When you’re dead, you never call and you never write. I should have noticed a few weeks back when Walter Backstrom stopped ringing me up to pitch an idea for a new column.
I found out in a roundabout way last week that he died April 22 in a homeless shelter, reportedly of a heart attack. People who follow our Monday guest columnists may recall that he was one of our regulars in 2009. He had an unusual perspective as a black, Christian conservative; his pieces were weighty, eloquent and moving.
Walter addressed the broadest of themes: morality, education, youth, civil rights, growing up black, illustrating them with personal experiences and observations. He brooded on the state of humanity, the nation, the schools, the family – all the big stuff.
The homeless shelter is the part that bothers me.
I had many conversations with Walter and always came away with a disquieting feeling that he was living on the edge, not really making a go of it. Like many black men who’d grown up in the mid-20th century (he was 60 when he died), he guarded his dignity and stoically accepted the fact that there can be more downs than ups in life. Walter never complained of his own circumstances, at least to me.
Then, last January, he called to tell me he was homeless; I was shocked. He thought it would only be for a week or two. He wanted to write about the experience. Here’s the piece we published.
A few weeks later, he called to talk about a sequel. He was still in the shelter, and I had sinking feeling that things had gone seriously awry. The column never materialized. Nothing against homeless shelters, but no one should ever have to die in one.
Walter’s ambition was to become a professional writer. He didn’t quite get there, but being a writer is far less important than being a good and caring man. He nailed that one a long, long time ago.