When Walter Dellinger – a legal scholar who also practiced law at the highest levels of the public and private sectors – died last month, he was called a “lion of the law” (and what a friendly lion he was) and, in a beautiful remembrance by Garrett Epps, compared to jazz genius Charlie Parker.
One more analogy comes to my mind: magician. Seeing Walter as Houdini may explain why his death, even at 80, hit so many so hard. He performed feats of the mind (without guile or artifice; it was just who he was), up until his dying day. Before then, the thoughts and ideas he pulled out rapid-fire and rabbit-like appeared year after year and, never diminishing in either quality or quantity, they began to feel never-ending.
Last month, the show stopped, and he vanished. There was no in between. One minute he was thinking, as always, about seemingly everything and (thanks to twitter, op-eds and on air appearances, zoom, email and even the phone) he seemed everywhere. Then nothing, and he was gone. Now you see me, now you don’t. Magic, and with the absence of suffering we all hope for, but also tragic for those he left behind.
He surely anticipated he would be missed and his passing noted. Yet for all his clairvoyance, he must have failed to foresee fully the outpouring of admiration and appreciation his death would prompt. So many wrote so beautifully about him that it is intimidating to say something more. But as with others, including my brother Drew, Walter gave me the priceless gift of a decades long conversation. I want to share a few takeaways. I can pinpoint the confab’s beginning (for me): I was around five years old throwing a baseball with him. Throw, “thwack,” talk, talk, talk (with the not-so-occasional throw, miss, retrieve, talk, talk, talk.) The chat would last 50 years. It never grew old even as we did.
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These are some things I learned about and from Walter Dellinger during the past half century.
The otherness he felt as a Southern Catholic growing up in a region dominated by other religions was real. Real too were financial challenges overcome as he journeyed from early years lived just above poverty to the heights of the legal profession. Emily Langer captured this arc in a single sentence: “The son of a widowed store clerk, Mr. Dellinger grew up in modest circumstances in North Carolina, far from the courthouses and judicial chambers, law schools and law offices where he became a revered figure by the end of his career.” Her obituary, and many others, also noted his efforts to combat discrimination including that based on race, gender, and sexual orientation.
I always thought there was a deep connection between the social and economic mobility he was allowed to pursue and his efforts to increase tolerance and opportunities for others. He faced obstacles in the 1950s and 60s but nothing like the glass ceilings and dead ends imposed on women such as his mother, his Black co-workers on construction sites, friends of different sexual orientations or with an apparent disability. Frustrated by the greater barriers others encountered, he tried to lessen them while calling out the bigotry and neglect behind them. He wanted for all the meaningful shot he was given and didn’t miss.
Walter never forgot that his professional ascent was catalyzed by the leveling and door-opening effects of quality public schools. He cheered the effort of his fellow lawyer and dear friend Bob Spearman to enhance funding for low-wealth school districts across North Carolina so that more schools had the resources of his acclaimed high school, Myers Park in Charlotte. And he cherished his college years at UNC Chapel Hill. His belief in the brilliance of Carolina students and faculty never wavered even as he grew increasingly aghast as conservative state legislators showed capable school administrators the door and welcomed a toppled Confederate monument back to campus.
Beyond formal schooling, he talked often of how much he learned from mentors and colleagues such as Yale Law School’s Charles Black; John Hope Franklin of Duke and UNC’s William Luechtenberg; Wade McCree, Jamie Gorelick, Dawn Johnsen, and Teresa Roseborough in the Justice Department; and countless more. In his mind, he was always a student as well as a teacher. And he said and showed time and again that his greatest legal learning debt was to his wife, Anne Maxwell Dellinger.
Anne spent her legal career assisting public officials across North Carolina. Her work began in the 1970s, and I believe it inspired Walter’s interest in public service as well as my own. Her moral compass reinforced every “do gooder” instinct Walter had. And her gift with words, while different than Walter’s, was an indispensable guide as he honed his advocacy skills. Before the onset of aphasia, Anne spoke effortlessly, often in paragraphs, and with a precision surpassed only when she put her thoughts into writing. Her longstanding concern for women’s rights and reproductive rights no doubt encouraged his yeoman’s work to protect Roe v. Wade.
Apart from school, friends, and Anne, the other explanation I have for Walter’s beautiful mind was his obsession with reading. Anything by Abraham Lincoln and James Baldwin was revered by him; more recently, Charles Frazier and Frances Mayes were favorites. He was a joyous autodidact, but he put in the work. He traveled and enjoyed changes of scenery, yet I don’t think he ever really took time off. In recent years, he worked mightily to complete a manuscript so that a book he authored could be placed on his packed bookshelves. The completed chapters are gorgeous as the many friends he recited passages to can attest. The readings were so many they may have slowed his progress, but I’ve never met anyone more energized by interaction with others. He would never have traded more completed pages for fewer interstitial sharings.
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Tributes naturally turn toward successes. And Walter played a pivotal role in many wins in the political and legal arenas. But I think it was the times he accepted loss that have made the deepest impression on me and that explain his supreme disquiet at recent events or, as he put it, “no more ‘Jolly Wally.'”
On politics, the wellspring for his financial and policy support for so many candidates may have been his appreciation for others’ willingness to seek public office while he demurred despite much encouragement. (The closest I saw him come to running was when he spent a weekend listening to me explain why he should take on Jesse Helms in 1990; a Dellinger-Helms debate would have been amazing.) But while he reveled in Presidential wins by Clinton, Obama, and Biden, he saw many candidates he favored go down to defeat during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
These losses came after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which, finally, allowed Black Americans to meaningfully participate in the nation’s governance. Distressing race-baiting continued (Walter was infuriated by the “Willie Horton” and “white hands” ads). And there was an element of pre-computer generated gerrymandering that kept certain districts uncompetitive although without the precision and certainty available today. But I never saw him question the basic underlying legitimacy of electoral outcomes. In a paraphrase of President Biden’s poignant January 6th anniversary speech, Walter still very much loved his country even when his side did not win.
His faith was later deeply tested by two Supreme Court forays into the “political thicket”: Bush v. Gore in 2000 and Shelby County in 2013. I think the rulings so unnerved him because one institution he was devoted to, the Supreme Court, shook the foundations of America’s democratic tradition which he held equally dear.
The most agitated I ever saw Walter was during the 2020 election and its aftermath. His fear was of a toxic combination: judicial acquiescence to Trumpian skulduggery. As Walter thankfully lived to see, the very worst did not come to pass in a consummated coup. But the hair’s breadth escape only compounded his concern for America’s future. In recent months, he had turned his attention to the next Presidential election and how to ensure that the voters’ will could be expressed (through accessible voting) without suppression and then fairly counted. When I (gently) suggested that others could be relied on to take the lead, he acknowledged as much but did not step back. Now the indispensable work of protecting American democracy will be left fully to others.
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It is easy to see Walter Dellinger as an inspiration and role model. And, along with my mother Anne, he will always be both to me. But he was very much a person, one with flaws, or at least foibles, just like the rest of us. His Southern lilt often featured expletives (for a time, my brother and I felt like rich kids as mom insisted dad give us each a quarter every time he cursed in our presence). His ability to misplace items was semi-legendary leading to the self-description of being a “’Where’s that file’ kind of guy.” And there were professional gaps including not serving on the Supreme Court nor seeing his autobiography published.
But I always felt like he was exactly who he wanted to be and who he was meant to be. And, more importantly, I think Walter felt that way as well. He so enjoyed life that almost any setback — apart from Anne’s health challenges and the darkening concerns noted above about democracy and the courts — seemed transient and surmountable in his view.
Beyond his loves of family, friends, and the law there were many passions. He was so taken with television, the movies, and music that it felt like his true calling may have been as an arts and culture critic rather than legal scholar. But probably above all pastimes was sports fandom. A (very) modest athlete, Walter was an all-time great when it came to watching and commenting on a game, any game.
I last heard from him just a few hours before he died. A few minutes before, I had sent him a recent video interview featuring Charlie Scott, who was UNC’s first Black player when he joined the team in 1967. Scott was a barrier breaker and a game changer, maybe Carolina’s most beautifully fluid player ever other than Michael Jordan. Walter idolized him.
Having watched Scott speak, Walter emailed me with his characteristic enthusiasm: “This is great!” He then recalled in a long paragraph a game from more than fifty years ago that he watched Scott win with a last second bucket. The shot swished through as the buzzer sounded. “Nothing but net,” Walter wrote.
As a three-word epitaph encapsulating the way he lived, the way he loved and supported family and friends, what he accomplished, what he inspired and what he may yet inspire, I’ll think of that phrase in connection with my dad for the rest of my days.
Walter Dellinger. Nothing but net.
Hampton Dellinger is a Durham lawyer who now heads the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice. Click here to see the online memorial service celebrating the lives of Walter and Anne Dellinger.