I work at a newspaper, but I am not a writer. I work on the other side of the wall that separates journalism, the fourth estate, from sales and marketing - the oldest profession in the world.
Luckily for me, Dennis Freeland and I got to know each other as we talked, leaning on our respective sides of respective sides of that wall like two neighbors leaning on a fence. Dennis was always (almost always) calm and clear minded about the business of journalism and the relationship between our two worlds.
He never classified or ranked people or roles within our company - every person was essential to the effective job of getting that edition out the door and onto the street.
Dennis saw the potential in people. That is why he was a great editor. He worked with a team of mostly young writers and helped each of them find their voice and excel. He saw something in me and nominated me to be on the board of the National Conference for Community and Justice.
The nomination meant a lot to me, partly because of the pride of knowing he Respected me enough to do it, partly because of my desire to get involved in something so important, and partly because it brought me in touch with a piece of my history.
You see, my father, who is now 93 years old, was on this board back when it was called the National Conference for Christians and Jews. Accepting the nomination, I felt a true sense of generational permanence in this ephemeral world.
One day, at a board meeting, we were all arguing about our annual humanitarian awards. In the past one outstanding individual from the Jewish community and one from the Catholic community were chosen each year for this honor.
As times have changed as well as the name and mission of the organization, the number of honorees has expanded to assure the inclusion of someone from the African-American community and from the Protestant faiths.
On this particular occasion, we were debating the addition of a fifth category called "other" to accommodate Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Jains, Hindus and Muslims (all of whom are represented on our board).
The absurdity of the debate was not lost on Dennis. Here we are an organization devoted to fighting prejudice and bigotry in all its forms and we were advocating a complicated system of categorizing people by their faiths or the color of their skin.
I could see the steam coming out of Dennis' ears as he finally could take no more and raised his hand to be recognized in debate.
"What are we doing here," he asked in a tone that made us all stop and think a moment on our pettiness? "What if this outstanding humanitarian happens to be an atheist? Are we going to have a category for that?"
No one wasready for the "A" word. Dennis had opened our eyes and ears to the contradictory nature of our venture. He had gone beyond the little world of, with good intentions, trying to please every faith represented in the room, to the grander ideal of humanitarianism.
Dennis was a humanitarian and he acted on his convictions. He married someone of a different faith and cultural identity from his. He was raising his daughter to be inquisitive, not judgmental.
He devoted a tremendous amount of his free time to the Anytown summer camp where young people learn to celebrate differences, to cultivate tolerance and to just say no to bigotry, prejudice, and racism in all its forms.
Part of his legacy will be the hundreds of lives he has touched through that program. We say at NCCJ that we should do little things everyday to uphold our beliefs. We should not laugh at racist or sexist jokes. We should condemn prejudicial practices in our work place. We should strive to do small but significant gestures towards anyone who is different from us.
Dennis did these things. He inspired others to do the same. I, for one, will renew my own commitment to the humanitarian ideals he embodied. That is his legacy in my life. I don't want to let him down.(Malcolm Aste is director of marketing at Contemporary Media, Inc., publishers of the Flyer.)