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Beacon blog: When gaiety and grief collide

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2010 -  - Life is lived in a welter of contrasts.

For example, in case you haven't heard one of the announcements on St. Louis Public Radio; or read mentions in the local print media or in Jerry Berger's column; or happened upon our ad in the St. Louis Symphony's program book, the St. Louis Beacon is having a doozie of a fundraising party on New Year's Day at the Sheldon Galleries and Concert Hall. The centerpiece of the celebration is a performance of the highly intelligent silliness of "H.M.S. Pinafore," the operetta by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan.

An impressive array of brilliant musicians and performing arts administrators have donated their time to the show as performers and producers. I am so grateful to them that words elude me. Suffice it to say if you have the likes of Christine Brewer, David Robertson, Tim O'Leary, Noel Prince, Hugh Russell and Craig Terry making glorious music for you, backed up by a truly magnificent chorus, assisted by my Beacon colleagues and a crew of behind-the-scenes craftspeople, you are one lucky indepth, online, not-for-profit publication.

As I write this blog, only 72 hours separate me from the topsy-turvy magic of this operetta, arguably the all-time Gilbert and Sullivan favorite. But while working today, running from Growing Green to Kinkos to the Sheldon, it occurred to that while I was having all sorts of fun with "Pinafore," the world went strutting and fretting along, and the contrasts to what I was up to became apparent, reminding me everything is not all joy and rapture. In fact, in my small piece of the world's real estate, friends of mine were beginning to experience the indescribable but enormous vacancy that opens in your heart when someone close dies.

One such loss was Elizabeth Mahaffey Mullins, who died at home at 93 surrounded by her large and splendid family. Mrs. Mullins had a rich and exciting life, one I suppose might be described as privileged. Indeed, many of the trappings of privilege were hers. As far as I could tell, while appreciative of her good fortune, she was also rather unaffected by it all.

What was evident, however, was a steely dedication to causes in which she believed and, beyond that, her devotion to her faith and her family. She had four children -- two boys, two girls. They grew up to be good, productive and generous men and women, and each is a finely etched individual, just like their late mother.

Following that generation, she had 15 grandchildren. Two of them -- Elissa Claggett and Alexander McMullin -- are godchildren of mine. There are 10 great-grandchildren, who undoubtedly will bring their own special qualities, characters and gifts to a diversified and extended population.

One of Mrs. Mullins' last ceremonial outings was to the marriage of her granddaughter, the exquisite Dr. Katherine McMullin, to a delightful fellow called Christopher Jones. The wedding was pure magic, from "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God" during the wedding to reception dinner tables deliberately strewn with moss and stones reminiscent of Maine, where so many happy family times were spent. The service and the party formed a shimmering moment when a fellow feels fortunate to be alive and healthy.

The beauty and simplicity and warmth of the wedding were, in fact, an indelible part of Mrs. Mullins' legacy, an inheritance passed down not only to her surviving relatives but also to all of us who came within her cheerful, determined and luminous circle.

Admirable as she was, Betsy Mullins' name was not particularly well known around St. Louis, and that was more than likely just fine with her.

Max Starkloff, however, was famous, not only in St. Louis but also internationally. Contemporary celebrity often redounds not from accomplishment but from the commission of some scandalous or bizarre actions. Starkloff's fame issued, however, from his making a contribution to society that few can equal -- a revolution in public policy and personal attitudes about disabilities. What is particularly affecting about his legacy is he built it while moving through the world in a motorized wheelchair.

Mr. Starkloff was a neighbor, and I often saw him leaving his house on Laclede Avenue, then taking off in a specially outfitted truck. For as long as I have known him, decades now, he was always in forward crusading motion, physically and intellectually.

Coincidentally, a son-in-law of Mrs. Mullins, Charles Claggett, is Mr. Starkloff's biographer. My colleague and friend, Richard Weiss, wrote a masterful account of Mr. Starkloff's life for the Beacon, which I commend to you. It is a magnificent portrait in words of a singularly successful human being, a man of deep conviction and grit.

Mr. Starkloff refused to allow disability to impede his own pursuit of happiness and meaning. And he was indefatigable in his determination to shape a society that recognizes the fairness and humanity of accessibility, in practical and moral senses, for everyone. Weiss said he was fortunate to have Charlie's manuscript at hand because of the information it provided in such rich and sympathetic detail.

Both Mrs. Mullins' and Mr. Starkloff's contributions are pieces of a big and perhaps never-to-be finished puzzle on the subject of goodness. The fact that the puzzle continues to grow in all directions and to add pieces in many dimensions shows how individual contributions help to bring light into a benighted world.

In reflection, the lives of Betsy Mullins and Max Starkloff, so different but in many ways so similar, remind us that finely tuned moral compasses and sticking to one's principles and convictions provide lessons for all of us to study, and models that are inspiring.

But there is something else: a special kind of generosity that animated them both, a winsome openness of spirit that would comprehend this contrast: While reveling in the hilarity of "this infernal nonsense 'Pinafore,'" it is possible that one has leave, simultaneously, to mourn sincerely the loss of such remarkable, redoubtable friends.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.