Dr. Aris T. Allen, who vaulted so many obstacles in his life as a laborer, medical doctor and legislator, confronted in the winter of 1991 a most formidable foe: terminal prostate cancer. And when he heard the diagnosis, he seized control of his fate in his own way.
News of his suicide on Feb. 8 came hard on the heels of his latest accomplishment in a life of achievement. Three months before, the 80-year-old Allen had completed his political comeback by winning a House of Delegates seat in Anne Arundel County's 30th District, becoming the lone black Republican in the General Assembly.
Ten years after retiring from the state Senate to become a medical adviser in the Reagan administration, Allen was back in public life. Then, suddenly, he was gone.
Allen died violently two days afterhe was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Late on a sunny Friday afternoon, he drove a rented a car to the parking lot of Holy Temple Church of God International on Bestgate Road in Annapolis. He went into the church and asked for the pastor, who was not there.
Allen went back to the car and, police said, shot himself in the head with a shotgun. Two suicide notes were found in the car, containing farewell messages to his family and instructions for his funeral.
Many of those who were close to this most peaceful man could not reconcile the way he lived his life with the way it ended.
"I've spent all weekend trying to figure it out," County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, said at the time. She had known Allen for 20 years. "His life always was one of consideration. This was so completely opposite all he stood for -- non-violence, the consideration of other people."
Allen's oldest son, Aris T. Allen Jr., saw it differently.
"He always tried to maintain a certain amount of control over his life, and Iguess also over his death," Allen said on the Monday after his father died. "His feeling may have been that he wanted to maintain a healthy, active and meaningful life where he could make some contribution.He may have felt that this was just no longer possible."
In the telling and retelling, the story of Allen's ascension from impoverished 14-year-old Texas school dropout to medical doctor and legislator has acquired the patina of American legend.
When he moved from Washington to Annapolis after World War II to establish his medical practice, he was one of only three black doctors in town. He entered public life in a time of school segregation, moving from the local PTA to the county school board, where he is said to have provided a voice ofreason that won the hearts of many white parents. He later served inthe House of Delegates, then as chairman of the state Republican Party, ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor and was appointed to the state Senate in 1978 by then-acting Gov. Blair Lee III.
Even at80, he was not content to enjoy the fruits of his work. In the summer and fall of 1990, he campaigned for the House of Delegates, saying,"I like being involved. I like seeing things happen. I like to thinkI've been an influence."
Allen sought to exert influence even as he prepared for his own death. He sent letters to several members of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee urging them to name as his successor Dallas Evans, an Annapolis businessman and former Allen campaign treasurer.
On March 2, however, the committee chose Phillip Bissett, a 34-year-old Mayo warehouse worker, from 12 candidates vying to replace Allen.
Bissett, who had run for a District30 seat in the 1990 election, said at the time, "I don't pretend I will ever fill Dr. Allen's shoes."