Tragedy survived -- then relived

The loss of a son refocused Jim Lighthizer's perspective on life, but a new perspective couldn't help when death struck again

January 21, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Reporter

The chill of a late summer night had fallen over California's Sierra Nevada range, and all Jim Lighthizer could do was pace. Here at 10,600 feet, the trees had thinned out and a full moon lit the canyon. But the splendor hardly registered.

His steps took him back and forth in front of a two-man tent. On the floor lay his 28-year-old son, Conor, a diabetic whose condition worsened by the hour. What was he supposed to do? What the hell was he supposed to do?

He could go for help or send his brother-in-law. It would take either man five hours to reach the ranger station at Kings Canyon, five hours down a steep incline in the dark. But he was so used to Conor's managing his own disease that he still looked to his son to make the call.

"Conor, do you think I should go out?"

"No," his son said firmly, "let's wait until morning."

Conor hadn't been able to hold down food or water for hours and was now too weak to carry a backpack, much less traverse the rocky terrain down to the ranger station. Since the symptoms first appeared two days earlier, Conor and Jim had told themselves that it was just the flu or altitude sickness, nothing Conor couldn't handle as long as he gave himself the proper amount of insulin. But Jim didn't even know whether Conor was operating his insulin pump correctly anymore.

Jim wanted nothing more than to take control, to right the situation. Once a prominent political figure known for limitless energy, the one role Jim Lighthizer wasn't made for was that of bystander. But that's what he was reduced to now, a bystander forced to look on as his son's skin grew more pallid, his thoughts more confused.

In the morning, Jim knelt outside the tent and prayed. That's all he could do: pray and think to himself, This can't be happening again.

An absent father

He was a young father - then a very busy one.

Orville James Lighthizer lost his father at age 19 and became a father himself a year later when his wife, Virginia, gave birth to James Jr. in 1966. Two more kids followed, Robert and Patrice. Theirs was a full house in Crofton but not, it turned out, a happy one. The marriage ended, and the family literally split up.

Patrice went with her mother to Massachusetts; the boys stayed with Jim. By day, he sold IBM Selectric typewriters and at night attended law school at Georgetown. In between all that, he managed to wedge in his parenting. The three weren't alone for long. In 1976, Jim married again, a 25-year-old schoolteacher named Gloria Voets, and they added to the family. Conor arrived in 1978 and, a year later, Meghan.

Jim was practicing law in Annapolis by then, but had an itch for public office. He won a House of Delegates seat in 1978, and after just one term set his sights on the position of Anne Arundel County executive. He won that election, too. In his two terms as county executive, he was a swaggering, skillful executive who managed an $800 million county budget. He spent money - lots of money - on public projects and had a particular weakness for parks. The capstone of his public achievement was Quiet Waters Park - a stunning, $19 million, 336-acre complex along the South River.

The media-friendly Lighthizer relished public service, but the work left him little time to help raise his children. "Politics," he'd say, reaching for a cliche, "is a jealous mistress." This mistress routinely demanded 80-hour work weeks - weekends included. Jim delivered more than 300 speeches a year and served on countless committees, which meant countless meetings. He missed many dinners and bedtimes, but Jim made a point of coming to his kids' basketball, football and lacrosse games.

The other activity Jim made time for was camping and hunting trips with the boys (these were all-male affairs), who all inherited their father's love for the outdoors. One inviolable ritual was hunting geese in Queen Anne's County the day after Thanksgiving every year. In family photo albums, the Lighthizer males pose in camouflage hunting jackets and hip boots, shotguns at their side, dead Canada geese at their feet. So many early mornings in duck blinds. Not talking if you felt like it. Chili dinners. Then, sleeping like exhausted children.

With his reddish hair and fair complexion, Bobby - Jim's second child - resembled his father the most. Worried him the most, too. By eighth grade, Bobby seemed to be losing his way, and his father couldn't put his finger on what was wrong. He began to say a special prayer for Bobby every Sunday.

At Arundel High School, Robert Francis Lighthizer - named for Robert Francis Kennedy - was an all-county lacrosse midfielder and team co-captain. At 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds, he was a handsome, strong kid, a natural leader, his coaches thought - as did his father. But he was not a student. With his grades, Bobby barely made it out of high school. College wasn't a realistic option, although he made a couple of stabs at community college.

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