This past July 22 began like any other Sunday for Father Jim Sunderland. He woke at seven o'clock and said his prayers while sitting in his big green easy chair. Help me help others today. Amen!
He kissed the silver crucifix he'd been given when he took his vows 53 years earlier, laid it on his pillow, then left his room at the Xavier Jesuit Center. He walked down the hallway past icons of saints and paintings of Colorado wildlife until he came to the dining room.
Normally blessed with a healthy appetite for a 76-year-old man, he didn't feel very hungry this morning. So he had a cup of coffee -- strong black coffee, no sugar or cream -- and then went back to his room.
Through the window that overlooked the gardens tended by fellow priests and the lawns of Regis University just beyond, he could see that it was a lovely day. He sat at the large wooden desk from which he'd launched a thousand letters and thought he might do some reading. He loved to read, as evidenced by the books that lined the shelf above his desk, including The Death Penalty: A Historical and Theological Survey, by James Megivern; A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan's book about Vietnam; Christ in Prison, by George Anderson, the former jail chaplain at New York's Rikers Island prison. And he loved to write: The twin file cabinets were stuffed with a lifetime of clipped articles, academic papers and correspondence -- much of it concerning the quest for his own holy grail, the abolition of the death penalty.
He looked around his room. A few photographs of friends and family members stood on the shelf above his desk, along with awards he'd received for his own work on social-justice issues. The walls were bare now that he'd given away the framed drawings by Fritz Eichenberg depicting the life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement of the 1930s and, as far as Sunderland was concerned, a saint for her work with the poor and exploited. His eyes came to rest on his appointment book, which lay on top of the desk. He picked it up.
I don't need this, he thought, and tossed it in the wastebasket.
A shoebox on the desk contained a dozen letters he needed to answer. Most were from inmates, including Ron White, the serial killer whose death-row conviction was being reconsidered. I don't need these, either. The shoebox went into the wastebasket. So did his checkbook. I don't need that.
After he'd cleared off the top of the desk, he began going through its drawers, throwing papers away after little more than a glance. I don't need this. Out went the directories and newsletters from the Regis High Class of '42. I don't need that.
When the wastebasket was full, he picked it up, left the room, took the elevator to the bottom floor, and went outside to the dumpster. He emptied the wastebasket and returned to his room.
Soon the desk drawers were empty. He walked over to the file cabinets and opened a drawer, taking out a file folder and its contents. I don't need this, or this, or this. Everything went into the trash. When the wastebasket was full, he took another trip to the dumpster.
Since it was Sunday, there weren't many priests at Xavier, a retirement home for the Society of Jesus; most were attending or assisting at parish churches. The few he passed in the hallway were in poor health and paid no attention to his odd activity.
Finally, one noticed that Sunderland wasn't his usual affable, smiling self. He looked preoccupied, deep in thought. "Jim, you okay?" the priest asked.
"Yeah," he answered, without stopping, "I'm fine." He didn't know why he was doing what he was doing, but he felt okay. I may be losing my mind.
Two hours later, after maybe a dozen trips to the dumpster, the filing cabinets were empty, except for his power-of-attorney paperwork, baptism record and a few family documents.
Gone were the newspaper articles and pamphlets from those Sundays in the 1980s when he and others protested outside the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons plant.
Gone were the treatises, great and small, debating the death penalty, racism, the exploitation of the poor. Gone was his correspondence with such leaders in the fight against capital punishment as Sister Mary Prejean, a friend who'd written Dead Man Walking.
Gone were the homilies he'd collected over the years to hand out on special occasions or to use in his own services, including the wedding homily: "Let your love for others expand your horizons, touch you to the troubled, befriend the less fortunate, bring the compassionate Christ to the crippled in flesh and spirit..." He'd tried to live by that philosophy himself.
Gone were the letters of thanks from the inmates he'd counseled, the families he'd consoled, the students he'd taught, the defense lawyers who'd admired his principles. Gone were the Christmas cards from Colorado killers like Frank and Chris Rodriguez, Gary Davis, Robert Harlan and Nathan Dunlap.
Gone were the copies of his letters to Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, as well as the letters that Nichols had written back. Gone was the benediction that White had sent him from death row, which Sunderland had read at the fiftieth anniversary of his joining the Jesuits: "I'll say a rosary for you and the other priests..."
Gone. All gone. None of it mattered now.
He turned to one last box, filled with old photographs and letters, most of them from his youth. He picked up a photograph, his mother's favorite, which showed him as a G.I. on the day in May 1945 that the war in Europe ended. He reached for another, which caught him carrying a bucket across the tarmac while wearing an Army Air Corps flight jacket. He came across one of his own favorites, taken right after he left West Point to become a priest, posing with his little sister, Patty, then a seventh-grader at St. Mary's Academy, and younger brother, Bob, a senior at Regis High.
And there were other pictures that tugged at his heart, all showing pretty Sheila Curry, his girlfriend before he'd chosen a different kind of love.
He planned to throw out this box and its contents, too, but first started calling some of the people shown in those photographs, as well as other family members and friends. He didn't contact Sheila, just as he hadn't called her when he'd left her 55 years earlier. But he knew she'd understand, as she had back then.
Most of his calls were answered by machines, and he left messages that were variations on the same theme. Thank you for being in my life. Thank you for your love. Thank you for your friendship...I probably won't be talking to you again. I think I'm losing my mind. Goodbye.
After the calls were made, he sat down again in his easy chair. He felt tired, physically and mentally spent, as though he'd been swimming through tar. Well, that's it, he thought, and closed his eyes to wait for whatever came next.
Get that Jap.
Jim Sunderland, a senior tight end on the Regis High football team, couldn't believe what he was hearing. Regis was vying for the parochial school's state championship against a team from Walsenburg. They'd expected the Walsenburg players, many of them sons of miners, to be tough, and for their fans to be vocal antagonists. But they were unprepared for the chants of "Get that Jap" that were directed at Regis's star running back, Leonard "Buddy" Uchida.
Six days earlier, on the first Sunday of December 1941, the naval forces of Imperial Japan had bombed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. He knew emotions were running hot, but "Sundy," as he was called by his friends, was still outraged that his friend was being singled out because of his race.
Jim was a few weeks shy of his seventeenth birthday, which fell on Christmas Day. He'd come into this world at Denver's Mercy Hospital, the middle of five children born to James and Anna Sunderland, and was raised in south Denver just a couple of blocks from the Denver Country Club.
Theirs was a typical Irish-Catholic family. Both sets of grandparents had migrated from the old country to escape famine and poverty. The Sunderlands weren't rich, but they weathered the Depression reasonably well. There was always enough to eat and enough to serve the parish priest something special at Sunday dinner. James Sunderland ran a small coffee company out of the garage, and the family joked that each kid had his first cup of coffee immediately following his baptism, which was only a slight exaggeration.
Neither James nor Anna had had any formal education beyond the sixth grade, but their home was filled with books, and their love of learning was transferred to their children. It was understood that the Sunderland kids would go to college -- no ifs, ands or buts.
First, of course, they attended Catholic schools: Regis High School for the three boys, St. Mary's Academy for the two girls. It was an expensive proposition, but it helped that James Sunderland furnished coffee for the large community of Jesuit priests who lived and taught at Regis, as well as for Catholic hospitals and orphanages. That kindness earned the eldest son, Joe, free tuition through high school.
Jim wasn't as lucky: He was expected to pay his Regis tuition, which at $100 a year was four times as much as that of any other Catholic school in the city. When Jim complained that some of his friends got an allowance, his father replied, "Your room and board is your allowance."
So in the winter, Jim bagged groceries at Safeway for $2.50 a day. In the summer, he caddied at the Denver Country Club, where he was disgusted to learn that the wealthy were the cheapest tippers in town, griping about having to shell out just 65 cents a round. Meanwhile, the duffers at the public course paid a buck.
His favorite job was selling peanuts and pop during baseball games at Merchants Park. He loved baseball and, like most kids of that era, could cite every major-leaguer's batting average. But his favorite player of all wasn't allowed in Major League Baseball. Satchel Paige was colored, and only whites played in the majors. Still, Jim got to witness Paige's prowess on several occasions when he came to town to pitch for his Negro League team. On one particularly memorable afternoon, he watched Paige pitch an entire doubleheader, winning both games.
It didn't seem fair that Paige wasn't able to take on guys like Babe Ruth, but that was how things were. So Jim didn't really understand why his father got so mad over a sign he'd spotted in a restaurant window in Brighton, then a farming town. "No dogs or Mexicans," the sign read. "Who do they think would pick all that produce up there if it weren't for the Mexicans?" his father had said.
Jim thought it was just the way of the world -- sort of like his parents making it clear that the kids were to marry their "own kind," Irish Catholic. Neighborhood friends -- Catholics with last names like Bernardino and Rodriguez -- who were welcome to raid the Sunderland icebox after school knew better than to ask Jim's sister Dorothy for a date.
The Sunderlands were involved in local politics, and they impressed upon their brood that being an Irish Catholic Democrat was second in importance only to being a member of the one true church. But the politics of the Catholic church were never discussed. Not at home, not at school, not in church. No one talked about abortion. No one argued about the death penalty or complained when the New Jersey State government executed Bruno Richard Hauptman in 1936 for the kidnapping and murder of "the Lindbergh baby."
When he entered high school, Jim was already 6' 2"-- but it was his personality that stood out. He was always happy, smiling, cheerful. He loved Regis, the friends he made there and the gentle Jesuit priests who taught the classes. Once the Germans invaded Poland in 1938, Father Hugo Gerleman, his Greek teacher, devoted half of every class to discussing world affairs. The students knew all about the collapse of France and the Battle of Britain; by the start of Jim's senior year, General Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Corps were overrunning Africa. Still, the world seemed pretty far away. Jim stayed busy editing the school newspaper and playing football.
On December 7, 1941, an unseasonably warm day in Denver, Regis was playing St. Joseph's High at home for the Denver Parochial League Championship. Undefeated all year, they were ahead at halftime, thanks largely to Buddy Uchida, the son of a Japanese-American father and a mother of Greek ancestry. During a break in the action, the announcer came on the public-address system and informed the spectators and players that Pearl Harbor had just been bombed.
The boys on the field didn't know what to make of the announcement. They turned their attention back to the game and at the end, their perfect record was still intact. They celebrated the win -- only one more to go for the state championship -- and then headed home, where they found their families glued to radios, listening as the reports came flooding in. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Americans had died in the sneak attack. Americans were also under fire in the Philippines.
The next morning, the school was abuzz. Are we going to war? the students asked their teachers. The priests didn't know. Such things should be approached carefully, as violence only begat violence. But the United States had been attacked, and even some Catholic teachings, such as the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, argued that countries had a right to defend themselves.
That morning, there was a citywide Mass for high school students at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The priests and the congregation prayed for the soldiers and sailors in Hawaii, as well as for peace. But any question about what America would do was settled when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan. They were in it, like it or not.
In the days that followed, the news grew grim. Italy and Germany declared war on the U.S. More than 2,000 people had died at Pearl Harbor alone -- one a Regis graduate -- and God only knew how many more in the western Pacific. The U.S. fleet was severely damaged. There were rumors that the Japanese would invade Hawaii, possibly even California.
The boys at Regis were spoiling for a fight. The Japs had started it, but America would finish it.
In the meantime, though, there was the big game to think about: the state parochial-schools championship. On game day, Regis stadium was packed with parents, nuns and priests; a large contingent had made the drive from Walsenburg.
And then it happened. Every time the Walsenburg players broke their huddle on offense or lined up on defense, they yelled in unison: Get that Jap!
Uchida betrayed no emotion, acting as though he couldn't hear the taunts or feel the added viciousness, the piling on, that came every time he touched the football. He ran hard, but his team was already beaten.
Outraged for their friend and teammate, the Regis players let the other team get under their skin. They played as poor a game as anyone could remember, missing tackles and dropping balls. One pass whistled past Sunderland before he remembered to turn around and look for it.
After the game, they didn't know what to say to Buddy. "Sorry" seemed insufficient, though they said it and meant it. Jim Sunderland would never forget that day, when he'd been helpless to stop an injustice.
While the war raged, Jim finished his last year of high school. He played basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. And in May, he found a steady girl, Sheila Curry, a good Irish Catholic and the daughter of Major General John Curry of the U.S. Army. They'd met when Sheila was visiting Regis for a school event and had liked each other immediately. Sheila thought Jim was bright and articulate, handsome with a winning smile; he thought she was beautiful and smart and had a great sense of humor -- as evidenced when she laughed at all of his jokes.
Regis's senior prom was to be held the day after they met; Jim already had a date, and so did Sheila. But he made sure he got on her dance card that night. And the next week, he called to ask if he could visit, meet her folks. Sheila, surprised and delighted that he'd called, immediately said yes. Jim showed up wearing his letter sweater, thinking he was pretty hot stuff. Only later did he learn that Sheila's mom was unimpressed; Mrs. Curry thought he should have presented himself in a suit and tie.
Their first "date" was Jim's graduation. The whole Sunderland clan went to pick up Sheila, and this time Jim dressed for the occasion. Sheila wore a bright-yellow dress, inspiring Anna Sunderland to exclaim, "Doesn't she look radiant!"
Jim thought Sheila looked beautiful.
That fall, Jim entered Regis College. The draft was on, but he wouldn't be eighteen, the minimum age, until December. He'd hoped to go to Creighton University, but with his older brother and sister already in the service, his father needed help with the family business.
He didn't mind sticking around Denver; it made it easier to see Sheila. They went out just about every weekend.
At first Sheila's father, a World War I ace now in charge of the Army Air Corps in the western United States, wasn't so sure about Jim. Eventually, though, he came around when he recognized what a fine young man was courting his daughter; he even started calling Jim by his nickname, Sundy. The general was strict and insisted that Sheila be home by twelve o'clock, which sometimes made it a difficult to find another couple for a double date. Jim's classmates even teased him in the college newspaper, noting that "Jim Sunderland has a Curry-few."
Jim knew he was lucky. Sheila was a knockout. And while he had a fairly high estimation of himself in all other respects, he had a sneaking suspicion that he really wasn't worthy of her. Besides, so many of his high school classmates had already left for the war. They'd write Jim, not about their military experiences, but to ask him to keep an eye on their girls so they'd have someone to come back to.
Several months after his birthday, Jim was still waiting for the inevitable notice from his draft board. He decided to enlist so that he could choose which branch of the service to enter. He didn't want the Navy: The idea of being on a ship in the middle of the ocean turned his landlocked stomach, particularly since he wasn't much of a swimmer. Nor did he want to spend the war digging foxholes, so the Marines and regular Army were out.
Partly inspired by General Curry, he decided on the Army Air Corps. His parents had no idea he'd volunteered until he received the notice that he'd been accepted. As patriotic Americans, there really wasn't much they could say, anyway.
Jim got to stick around long enough to take Sheila to her senior prom that June. A month later he was off to basic training, then on to Iowa Wesleyan College, where he put in ten hours of flying in a Piper Cub. Here Jim encountered a problem: Every time he went up in one of the planes, he got airsick.
In December he was shipped off to Santa Ana, California, to begin his pre-flight instruction (which did not include going up in an airplane). His airsickness didn't get any better when he was transferred to a Texas airbase to qualify as a bomber navigator. He was required to report every humiliating incident to the instructor assigned to his group. He tried not eating before flights; he tried taking a banana along and eating it when he started feeling woozy. Nothing worked.
On June 5, 1944, he went up again -- and so did the contents of his stomach. The flight instructor told him that he could tune the radio to a commercial station in an attempt to take his mind off his stomach. A popular song was playing: Bésame, bésame mucho... Sheila wouldn't want to kiss me right now, he thought ruefully.
Jim's difficulties were so well known that when he and the flight instructor got back to base, a friend took a picture of him heading across the tarmac, still in his flight jacket, carrying a bucket of soapy water and a washrag. Not longer after, he was called into the flight instructor's office and told that he'd "washed out" of the Air Corps.
Although he was a little embarrassed to get the boot, Jim wasn't all that gung-ho about serving on a bomber, having seen his fill of G.I. films showing shot-up B-17s returning from raids over Europe. The flight instructor told him that he'd be transferred to a regular Army outfit. He called his parents with the news. "James, it is God's will," his mother said.
He and another young man who'd also washed out were sent to San Antonio, where they planned to catch a bus to their next posting the following day. Jim and his new friend spent the night painting the town red.
When they got up about nine the next morning, the hotel lobby was empty.
"What's up?" they asked the desk clerk. "Where is everybody?"
"We invaded France this morning," the clerk replied. "Everybody's in church."
Early that morning, while most Americans were asleep in their beds, U.S. and Allied troops had stormed the beaches of Normandy. Although no one used the term yet, it was D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Jim and his drinking buddy stepped outside. San Antonio was like a ghost town. Its residents now knew the whereabouts of the two divisions that had left wives and children and girlfriends behind. Details were few, but everyone knew it would be bad for those boys. Jim walked down the street until he found a Catholic church. The pews were packed. He found a place to stand and bowed his head to pray.
In the fall of 1944, Sunderland was transferred to Jefferson Barracks, an Army post outside of St. Louis. He wasn't there more than a few days when he spotted a notice on the company bulletin board inviting applications for the military academy at West Point. The Army was losing junior officers at an alarming rate in Europe and the Pacific and needed replacements.
Sunderland applied and was sent to Cornell University to study for the admissions test. He was delighted, for several reasons. He'd helped Sheila choose a college near New York City; they were now only a few hours apart. Although they didn't talk about marriage, it seemed that their lives were meant to be connected.
First, though, there was a war to win. Sunderland was reminded of that as he headed west on Christmas Eve to join his family the next day. Just a week earlier, when it seemed that the Germans were on their last legs, they'd staged a counteroffensive through Belgium's Ardennes forest. American troops were taking a horrible beating in what would later be called the Battle of the Bulge. Thousands of young men were dying, and the whole country was stunned -- and worried.
It was the day before Christmas, yet the mood on the train was somber. The realization that the war could drag on much longer, maybe even years, was all too evident on the passengers' faces. There were already too many gold stars in the windows of their homes for fallen sons, brothers, husbands and fathers. Now it appeared there would be many, many more.
Sunderland thought it looked like everybody could use a friend. Someone to talk to, someone to keep their spirits up. He found himself wishing that he could be that someone, that there was something he could do to alleviate their fears. He didn't know what that something might be. But by the time he got off the train in Denver, he knew that somehow, some way, he wanted to spend his life helping people in need.
In March he took the test to enter West Point. Since December, the war news had gotten better: The Americans and their allies had prevailed in Belgium, and it was clear that the Germans no longer had the ability to stave off defeat. But the cost had been enormous, as Sunderland could see for himself in the Cornell dormitory showers. Some of the other men studying for the West Point test had come straight from the battlefields, and many of them bore ugly scars from shrapnel and bullets. And they were the lucky ones.
While the war in Europe was nearly over, the invasion of Japan was looming. He heard some of the scarred veterans say it was going to take ten years to conquer Japan; West Point would be turning out young officers to carry out that last battle. Estimates were that the invasion could result in a million American and Allied casualties.
Though Sunderland regularly attended church, one service that spring was particularly moving. The smell of the wafting incense and the sound of the bells took him back to his years at Regis and the conversations he'd had with his Jesuit teachers. While leading lives dedicated to helping others, they'd always seemed at peace with themselves. In fact, that was the Jesuit motto: Men Helping Others. All he had to do was close his eyes, think of those "smells and bells," and he was home.
At the end of June, after Germany surrendered, Sunderland learned he'd been accepted at West Point. He was at the station, waiting to catch a train to the academy, when he ran into a member of his old Air Corps squadron. They shook hands and patted each other on the back, smiling until Sunderland asked about his old friends. The other man suddenly looked much older than his years. More than three-fourths of their class had been shot down over Europe, he said.
Sunderland boarded the train to West Point with a heavy heart. But once he arrived at the academy, he didn't have much time to think. For the next five weeks, he found himself running everywhere. He ran up and down the stairs. He ran to meals. He ran to the parade ground to learn to drill. He ran to the rifle range to practice shooting. He even ran to Mass.
As a plebe, he was the lowest form of life -- according to the upperclassmen, anyway. He was to keep his chin tucked in and stand ramrod straight. He was not to initiate a conversation with them, and he was to answer inquiries with a simple "Yes, sir!" or "No, sir!" It was a hard life, but he told Sheila he enjoyed the rigors of West Point. She wrote back saying that her father, a West Point graduate himself, had laughed at that. "He says you're not supposed to be enjoying it so much," she said.
Sheila was proud of her handsome cadet in his gray uniform. She was now back in Colorado, at the University of Colorado, but they wrote frequently. Although she intended to continue with her studies and have a career of her own, she also saw herself becoming the wife of an Army officer, like her mother before her.
She wasn't the only one proud of Jim. His father told every friend and customer about the son at "the Point" more than a few times. Even Sheila's father took time to write, congratulating him on his choice and noting that West Point training had outstanding benefits, "particularly in the development of character."
The general had written his letter on August 14, 1945. Eight days earlier, the U.S. Army Air Corps had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; a few days later, Nagasaki had been vaporized by a hydrogen bomb. At West Point, the cadets cheered the surrender of Japan.
When classes began in September, Sunderland found himself enjoying West Point all the more. He didn't mind the early wake-up calls or the rigorous physical and mental demands. Bed check was at ten o'clock, with no time between studying and lights out; he'd wait until the upperclassmen came by and then roll out of bed to say his evening prayers.
He attended Mass every morning, which meant that he missed breakfast. The plebes weren't allowed to take food from the cafeteria; only upperclassmen could get away with that. So it was a happy surprise when he started finding a sandwich on his bed every morning when he came back from Mass. He never found out who left the sandwiches -- he figured it had to be a Catholic upperclassman, perhaps one who'd gone through the same difficulties when he was a plebe.
One day he received a letter from a friend who had also applied to West Point. They'd attended church together at Cornell and gotten to know some of the priests who belonged to the Passionist Order. His application to West Point had been rejected, the friend wrote. But that was okay; he'd found another calling. He'd decided to become a priest.
Sunderland sat down to write a letter congratulating his friend on his decision. As a teen, he'd toyed with the idea of joining the priesthood himself. Of the men he admired, the Jesuits at Regis ranked right up there, below only his father and, perhaps, General Curry. But then he'd met Sheila and was approaching the path that led to marriage and family.
Right nearby, though, there was another path, marked by the smell of incense and the ringing of bells, leading to a closer relationship with God. Sunderland hadn't forgotten the faces on that train in December 1944, nor his pledge to find a way to help people in need. And by fall 1945, there were certainly a lot of them.
They needed someone to bring them good news, a message of hope and peace to heal their wounds. They needed a friend.
By the time he finished his letter, Sunderland had made a decision. He wanted to become a Catholic priest -- a Jesuit, if they would have him.
Sunderland called his parents with the news. At first they resisted. What was he talking about? his father asked. Jim was a cadet at West Point, with a wonderful girlfriend, the future mother of their grandchildren. But Jim was adamant, and they finally accepted that he felt a calling. He asked them to contact Father Gerleman, his former Greek teacher and a friend of the family, to get the ball rolling.
When Sunderland posted a notice of his choice on the dormitory bulletin board, one of his roommates told him, "I knew there was a reason you prayed every night."
"I've always said my prayers at night," Sunderland replied. He was surprised when upperclassmen stopped by to shake his hand, something normally not done before graduation in June.
The one person Sunderland didn't tell was Sheila. He knew she wouldn't try to talk him out of his decision; she had always been a friend first and would respect his decision. But he knew the conversation would be sad and filled with tears.
So he wrote Sheila's father a letter, passing on the task of telling her:
I am sure you must be somewhat surprised at the timing, but the idea has been before me for years. It is hard to say just how I finally decided on the action that would have me leave the Academy, but I can say I am sure I have a vocation.
Tomorrow I start on the resignation procedure and, with the help of the Catholic priests, I expect to be home by Christmas. It will indeed be with reluctance that I leave here; I am very sincere in that...I shall always be devoted to West Point, but only as a second behind my true work as God's helper on Earth.
In January, after the Jesuits accepted him, he returned home for a month to say his goodbyes. He posed for one last photograph in his cadet uniform -- with his younger siblings -- and then hung it up for good. He entered a seminary in St. Louis on February 2, 1946, to begin serving his novitiate, a time of spiritual training.
Two years later, when he took his vows, he was given a simple silver crucifix. Six inches long and four inches wide, it held the corpus, the body of Christ crucified. From that point on, he would kiss the crucifix at night before carefully setting it aside and getting into bed, and then again every morning before he put it back on the pillow. He knew he'd made the right choice. But many years later, he would tell close friends that the hardest part of becoming a Jesuit was leaving Sheila Curry.
By 1981, Jim Sunderland -- Father Jim Sunderland -- was back in Denver for good. After teaching for more than a decade in Catholic schools in Kansas and Missouri, he'd been appointed to a post as a hospital chaplain at St. Louis University Hospital, one of the top trauma hospitals in the country. It was a far cry from the classroom.
He'd performed last rites for a dying man his first day at the hospital, and death had been a constant companion ever since. He'd anointed people as they were brought into the emergency room, their bodies torn and twisted, their souls about to depart. He'd anointed patients before surgery, in case they didn't make it. He'd performed absolution for newborns who lived but a day or two or were born horribly deformed and never took their first breath.
He knew other priests who couldn't set foot inside a hospital door, but he'd eagerly accepted the assignment to become chaplain at St. Joseph's Hospital in Denver. For Sunderland, all that mattered was that people needed him. He was the middleman between life on this side of the abyss and God on the other.
He witnessed the horror of what men could do to other men and to women and children -- but he also saw much beauty. The patient who clung to life against all odds. The families who turned to each other in times of grief. He especially admired the nurses and doctors who treated life as such a precious gift and refused to give it up even when all seemed lost. Or even when all was lost.
The days were often long and brutal, but Sunderland still found time to devote to social issues, a growing interest. He'd begun working with organizations that demanded fair housing and equal opportunity. On Sunday afternoons, he drove out to Rocky Flats to join prayer vigils and protests at the gates of the nuclear-weapons plant. He recognized the irony: Having applauded the atomic bombs that ended World War II, forty years later he was protesting their manufacture. But he felt it was part of his spiritual growth to now believe that violence of any sort was wrong -- and the scope of the violence represented by atomic weapons was horrifying.
Sunderland was becoming so absorbed in social issues that he mentioned the possibility of changing posts to the bishop of the Denver archdiocese, George Evans, a friend from his days at Regis High School. Evans suggested he might want to take a break by moving to one of the suburban parishes.
"No, that's not it," Sunderland replied, even though he wasn't sure just what he wanted to do. Evans told him to come back when he did.
Then one morning Sunderland woke up to the news of a young couple in Boulder who'd murdered their little girl. It was a truly horrible crime, as was reflected in the answers to a media poll asking Boulder residents what should be done to the parents. Almost everyone who responded wanted blood. The parents, they said, were undeserving of forgiveness.
Only one person showed any compassion: Father Al Puhl, who'd officiated at the girl's burial. "She must be dying a thousand deaths in that jail," Puhl said of the girl's mother.
Sunderland was struck by the Christian generosity of that statement. Jesus had forgiven those who killed him, had assured a murderer on the cross next to his that God still loved him and that they would meet again in heaven. Now here was a priest who was saying unpopular things but, in doing so, was following Christ's example.
He called Evans. "Need any help in the jails?" he asked.
At the time, Denver County Jail didn't have a full-time chaplain, and Evans sent him there. He had no way of knowing that Sunderland wouldn't limit himself to Denver County and would soon be a familiar face at all of the metro jails, as well as the state's Reception and Diagnostic Center, a required stop for convicted criminals headed for state prisons.
Sunderland was a welcome sight at most of the jails, particularly Denver County, where John Simonet, a former priest, was undersheriff. The pace was grueling. Sunderland performed ten Masses a week and also responded to "kites," official requests from inmates asking to see him. Sometimes the inmates just wanted someone to talk to; sometimes they asked for small favors. Could you call my wife? I haven't heard from her since I've been in here. Sunderland, a friendly ear, would try to help.
Then there were the confessions. These guys had done some major-league sinning. Although at first most of the inmates swore they weren't guilty -- at least not of the crimes for which they'd been arrested -- as they began to trust Sunderland, he heard some pretty horrible things.
Even non-Catholic prisoners knew that they could tell Sunderland anything and he was still morally and legally bound to keep it to himself. They saw him as a sort of psychiatrist, he thought, good for helping them get things off their chests. He didn't feel it was his job to proselytize: Confess your sins or go to hell! He didn't even ask about their crimes, though he sometimes knew about them. If the inmates wanted to talk about it, fine; if they wanted spiritual guidance, he could provide it. But mostly he was there just to be a friend to the friendless -- his presence often the sole reminder that they were still children of God, and loved.
Even if it wasn't always easy to love them.
Through his work at the jails, Sunderland got involved with members of both the religious and secular communities who were opposed to the death penalty. After a twelve-year hiatus, the death penalty had been reinstated in 1979 -- over the objections of an array of spiritual leaders, including Charles Milligan, a professor at the Iliff School of Theology, and the Catholic Archdiocese.
The arguments against the death penalty weren't simply religious. For one thing, it was discriminatory. Rarely was a wealthy person, not even one convicted of a heinous murder, executed; it was always a poor person. And although whites were sometimes sent to death row, blacks were represented in numbers far disproportionate to their percentage of the population. Sunderland took discrimination very personally; he could still hear the cries of Get that Jap!
There was always the specter of an innocent man being executed. And there were other, less emotional considerations, including the cost of killing a man -- the years of appeals before a sentence was actually carried out -- as opposed to keeping him in prison for the rest of his life. Although in the past, prison escapes had been a concern, society now had the means to lock a man up for good and make sure that he never hurt another human being. Sunderland didn't believe that the death penalty acted as a deterrent, any more than did sentencing a man to life in prison. And he was certain that violence -- even on an official level -- only encouraged more violence.
When it came right down to it, though, only one argument really mattered to Sunderland: It was morally wrong for the government to kill a human being in cold blood. Even a despicable human being was still a child of God, created in God's image.
Colorado hadn't executed a prisoner since 1967, and in the early '80s, death row was still empty. But Sunderland and other activists knew that it would only be a matter of time before a man was sentenced to death in this state. So they founded the Colorado Coalition Against the Death Penalty in October 1984 to educate the public and advocate on behalf of the accused. Just a month later, they had two projects: Frank and Chris Rodriguez.
Late in the afternoon of November 14, 1984, the Rodriguez brothers, along with a friend and his girlfriend, kidnapped Lorraine Martelli, a 54-year-old bookkeeper, as she left work.
Violence was nothing new for the brothers. In 1978 they'd abducted and raped a young woman, then threatened to kill her, but finally let her go. Convicted largely on the victim's testimony, they served only a few years and were back on the streets in 1984.
The brothers didn't let Martelli go. After both Frank and Chris raped her, Frank tortured her with a knife and then stabbed her to death. Her body, left in the trunk of the car while the brothers partied, had 28 stab wounds.
When Sunderland saw the story of their arrest in the newspaper, he went to visit Chris and Frank. He didn't ask them what they'd done; the newspaper account had been quite graphic. He took the same approach with the brothers as he had with other prisoners. He wasn't there to preach, but to listen. Perhaps because they'd been raised Catholic, both Rodriguezes decided to talk to the priest. Chris was always friendlier, more willing to confide in Sunderland. Frank was a harder case: Sometimes he wanted to talk to the priest, sometimes he wouldn't talk at all.
The Rodriguez brothers were both found guilty of first-degree murder at separate trials, then moved on to death-penalty hearings. Defense lawyers in both cases asked Sunderland to testify as to their client's remorse, a potential mitigating factor for the jurors to consider.
Sunderland didn't doubt that the Rodriguez brothers had committed the crimes. As far as he was concerned, they deserved to spend the rest of their lives in a maximum-security prison, locked away in small cells where they could contemplate their crimes. But they didn't deserve a death sentence. No one deserved that.
Sunderland even felt compassion for the little boys they had once been -- raised by an alcoholic felon of a father who beat them and their mother on a regular basis. It was no wonder that they were so vicious themselves; they'd been trained like junkyard dogs.
He knew that many people, maybe even most, wouldn't understand why he would agree to help them. But he couldn't preach about the power of forgiveness and then repudiate it by doing nothing. He was the link between men like these and God; he was the man in the middle.
Chris Rodriguez's hearing came first. After testifying that Chris had shown some remorse, prosecutor Mike Little wondered aloud if Sunderland could have been conned by Chris. "Is it possible for a Jesuit to be conned?" he asked.
Sure, Sunderland replied. In the 450 years of their existence, the Jesuits had been conned twice. It was meant as a joke, and as he smiled, so did several jurors.
Little did not smile. "No more questions," he said.
For Sunderland, the most difficult part of the trial was weathering the reactions of the victim's family and friends. After his testimony, one woman who'd been sitting with the Martellis demanded to know how he, a Catholic priest, could testify on behalf of a killer who had done such horrible things. He'd tried to approach the family, to tell them how sorry he was for their grief and pain, but they'd walked right past him. He learned later that they'd been told by the prosecutors not to talk to the priest. "He's on their side," the prosecutors had said.
Sunderland knew his place was not on the side of the killers, but rather in opposition to state-sanctioned murder. And "other victims" needed comfort, including family members of the killers.
He'd come to know the mother of the Rodriguez brothers, a poor, churchgoing woman who'd been powerless to deal with her boys when they became brutal men like their father. Yet she was hounded by the press as though she'd committed some crime. One day, as she tried to escape down a stairwell, Sunderland suddenly thrust out his arms to hold the cameramen and reporters at bay so that she could escape. It was so easy to place blame on someone else's shoulders, he thought angrily.
The anger was unusual for Sunderland, who generally tried to deflect hostility with kindness and humor. When a television station showed him walking with Chris Rodriguez, a woman called to chastise him. "You are a disgrace to the Catholic church," she spat.
That's funny, Sunderland thought. The Pope is opposed to capital punishment, but this lowly priest is a disgrace? But he knew the woman wouldn't listen to his argument, so he tried to joke with her. "I know," he replied, "but I was trying to keep it a secret. How did you find out?" She answered by slamming the phone down.
In the end, Sunderland's testimony didn't make a difference in Chris Rodriguez's sentence. But while the jurors didn't accept his remorse as a mitigating factor, they also balked at condemning him to death when he hadn't done the actual stabbing. Chris was sentenced to life without parole.
Testifying on behalf of Frank Rodriguez was more problematic; there just wasn't much to him. "Pathetic" was the first word that came to Sunderland's mind when he thought of the killer. Frank had commited a truly evil act, and yet Sunderland did not believe the man himself was evil.
As he had at Chris Rodriguez's hearing, prosecutor Little pointed out that Sunderland was opposed to the death penalty in all cases, so that anything the priest said should be considered in that light. "Would Hitler have deserved the death penalty?" Little asked.
Before Sunderland could reply, the defense lawyer objected. But it was an interesting question, one for which the Jesuit had an answer: No, no human being deserved to die.
The jury disagreed and sentenced Frank Rodriguez to death. He would soon be joined on death row by John O'Neill, who'd killed a man in a drug deal gone awry. (O'Neill's sentence was later commuted to life in prison, where he died of cancer.) They were joined by a third man in 1987: Gary Davis.
On July 21, 1986, Davis and his wife had kidnapped 33-year-old Virginia May from her family ranch near Byers, then driven her to a remote area where they sexually assaulted her, crushed her skull with the butt of a rifle and shot her fourteen times.
Sunderland was visiting other inmates at the Adams County jail when Davis and his wife were brought in. A jail official told the Jesuit about the crime and said that Davis wanted to see him. It turned out that Davis wanted Sunderland to do him a favor: get a refund for a waterbed he'd recently purchased in Aurora.
Sunderland did as he was asked -- it was the sort of request someone would make of a friend -- and deposited the money in the couple's jail accounts so that they could purchase such items as toothpaste and stamps. Davis would use some of those stamps as he continued to talk and write to Sunderland over the next decade.
Unlike the Rodriguez brothers, Davis seemed truly remorseful, and Sunderland testified to that at his death-penalty hearing. The only other person called to the stand by the defense was a prison guard, who said Davis had been a repentant and model prisoner. No family members, no friends, spoke for him, and the jury wasted little time in sentencing him to death.
Davis had asked Sunderland to call his mother when the verdict came in.
"Was it life?" she asked.
"It was death," he answered.
"Oh, no!" she screamed. "I can't handle any more."
If he'd ever wavered on the efficacy of the death penalty, the sound of that mother's wail stiffened his resolve. Not only would the state be executing a human being, but it would be making others suffer, too.
There but for the grace of God go I. Sunderland always wondered what might have happened if he'd been raised in a home like the one in which the Rodriguez brothers grew up. He knew that plenty of people who grew up in abusive households or were exposed to drugs and alcohol never killed anyone. But it was also true that such things did affect others. You had only to look at Frank Rodriguez to see his father. Or to speak to Gary Davis and realize that the demons that drove him to murder Virginia May came from a bottle as well as his mind.
Sunderland, who'd been named to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty's board of directors in 1986, became a familiar face at the State Capitol and in the newspapers. Some of his notoriety was by default: Other founders of the Colorado Coalition had moved on, leaving him pretty much a one-man show. He wrote the coalition's newsletter, organized meetings and rallies, wrote letters challenging newspaper columnists. And he continued to serve in the jails as a chaplain.
But it was for his death-penalty work that he was both admired and reviled.
When he saw a television report that a few hundred "pro-death" students at Sam Houston University in Huntsville, Texas, home of that state's execution chamber, had cheered and danced to celebrate an execution, he wrote a letter to the school's newspaper chastising the students. They responded by burning him in effigy.
Sunderland placed an ad in the Denver Post congratulating then-New Mexico governor Toney Anaya for commuting the death sentences of five inmates after he'd met with coalition members, including Sunderland. The priest received dozens of angry telephone calls about that ad, with one caller accusing him of being Satan. Sunderland's file cabinets filled with angry, threatening correspondence.
But Sunderland also had his fans. He was a favorite with defense lawyers, particularly those in the Colorado Public Defender's Office who handled the bulk of death-penalty work. Many of them were the product of Catholic schools, and he became their priest -- marrying them and baptizing their babies.
They shared a common cause, but there was a difference. Sunderland knew that these lawyers also suffered when they looked at crime-scene photographs or listened to a victim's relative describe her loss in court. But at least they could explain what they did objectively: It was their job to keep the prosecution honest and to protect a defendant's rights -- whether they liked their client or not. People might not appreciate what they did, might even castigate them, but most still recognized that even killers were entitled to a defense.
Sunderland's role was more difficult to explain: It was his job to be their friend, their link with God. And it was his job to pay the emotional consequences for doing so. One time a victim's mother called and asked to meet with him. She was angry that he'd testified on behalf of her son's killer and wanted to show Sunderland a scrapbook filled with photographs of her boy as a child, an adolescent and a young man. She wanted him to compare her son's life with that of the killer, a horrible man who'd murdered several people.
There wasn't much Sunderland could do or say. He sympathized with the mother's pain and suffering. What had been done to her son was evil; he'd never tried to argue that it was anything else. But the death penalty wouldn't bring her son back; it couldn't heal her grief. While it might exact a measure of revenge, the result would be to bring everyone who supported the sentence down to the level of the killer.
But these weren't things she wanted to hear, and he didn't feel it was his place to argue with her. Instead, he listened in silence while she turned the pages of the scrapbook, then thanked her for taking the time to come to see him. That night, he kissed his crucifix and went to sleep with her tears still heavy on his mind.
It was his burden to bear, and one that grew heavier with each new atrocity. On December 14, 1993, Nathan Dunlap murdered four employees of a Chuck E Cheese restaurant in Aurora. Three months later, Robert Harlan kidnapped, raped and murdered 25-year-old Rhonda Maloney, then shot and paralyzed the woman who tried to save her. Both had death-penalty hearings at which Sunderland testified; both were sentenced to death.
Still, Sunderland fought on. When Gary Davis talked about giving up his appeals and going forward with his execution, Sunderland spearheaded a letter campaign directed at the killer, begging him to reconsider. Davis agreed to keep going.
Davis was finally put to death in October 1997 -- the first man executed in Colorado in thirty years. Another priest, one from a Pueblo parish, had been seeing Davis and was slated to be his spiritual advisor on the day he was lashed to a steel table and injected with the drugs that would end his life.
So Sunderland joined the protesters on the side of the road leading to the prison. He was wearing a T-shirt that read: "My Country Killed Today." And at the moment the drugs began coursing through Davis's veins, Sunderland started conducting Mass and led the other protesters in prayer for a killer's soul and the end of the death penalty.
Father Jim Sunderland retired in March 1998. "I've run out of steam," he told his friends and supporters. Staffs at many of the metro jails, as well as the inmates, held going-away parties for their chaplain. Whether they agreed with him or not, they recognized a man of character.
Sunderland had already given up his board seat with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, believing it was time for new faces and new ideas. And he'd turned over the reins of Colorado's coalition, which then changed its name to Coloradans Against the Death Penalty. He promised the group's members that he would continue to support their shared ideals.
Sunderland's retirement didn't put an end to his prolific letter-writing campaigns, or his willingness to antagonize his opponents, however. He took on death-penalty advocates, the gun lobby and even certain religious leaders in April 1999 in this letter published in the Rocky Mountain News:
On Good Friday, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops called for all people of good will to work toward ending the death penalty. Victor Hugo wrote early in the last century that on the day Christ was crucified, he abolished the death penalty forever.
But where are the voices of religious leaders in this state on concealed guns? The founder of Christianity was completely non-violent in his life, his teachings and his commandments to love and not hate. Guns, whether small or gigantic, have one purpose: to do violence, to kill.
Not only religious leaders but the mass of other Coloradans seem to have left the reins to Charlton Heston and his charioteers. The forces of darkness want guns. The Sermon on the Mount called forth light from the darkness. Where are the prophets of our day who are courageous enough to speak truth to power? Are there no wise and brave voices shouting out to end this madness of guns?
Although the death penalty was always Sunderland's primary cause, it was not his only cause. He joined Wilma Webb's effort to have the state declare a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. And when a portrait of King was unveiled at the Capitol, he stirred up the critics by proclaiming, "God bless Saint Martin Luther King." In 1991 he'd invited further criticism by speaking out against the Gulf War, arguing that it was a fight for oil and profit.
In June 2000, Jim Sunderland was presented with the Denver Area Interfaith Clergy Conference's "Gil Horn Faith in Action" award, which was named after a former head of the Colorado Coalition of Churches and longtime death-penalty foe. The award was given annually to "a clergy person whose prophetic and inclusive leadership has served justice and enriched the interfaith community." Sunderland had just returned from Indiana, where he'd been protesting Timothy McVeigh's death sentence.
When McVeigh and Terry Nichols were arrested and charged in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing, Sunderland had written to both of them. When McVeigh didn't respond to his first letter, Sunderland sent a second: "Tim, if you decide you want to talk -- talk about anything -- I will get on a plane and come. In closing, I have two hopes: I hope I will talk to you before you die; I hope we meet someday in heaven."
Although McVeigh never did get in touch with Sunderland, Nichols wrote back. The two met several times before Nichols's trial and discussed Bible passages. Nichols told Sunderland that he knew God had forgiven him. But after his conviction, Nichols quit writing.
In May 2001, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar honored Sunderland with a lifetime achievement award "for his many years of selfless effort, dedication and accomplishment on behalf of the criminally accused." The awards joined the photographs of Sunderland's family on the shelf above his desk at the Xavier Jesuit Center.
Two months later, Sunderland threw away his life's work. Then he sat in his chair and waited for what would come next.
It was not the end for Jim Sunderland.
A cousin had called 911 after getting his recorded message. The paramedics found the priest sitting in his chair, his eyes closed. He was unresponsive...but alive.
The funny thing was that Sunderland could hear every word said by the paramedics, as well as by his cousin and her husband. Father, can you tell me where you hurt? Do you know where you are? He just couldn't answer them.
At first the doctors thought he might have suffered a stroke. Later, they amended that to something involving blood clots. He was soon released from the hospital -- but the dumpster containing all of his belongings had already been emptied.
He was saddened by what he had lost, not to mention a little embarrassed that he'd have to explain to the bank what he'd done with his checkbook. But on reflection, he decided that maybe it was time to clean up and move on. "I'll miss some stuff," he says, "but it's not as though I'm going into mourning or anything. Maybe I needed that day to invigorate me."
And he still had so many of the things that were important to him. His crucifix, his memories and his friends, who practically fight over who gets to drive Sunderland to his various appointments.
The most important appointment is the weekly Tuesday morning Class of '42 breakfast club. That club has been meeting since Sunderland first returned to town. Although members have tried a variety of locations, they eventually settled on Zaidy's in Cherry Creek, where they've claimed a table that sits beneath a photograph of Denver's 16th Street taken back in 1937.
There they tell old stories and argue politics. Some of Sunderland's friends agree with his stance on the death penalty, others do not. Although he doesn't preach at them, he's not above bringing literature for them to read, and some have gotten off or come around the fence. Occasionally some "new guys," usually products of other Catholic schools, join the club. One such member is Joe Dolan, a former U.S. attorney who ran Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign.
Sunderland likes to tell the story of how at the Mass for the fortieth anniversary of his ordination, he'd asked those gathered to shake hands with their neighbors. It was a large and varied crowd made up of family and friends, Quakers and sheriffs, lawyers and former inmates. When Dolan turned around and shook hands with a woman, each thought the other looked familiar. Only later did they realize that Dolan had arrested the woman, a nun, during a protest at Rocky Flats.
Sunderland keeps in touch with other old friends, too. He was thinking of Buddy Uchida on the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and gave him a call. "Hey, Buddy," he said, "do you remember fifty years ago?"
"Do I remember?" Uchida replied. "It was the worst day of my life." And that was saying something, since Uchida had seen a lot of action in the war. But his humiliation on the football field ranked higher.
On June 6, 1994, Sunderland asked members of the breakfast club if they remembered what they'd been doing fifty years before, on D-Day. He told his story about washing out of flight school and walking the empty streets of San Antonio, looking for a church.
And then Vince Ryan, an old Regis classmate, had described how he'd gone ashore at Normandy, riding on the landing craft next to his twin brother, Dave. Somehow, both got through the landing without a scratch. But later that afternoon, a bullet had whizzed by his ear and struck a nearby tree. "That was a rather unnerving day," Ryan said. An unnerving day? The club members burst out laughing.
They were gathered again on Tuesday, September 11, talking about "The War." It was a favorite topic of Sunderland's, a time of patriotism and sacrifice. He reminded the group that a Jesuit, Father Joseph O'Callahan, had become the first Catholic priest awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism onboard a bombed aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin, in the final days of the war.
A small crowd began to gather by a television set in the corner of the restaurant. When it become clear that the World Trade Center had been attacked by terrorists, Sunderland was as outraged as anyone else. "Let's go get 'em," he said.
Later, Sunderland conceded that he might not be quite the pacifist he should be, given his former occupation. But sometimes wars must be fought to protect the innocent, he says. He wants to see the terrorists brought to justice. "Unfortunately," he adds, "it may be a bloody justice. But this has got to stop."
Over the past two weeks, Sunderland has been moved by the tears of his countrymen, seeing looks of fear and concern that take him back sixty years. He talks about the heroism of a Catholic priest who lived across the street from a New York firehouse and went with "his men" to the aid of those trapped in the World Trade Center; that heroism cost the priest his life.
But on the afternoon it all started, he wanted to talk to Sheila.
"Well, hello, Jim," she said when she answered the telephone, "I was just going to call you."
They'd gotten back in touch in 1956 in Denver. Sheila had married in 1951 and had three children; Jim had visited the family in New York. They'd lost contact again after his ordination, but fifteen years later, in 1983, Sheila had called out of the blue from California, where she was living. Her father had died, and she wanted Jim to perform the funeral Mass in Denver.
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After that, they'd stayed in touch, talking about politics -- Sheila had been one of those fence-sitters regarding the death penalty until Jim talked her off it -- and sharing the tough times. Jim had buried his brother, Bob, who'd followed him into the priesthood but died young of cancer. He'd almost lost his little sister to cancer, too. Sheila's husband had died, and she'd call when she was feeling lonely. She never told him, but sometimes she had wondered how her life might have been different if her young love had chosen her instead of God. But she knew he'd made the right decision. Other people had needed him more than she did. Or at least needed him in greater numbers.
Their lives remained connected as she had once foreseen, although not in a way either had imagined when they were young and in love.
Jim still gets "choked up" when he talks about the sacrifice -- and he knows it was a sacrifice -- he made when he chose helping man over the love of a woman. But he also knew it was his role to be the man in the middle, the friend to the friendless, the man who can love the unlovable.