A friend of mine has passed away. Don Wortman was 92 and had been in failing health these past couple of years, and it was pneumonia that hospitalized him this final time. The coronavirus spared him, although it kept his wife and sons away from his bedside when his heart gave out. And he had such a big heart.
I last spoke with Don more than two years ago, but his voice — brimming with life, bubbling with energy — resonates still in my head. It was a brief telephone conversation prompted by a birthday card, one of many that Don Wortman and his wife Dot have sent me for 30 years or more. With Mom and Dad gone many years now, the Wortmans became part of a shrinking pool of surrogates.
Don and Dot. The names connect so beautifully for these two, introduced when they were babies, so goes the story, which would have been about 92 years ago. They came into my family universe via Macalester College. That was about 70 years ago. 92 years. Crazy numbers.
Two other numbers connect me to Don. The first was a 2. The other was 9/11.
It was the mid-80s. I had finally completed my undergraduate studies, a process that took a decade while I accumulated credits in five different universities, beginning with the University of Madrid and ending with Hunter College, City University of New York. With my BA finally in hand, I was contemplating graduate school at Baruch College, where they offered two management degrees: one for business (the ubiquitous MBA) and the other for government (the Lesser-known MPA, masters in public administration). Don was a stellar government professional, as you can see on Wikipedia. His eldest son Kirk wrote on Facebook recently:
Dad was the epitome of a public servant, and his leadership of various federal government programs and agencies ultimately improved the lives of millions of people throughout the U.S.Kirk Wortman
Whichever path I chose would determine my career. I called Don for advice. His passion for government helped me opt for the Public Administration degree, and that degree qualified me for what turned out to be a very satisfying career in New York State government, with the option for a comfortable retirement. Don’s continued interested in my work was a source of comfort, and I’ll always be grateful.
A scant two weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the fall of 2000, the organizers of my husband’s annual international business conference determined that they would go ahead with the event as scheduled in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The question was whether our daughter and I would join my husband this year, as we had always done. We decided to go. One big reason was that Don and Dot Wortman had retired to Albuquerque.
The Albany airport was nearly empty that morning. Temporary security booths were still being assembled. There was no TSA. There were no lines. The plane that took us across the country was only a third full.
Before Ray was pulled into conference activities, Don spent an entire day with us, sharing his knowledge and love of the unique landscape and history of New Mexico. He took us up the Sandia Peak Tramway, an awesome ride up to a serious elevation on the aspen-strewn slopes. He made a big fuss over Victoria, whose 8th birthday it was, and really connected with Ray. We ended the day with Don and Dot at their beautiful adobe home, gazing upon the scenic Sandia Mountains.
Just that one day cemented the Wortmans’ relationships with Victoria and Ray. They are sad with me that Don is gone, but they are so glad that they got to know him. Me, too.
I will let Kirk Wortman end this post with these lovely words that he wrote about his father:
Don’s life was a blessing and a joy to all who had the good fortune to know him. His big heart, big smile, good humor, and positive, loving spirit enriched all our lives. And, remarkably, these qualities never faded, even as his health declined over the last 2 years. Even in our last conversations with him yesterday – when he was clearly in great distress – his wonderful spirit and goodness of heart shone through.
As you all know, Don loved people, all people. He thrived on human interaction. People energized him. And he saw the good in everyone. He truly loved without judgment. Don cherished all of you. He cherished every single one of his family and friends. All of you were his “reason for being.” We thank you all for being a part of his life, for making his life rich, full, and fulfilling.Kirk Wortman
We are so lucky to be among those whose lives were blessed by Don Wortman. Although tradition would have me wish him a peaceful rest, I prefer to think that he’s busy seeing how he can help with the administration of Heaven, telling corny jokes to the other angels, and getting on splendidly with every soul he meets.