A Bell Tolls for Walter Sartory

March 31, 2009

"Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."  John Donne

When Walter Sartory left the Center for Inquiry’s Winter Institute in January, I remember hoping to see him at our   conference in Washington D.C. in April.

 He was painfully shy and mostly silent during the 5 days of classes in   Hollywood , but he seemed to enjoy the stimulating lectures and discussions. Maybe he’d be a bit more comfortable in Washington, I thought.

My anticipation turned to shock recently when I learned of his   brutal murder , apparently at the hands of a pair who was after his money. The two suspects have been arrested and seem to be en route to long prison terms.

I don’t know enough about Walter to write his obituary here, although from   what I read , he was a highly capable engineer at the   Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and had few friends.

Despite his discomfort around most people, Walter found purpose in his atheism and spent considerable time and money to attend CFI classes and conferences. At these events, he found like-minded people and information about secular philosophy. These activities also probably afforded him some relief from the fundamentalism of the bible-belt towns where he lived in Tennessee and Kentucky – the latter minutes from the   Creation Museum .

Although I barely knew Walter Sartory, his death does affect me.

How do secular humanists deal with death – especially senseless death?

For me, the first step is always sadness. I wouldn’t call Walter a sweet old man – he was far too shy to be sweet – but he was a likeable, decent man, and he made the effort to be part of our gathering. It saddened me to think of a frail, 73-year-old man suffering any kind of harsh treatment. No innocent should have to endure such torment, or die such a death.

The second step for me was anger. The mere thought of this heinous crime is infuriating. What kind of bully could terrorize a reclusive old man? It made me feel helpless. I dreamt of answering the door at his house when the murderers arrived. They’d see me and decide to call the whole thing off. But that can’t happen. The past is frozen in place and there is nothing we the living can do.

The next step for me was understanding. I remind myself that a vast majority of humans fall within a range between pure virtue and total malevolence. Walter crossed paths with two people from the cruel end of the spectrum and did not have the means to evade or defeat them. Sometimes there is little we can do about the random events that overtake us.

As horrible as Walter’s death is, it does not create cynicism in me. To simply characterize the world as a cruel place is to miss the mostly gray tones. But his death reminds me that there are vicious people out there – a fact unlikely to change anytime soon.

Where do we go from here? We can be ever vigilant against those who would do harm to others. We can find some reasonable attitude toward the sick and the brutal that both encompasses compassion and insists on the safety of the Walter Sartorys of the world.

And we can remember Walter himself, an introverted man who sought the company of fellow atheists and humanists, and the knowledge behind their worldview.