Written by Kathy Christensen
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Dick and I attended Catholic High Schools. In my junior year and Dick’s senior year, we met at a mutual friend’s house. Dick was shy, but what attracted me to him was his sense of humor and his striking blue eyes. He was so witty and made me laugh, but there was a serious side to him. When he would pick me up for a date (which was a movie and pizza every weekend) while I was primping, he connected with my older sister because she was much more of an intellectual. They would have conversations about the books they were reading and discuss philosophical theories, so I knew that there was that depth to him — which worried me. I wasn’t confident in my intellectual pursuits and was much more worried about making head cheerleader than reading Thomas Merton. However, we were in high school and I always laughed at his jokes, and I definitely gave him a lot of material to joke about. Dick was also very athletic and we had that interest in common. He won the Ohio State doubles championship in tennis and continued playing competitively in college. After high school, we remained in touch for a while and remained friends.
Dick attended Rutgers University in New Jersey. I recall, at that time, it was very unusual for Ohio students to attend out of state public universities, but he really wanted to live and experience the east coast and he loved Rutgers. Dick enjoyed his science, religion and philosophy classes in high school, so it made sense that he would double major in biology and philosophy. He didn’t come back to Dayton much, as he spent his summers coaching tennis to earn money to stay in school. We had limited contact with each other during those years, but stayed in touch on his occasional visits to Dayton. I remember talking about our prospective vocations, his interest in attending medical school and my interest in social work, but I don’t recall when he decided to pursue religious life. I was pretty surprised to learn that upon graduating, he would enter the Society of Jesus and study to become a priest.
After college, in his time as a Jesuit Novice, Dick served homeless people in the streets of Baltimore. There was also a short period of time in the beginning of his Jesuit training where he chose to live on the streets so he could experience homelessness. This was the beginning to the 25 years of service he would dedicate to serving this vulnerable population. I could never capture in words how important those years in the Jesuits were to him. During this time, he also developed his lifetime hobby. He became a serious runner. On one of his visits to his family in Dayton, I literally ran into him on a popular trail in a park I frequently ran. I was running 3 miles and he was running 13 in training for a marathon. He ran four marathons during his time as a Jesuit.
The life-time friends he made, the rich spiritual training, and the mystical encounters he experienced all guided and transformed his adult life during this period. After five years in formation to be a priest, he struggled with living a lifetime in a religious order in community and, after much discernment, decided to leave. He often experienced a certain loneliness, and I remember him explaining to me that there was an intimacy he felt was missing in his life that community living didn’t fulfill. It was a very difficult decision for him to leave the Jesuits. Even once he began his life as a lay person again, he often yearned for the spiritual companionship and the time for prayer woven into one’s life as a priest. It is difficult to be a “man for the poor” when you also have to worry about a family and prepare for the future. He found a way to do both.
When Dick left the Jesuits, I was fresh out of a long term relationship, and we ran into each other December 8, 1981 at mass in our hometown of Dayton. We were excited to renew our friendship and share with each other what was happening during this difficult time in our lives. We had not spent much time together since 1973 when he left for college, so we had a lot of catching up to do. During this period of discernment for Dick, he was actually contemplating living in a monastery and becoming a Benedictine Monk. He spent time at the monastery and loved the contemplative, prayerful and hard working life the monks led. I like to believe I was instrumental in persuading him not to take that path.
Several months after we reunited, Dick decided to take a teaching position at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C. We became very close during his time in Dayton, and I decided I would move to D.C. as well. I had been a college Admissions Counselor for the University of Dayton and asked to recruit on the east coast. When that position ended, Dick encouraged me to pursue working with special needs children, a vocation I had been thinking about doing for quite some time. While working in the Dean’s office at George Washington University, I earned my Master’s Degree in Special Education. He taught Chemistry and ran a Social Justice program at Gonzaga while earning his Master’s Degree in Medical Bioethics from Georgetown. One very memorable event during Dick’s high school teaching career was the time when Elsa Walsh, a Washington Post Reporter, spent a week in his social justice classroom when the topic was nuclear proliferation. He was asking the students to take a side and explain if there was ever a justification for the building of and use of nuclear weapons and their arguments for and against. The article appeared on the front page of the Washington Post as part of a series. The year was 1985.
It was during this time, living in Georgetown, working and going to school that we decided to marry. November 26, 1983, ten years after meeting in high school, we were married at the University of Dayton Chapel. Dick died on our anniversary, November 26th, 2015. We were married for 32 years.
The experience of living in the streets and working with the homeless when he was a Jesuit always weighed on him. So even as a teacher, and working on his masters, he continued to work in the shelters in D.C. After observing such intense suffering and poverty, he realized that the best way to impact the quality of life for homeless people was by becoming a medical doctor. He began studying for the MCAT and knew that being away from the discipline of studying the sciences for so long, it was a long shot. He did well enough his first attempt and applied to one medical school, Wright State University in our hometown of Dayton. The Admissions Committee seemed to value his unique background with the Jesuits and at the age of 30, he was accepted into medical school for the fall semester of 1985.
The summer after completing his first year in medical school and my first year of teaching, we decided to look for a volunteer opportunity. I have a friend who is a Franciscan priest and knew of an opportunity at a hospital and school on the Navajo Reservation in Window Rock, Arizona. On the reservation, Dick volunteered at the hospital, and I volunteered at the residential school for special needs children and young adults. It was quite the adventure for the two of us. Neither of us traveled much at that point in our lives and the experience was so unique. We lived as minorities in a community, and we learned so much about the language, cultural differences, and spiritual lives of the Navajo people. We developed a love for volunteerism as a form of learning and giving. The most special memory from that summer was discovering that we were going to have the experience of becoming parents. The Navajo women I worked with were so excited for us, arranged for me to meet with a midwife, and shared all kinds of traditions and superstitions around being pregnant. For 30 years, we talked about that time in Arizona and how special it was. We talked about returning to experience it with our son, but our travels took us elsewhere and we never made it back to the reservation.
WORK AS A PHYSICIAN
After medical school, Dick decided psychiatry suited his desire to help people in underserved areas, filling a need in medical care that not many physicians were willing to provide. As a physician, the strong desire to heal people is what motivates one’s work, but in the work that Dick did, it had to be so difficult to know you couldn’t “cure” many mental illnesses. The work he did helped people live a better quality of life.
During residency and many years as a physician, he took very little time for himself. Much of his academic work was done outside of his clinical work. He was always reading academic journals and writing; he did love to write. That was a gift passed down to him from previous generations in his family. His writing was so clear and easy to understand. His articles were teaching tools and he presented annually at national conferences, and he had over 150 publications in addition to his full time clinical work and teaching.
I have recently met some of the patients Dick served, and I know what a special relationship he had with clients. I would sometimes ask him how he wasn’t overcome by feelings of hopelessness and depression, hearing the horrific circumstances of most clients. Honestly, sometimes he was, but the way Dick dealt with it was through prayer. In his writings, he quoted Laurence Freeman, OSB, that the true test of prayer is the growth of the Pauline virtues: compassion, gentleness, humility, tolerance….all the virtues Dick tried to practice daily. Once a year, Dick would complete an eight day silent retreat. These retreats took place at Jesuit Centers around the country and in Canada. His time in the Jesuits forever impacted the way he led his life as a doctor on a spiritual journey. His writing, meditation, running, and annual retreats were the ways he rejuvenated, and it was how he was able to keep doing what he loved all these years.
PARKING LOT THERAPY
Dick was a wonderful conversationalist. But he was an even better listener. When talking with him, whether it was a spontaneous conversation or a therapeutic one, whether it was at dinner or walking with friends, he was a great listener. He would ask a lot of questions and always appeared very interested in what you had to say. He would make you feel like you could share anything with him. And people did, especially in parking lots. As soon as he would arrive on campus at Sulzbacher, people were waiting to talk to him. And it wasn’t just patients, but also co-workers and staff. I once heard Dr. Micheal Good, Dean of the University Of Florida School Of Medicine describe Dick as having an “infectious goodness.” He had a great sense of humor that could diffuse difficult situations. He was wise and had a way of communicating with others that encouraged you seek out his counsel.
As you can imagine, he was so effective at his job because people felt at ease with him and realized they had the attention of someone who truly cared about them as a person.
There was a seven-month period where Dick left the University of Florida and took a position as Associate Dean of Students at the Medical School at Florida State University. This was what he thought would be his dream retirement job. He loved teaching and publishing. I think he felt this was the best way to have an impact on training future doctors to think critically about ethical treatment and issues in the field of medicine. He was working with good people, but it was too different from the clinical work he wanted to practice and teach. It was almost totally administration which, for Dick, was the least rewarding part of the job, and he felt very ineffective in making a difference in medical school education. He was very grateful that he could return to Jacksonville as a Professor with the University of Florida and continue his work at The Sulzbacher Center.
I can’t tell you the number of people at his memorial that came up to me afterward and said, “I need to do something more with my life,” or “Knowing Dick has inspired me to change some things in my life.” I recently read something about the life of Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker movement. The words the author used to describe her work could have easily been used to speak about Dick’s work. He, like Dorothy Day: “wasn’t merely a champion of catholic social teaching, but a concrete living example. Catholic social teaching is based, in part, on the idea that each life has equal dignity, that the soul of a drug-addled homeless person is just as invaluable as the most laudable high achiever. It is based on the conviction that God has a special love for the poor. True worship is to work for justice and care for the poor and oppressed.”
HUMILITY AND GRATITUDE
Over the years, Dick was awarded so many honors for exemplary teaching, innovative programming, and dedication to such an underserved population. The University of Florida, the American Psychiatric Association, National Alliance for Mental Illness, Florida Blue Sapphire Award, One Jax are just a sample of the organizations that recognized Dick for his work. And yet people would describe Dick as the most humble person. He didn’t like the attention, but was always so appreciative of the recognition, because it brought attention to the work that he did.
One way Dick practiced humility and gratitude was by keeping a gratitude journal. This was something he recommended to people, and something he started doing himself in 2012. He would journal three things everyday, describing people and events for which he was grateful. It is a prayerful practice which I have carried on. Reading his gratitude journal was very powerful for me. It helped me deal with my grief, reading how he found joy and satisfaction in his daily life. His notes reminded me of the people who brought him so much joy. His family, his close friends, his coworkers and especially his patients had such special places in his heart.
TRAVELING TO SERVE
Our family loved to travel. We had the idea in 1996 that, every two years, we would travel as a family to a different country. Dick, our son Christopher, and I explored many countries together. When Christopher went to college, Dick and I decided to go back to our Navajo days and find ways to learn and serve. My work was with an education program at Beaches Habitat for Humanity, and their International Habitat Global Village Build program was the perfect way to educate ourselves about other cultures while supporting the communities where we traveled. The welcoming we got from people when we did our Habitat builds, and how appreciative they were for our service, spreading that kind of goodwill wherever we went, was important to us. Sure, we liked the vacationing part and the cultural experiences, but the service piece was something very special. Learn, experience, serve. Those were our trips.
I once said to Dick’s best friend that I wish Dick’s work could be known to more people. Part of my sadness was that I believe one day Dick would have published a collection of his works for future generations. Thanks to the Psychiatry Department at UF, his legacy will be known because of the hard work and dedication of the physicians and professors who built a curriculum based on his writings and works. Dick was forever grateful to the University of Florida for supporting the work he did and I will be forever grateful to the University for continuing to share his important work with others.