by phone. At first, we worked together on editing the interview, bur soon we just schmoozed — not idle chatter, but more open-ended discussion — about his old age, my new marriage, and the complications of religious leadership and human frailty, Bill was not shy about sharing his own shortcomings with me (particularly when I put him on too high a pedestal) and encouraged me to be honest about my own.
"As we spoke, I always held a pen in hand, ready to record a quotation from the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr or Albert Camus. Most precious to me were Bill's own aphorisms, as he had the rare ability to formulate poetic insights in the course of casual conversation. One quotation that I thought about repeatedly in the weeks after Bill's death in the spring of 2006 and that continues to stand out in my mind is as follows: 'The only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there's no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.'
"I have been blessed with wonderful mentors since my childhood. My parents instilled in my siblings and me the value of cultivating relationships with teachers and elders who were willing to share with us something of their wisdom and with whom we could engage in honest and searching conversation. These people were not to be regarded as saints, but as advanced fellow travelers, individuals of like mind or spirit who had walked farther than we had along the winding road of life. William Sloan Coffin was such a mentor to me. Although I had the opportunity to spend only a short time with him, he was a generous, insightful, and funny teacher, whose presence and passion will remain with me for years to come — yehi zikhro barukh, may his memory be for a blessing."