Sudden loss throws this community off its game

February 26, 2005|By ROB KASPER

SOME EVENTS sweep over you like a snowstorm, making the moral landscape blurry, your footing uncertain. That happened to me, and I suspect to a lot of other people around the Baltimore area this week, when we heard the news of the fatal shooting of Bill Bassett.

I was in New York last weekend, still basking in the artistic charge that came from walking under Christo's saffron sheets billowing in the Central Park winter - so simple yet strangely moving - when the cell phone rang.

Baltimore is a town where the question of where you went to school means high school, and our older son was on the phone with word of the tragedy that had struck his school, St. Paul's, where he and his brother had graduated several years ago. Mr. Bassett, a pillar of St. Paul's, had been shot in a parking lot of Towson Town Center in an apparent botched robbery attempt.

Any uplifting feelings that Christo's gates had stirred in me were replaced by doubt, vulnerability and anger. Who had not parked at the mall? Who had not felt safe there? Now this sinister, senseless, random act had snuffed out the life of a talented, generous educator, a loving husband and father.

I knew him parentally. In the storm-tossed sea that is the college admission process, he was a rock, a calm and competent counselor, a welcome combination in a time of life when parental and teenage anxieties can produce a maelstrom of emotions. The issue of which college your kids attended, which once seemed so important, last week seemed so small.

Tuesday, I was driving up the Jones Falls Expressway with a kid in the back seat of the station wagon destined for St. Paul's, just like the old days of carpooling. But now instead of heading back to school for a class, a concert or a game, we were headed for the school chapel and the ritual of community grief. The line of people who had been affected by Bill Bassett, who wanted to console his wife, to tell her how much her husband had done for them, seemed endless. It stretched out of the chapel perched on the Brooklandville hill, ran past the school buildings and, according to messages received by school administrators, virtually extended across the nation. Faculty members said that in his three decades at the school he had taken on almost every task - teaching, coaching, recruiting teachers - and had done them with quiet grace.

Snapshots of his 58 years were mounted on boards near his casket. They seemed both so personal and yet so universal. The family shown laughing at the beach could be yours.

I sat in what my son told me is sophomore section of the school chapel, watched the soft February light wash over Bill Bassett's family and wondered about the fairness of life.

The throng that attended his memorial service at Old St. Paul's in downtown Baltimore was too big for the church. The pews overflowed and people positioned themselves anywhere - the halls, the basement, the vestibule - to be a part of the service. The crowd was a mix of ages, friends of his college-age son, classmates of his high school senior daughter. Some of the young men in the crowd wore bow ties, a sartorial tribute to his signature neckwear.

I heard Bill Durden, the president of Dickinson College, eulogize his longtime friend as a man with a "healthy curiosity," an engaging spirit who loved to "poke the gentle game of life." I heard Kent Darrell, a longtime teacher and coach at St. Paul's, console the crowd with the thought that growth could come from loss, that the generous way Bill Bassett approached life could be an example for others. And I heard Father Mike Wallens, the school's chaplain, warn against letting this horrible death make us adopt "the uncomfortable stance of looking over our shoulder."

I heard them all, and I know that Bill Bassett's death is not the only senseless loss of life in this community. But it is one that is deeply felt. After a snowstorm, visibility improves and we go forward. That will happen, I suppose. But for the time being, the sudden loss of such a good man has knocked us off our bearings.

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