For a man who trounced tennis partners half his age, who heard court cases into his 70s and challenged anything - be it state law or synagogue leadership - that tried to nudge him aside for someone younger, retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert I.H. Hammerman had a peculiar wish:
He wanted a heart attack like the one that killed his father.
But Judge Hammerman believed his fate was not a quick death, but the progressive blindness and memory loss that clouded his mother's last years. Determined to die on his terms, he took his own life yesterday.
It was not a rash act, for that was hardly the style of the studious, deliberate Harvard Law School graduate who arrived at the courthouse at 5:30 a.m. every day until Maryland's mandatory judicial retirement age forced out the longest-serving trial jurist in state history.
The 76-year-old judge undertook 16 months of planning, untold hours of letter writing and even two gun training courses before he put a gun to his chest and pulled the trigger about 9 a.m. yesterday, in a wooded area not far from his Baltimore County condominium - nearer still to an assisted living facility, the kind of place where he feared he might otherwise wind up.
Judge Hammerman detailed his reasons in a 10-page, handwritten letter that he wrote and rewrote in Dartmouth College's rare book library and sprinkled with references to Socrates, the Bible and The New York Times - complete with a lawyerly citation to the letter President Ronald Reagan wrote announcing his battle with Alzheimer's ("Page 30 of Newsweek, June 21, 2004").
He wrote of plans to mail it the night before his suicide to more than 2,200 relatives, friends and associates.
"I owe you an explanation," the letter began.
"I love life deeply," it went on to say. "There is so very, very much that I want to see unfold. But it is time to leave."
Many of those who knew the judge were struggling to understand his decision without benefit of the letter, which had not arrived at most addresses because there was no mail delivery yesterday, Veterans Day. But a copy sent to an obituary writer at The Sun arrived yesterday.
"He seemed perfectly fine. There was nothing out of the ordinary," said Robert M. Bell, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. He said Judge Hammerman called him at home several weeks ago to draw his attention to a newspaper article on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom Judge Hammerman counted as a friend.
But Judge Bell said he could understand how Judge Hammerman might have been affected by the prospect of living with a debilitating disease like Alzheimer's.
"He prided himself in helping others rather than having to be helped by others," said Judge Bell, who noted that for more than 50 years, Judge Hammerman led the Lancers Boys Club, a prominent community service group. "I guess looking at what the end might be - the effects that Alzheimer's could have - I'm sure that deeply affected him."
Whether Judge Hammerman actually had Alzheimer's was not known for certain because, according to his letter, he had never sought a diagnosis. But there was no doubt in the judge's mind.
He filled two pages with examples of recent memory loss: forgetting the day of the week, the month, the season; blanking out on the names of relatives and close friends; deciding to jot something down and forgetting what it was by the time he had rounded up a pad of paper.
"The simplest tasks are now becoming more and more difficult to do," he wrote. "Confusion is my daily companion, and I am in a constant state of worrying about my forgetfulness."
The judge had been under the care of a doctor for his worsening vision problem, macular degeneration. He could still see well enough to preside over court cases, and his doctor did not predict total blindness, his letter states.
But he was startled by something the doctor said at his last visit: "He told me that, although not probable, my eyes could `explode' at any time - and bingo, that would be it."
While not privy to the judge's serious health concerns, friends and associates said they knew he chafed at more minor limitations brought on by old age.
"He was an avid tennis player, and I think his knees gave out," said Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan. "He used to play regularly with people younger than he was and trounce them. And I think that got to him, that he would maybe be an invalid."
While the suicide came as a shock, no one was surprised that the judge's plans had been careful and detailed in a note.
"He was pretty rational, said A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, a childhood friend who is former CIA executive director and former chairman and chief executive of Alex. Brown Inc. "That's the way he wanted to end his life and I know that he thought about it."
Robert Israel Harold Hammerman was born in Baltimore and raised on Granada Avenue in Forest Park. He was the son of Herman Hammerman, a lawyer, who did mostly real estate work for his older brother, S. L. Hammerman, a developer.