The Lawyer and the Cosmonaut

Bruce Wolff (’81), 2015 recipient of the Charles W. Anderson award, writes about an eye-opening series of conversations with a Manhattan lawyer.

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This guest submission was written by Bruce Wolff (’81), 2015 recipient of the Charles Anderson Award.

It was 1979 in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. at The King’s College. I was a history major amid a course in American History with a new professor, Dr. Carlson. We were studying FDR and The New Deal.

I needed a job, so I visited the student job board often. I spotted a new ad that read, “Driver needed. Pick up family member in Manhattan Friday PM, return to Manhattan Sunday PM. Car provided. Earn $20 per round trip.” I grabbed it. I could make forty dollars per weekend for two hours of driving. The ad was placed by James L. Goldwater, a local attorney. Such a deal!

His father, now in his nineties, was Monroe Goldwater and lived in midtown Manhattan. He voluntarily gave up his driver’s license as his vision was dimming, and wanted a driver to take him to his son’s house on weekends. On my first trip down to Manhattan to pick him up at his 5th Ave. apartment, the bellman escorted me on a private elevator up to the top floor. When the door opened to his penthouse, there was a white piano in the foyer, a sea of white carpet – “there are no kids living here,” I thought – and stunning views of the New York City night skyline through huge windows on several sides of the expansive suite. On a table beside the piano was a black and white autographed portrait of President Roosevelt, which read, “To my friend, Monroe. Thanks for all you do, Franklin.”

Who is this guy? I wondered. I soon learned from Mr. Goldwater that he had been legal advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt! He was also Chief Counsel to the New York Democratic State Committee 1957-1973, and was a delegate to every Democratic National Convention since 1924. He was born in 1885, only twenty years after the Civil War ended! He was senior partner in the law firm he founded, Goldwater & Flynn, and his junior law partner, Edward J. Flynn, was Secretary of State for New York from 1929 to 1939, and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1940 to 1943. I found out later that although Flynn was a close associate of FDR for many years, he refused Roosevelt’s repeated offers of jobs in the Roosevelt administration. What a political and historical powerhouse he was.

Now he was my captive audience in the back seat of his son’s brand new Chevy Caprice, and I got to spend an hour on Friday evenings and an hour on Sunday evenings driving him from Manhattan and back every weekend. I suddenly had access to a living history textbook on FDR and the New Deal. I wondered if I was somehow cheating by listening to his stories, as every Monday meant another quiz in Dr. Carlson’s class.

NYC rush hour traffic was always an issue on Fridays, and I used to ask him his preference on the route through the Bronx, either the Saw Mill River Parkway or the Sprain Brook. He said, “I’m 94 years old. If you get me there ten minutes sooner, what I am I going to do with it?” That advice still informs my route selections around NYC to this day.

We talked about history and politics. We talked about our families. His transparency was remarkable. I told him my story of growing up as a missionary kid in England and Nigeria and how my family moved so many times. One Sunday night as we drove to the city, the conversation made a turn toward his non-religious Jewish upbringing, his atheism, and my faith in Christ since age seven. He said something that night that I will never forget. He recounted the many criminals he had interacted with over many years of law practice and how there was a handful that stuck out in his mind. He said they went to prison, and “found God” while they were there. He saw a real change in them, that something in them was different. But then he said, “They needed God, but what do I need God for?”

His wealthy family had never been in need; they weathered the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression while living in a mansion with servants waiting on them. They had power, esteem and money, things that the world system worships. In his existential frame of reference, God was not a living person, the actual Creator and Sustainer of life we know by faith from Scripture, but just an idea that some people need to get by in life and some don’t. Apparently, to Mr. Goldwater, the only god he could see was a human construct, man-made religion, and he didn’t need it. This god was only a crutch for the weak and the poor, not the strong and the wealthy like him.

In Matthew 19:23-24 we read, “And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Mr. Goldwater’s law practice on West 62nd Street in New York City is now gone. In fact, only about a year after I stopped driving him he died at the age of 95.

Back in 1961, a story was circulated that after Yuri Gagarin flew the first manned space flight, he said, “I looked and looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” A joke soon followed after. “Tell him to step outside that capsule and he’ll see God.” While the story was later disputed, the point is timeless. By God’s infinite design, on this side of eternity He can be seen by faith as He has revealed Himself in the Bible. He shows Himself in answered prayer, also by faith. There’s a popular saying, “Seeing is believing.” In Christ, believing is seeing.

In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” One day, we must all stand before him on a day of reckoning for our lives. I thank God for meeting Mr. Goldwater, although I have strong doubts that he ever came to faith in Christ based on his own account at the age of 94. He helped congeal my faith, as I got a personal illustration of Jesus’ words in Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”

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