Paul Wharton passed away last night.
He was not my uncle. He was my friend. And he would have been the first to say it. Like many of his generation, casual genealogy entered every encounter. Paul would say something to the effect that “Ben is my great niece Erin’s husband and Patsy’s son-in-law, but we are not related.” Because of that, I never called him Uncle Paul because W. Paul Wharton was my friend.
He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, June 9, 1936, first name Walter. I asked him why he changed his name to Paul. Was it like Saul on the road to Damascus becoming Paul? He said no. It was because when he joined the Army in 1958 he didn’t want the drill sergeants calling him Wally. It never occurred to him that they might call him Pauly. He had four siblings—two brothers Lenny and Ralph, and two sisters, Elsa and Sheila. The love of his life, Ethel Hale (wife), proceeded him in death. He’s survived by Lenny, Ralph, Elsa, a stepson, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He attended Harvard but did not graduate. I never found out why he left before getting his degree. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with his intellect. Paul was fiercely intelligent with a rapier wit and surgical ability to dissect any argument. He was proud that he could argue any side of an argument. This ability served him well later in life. His smarts were the equivalent of a lump of coal compressed into a diamond. Brilliant, glowing and exceptionally beautiful.
The only thing that matched Paul’s smarts was his tenacity. He’s probably the last person to attend and graduate from the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law without a bachelor’s degree. He was literally driving a taxi in Salt Lake City and decided that he could better serve society as an attorney. He approached the dean of the school and made a deal only Paul could have ever done: if he passes his first year of law school they’d admit him. He crushed it, serving as the editor of Journal of Contemporary Law. After passing the bar, he became a staff attorney for Utah Legal Services. Defending and advocating for the rights of seniors, Paul served people faithfully and to the best of his ability.
I met Paul a dozen years ago. Prior to visiting his home, I was warned by Erin that Paul and Ethel were exceptionally bright, powerfully liberal and did not tolerate fools. I think she undersold this once-in-a-lifetime couple. Entering Singing Water, their home named after the sound of a melodic tea kettle, was like taking council at Ecclesia in Athens. Politics was the order of the day as a heated discussion about this-and-that raged over the famous red table and chair in a beautifully well-lit kitchen. Coffee was served in brightly colored mugs, taken black—Paul liked coffee only mixed with coffee. Newspaper and periodicals were being passed around and you couldn’t miss the number of index cards covered in quotes and thoughts lining the room. NPR played in the background. I immediately knew that I liked this people. These were my kind of folks.
Paul didn’t talk—he roared. His voice had tinges of the East Coast mixed with a rich baritone and a vocabulary unmatched. At the tip of his tongue were countless scientific nomenclature of every sort of plant, legal phrases belted out in Latin and a counterpunch to any argument. Taking coffee with Paul and Ethel was like a post-graduate degree in rhetoric and debate. I lost more arguments than I won but small victories can be found in losing efforts if you could get Paul to laugh. He had this wonderful smile that started in his shoulders and ended in his shining eyes.
I loved getting the old man to laugh. I think this is what I’m going to miss the most about Paul.
The grounds of Singing Water could be described as a working urban farm. Paul and Ethel took immeasurable pride in tending to the various fruit trees, rows of vegetables and shrubs. Paul could name each and every living plant on the grounds. Just outside the kitchen door were numerous bird feeders and a natural artesian well. They loved the birds. They loved working the garden. They loved being together.
Ethel passed April 2016. To help with her backyard funeral, I would go over to Paul’s house to help tidy up the backyard in preparation to bury her ashes under a tree. This is when we got close. I learned about every tree on the property and how to tend to his well water. He would bark my weed-whacking was too violent and I needed to mind this-or-that plant. Weaker men would be broken after a tongue lashing from Paul, but it was like water off a duck’s back with me. I think this is what he liked about me. I was tough enough to take it, but more importantly, we both wanted everything to be perfect.
Paul took a fall last Thanksgiving and it was the last time he was at Singing Waters. Talking with him at the University of Utah Hospital I asked him what kind of tree he would like to have planted above his remains. He said the one he wants wouldn’t survive in Utah. Paul always liked European Ash. His second choice was perfect. He wanted a Malus sylvestris, commonly known as a crabapple, above him.
Paul was born Jewish but didn’t practice later in life. He and Ethel were atheists, but I like the idea that they’re back together. He’d probably think this was silly but that was Paul in a nutshell, analytical and very pragmatic. I don’t know what I am but I thought of Psalm when Erin told me Paul had finally succumbed. Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” I think Paul would be pleased that some nugget of a book came quickly to mind. As an attorney, he always appreciated citation.
I grew extremely close with Paul over the last five years. And now he’s gone. There’s not going to be any more black, black coffee over the stop sign, grammatical corrections or simple chats about the importance of tort law. No more trips to Ace Hardware to purchase a single 3/4-inch 90-degree PVC couplings or arguments about the preferred jar of pickles. He’s done editing Ethel’s work on their website, Smashing Ikons. We’re not going to talk about the importance of protein for vegetarians, the merits of nonviolent protest or why a peach on the branch warmed by the Sun tastes just like fresh baked pie. He was a singular person who helped shape and define my character. Someone who made an undefinable mark upon my life, and now, has left a small hole in my heart.
Paul wasn’t my uncle. W. Paul Wharton was my friend and I am going to miss the Hell out of him.