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Worth Remembering: He acted in quiet defense


Hold fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

Military instructions at the onset of the American Revolution at Bunker Hill)

Donald West VanArtsdalen was an emotional mystery. In equal complement, his wife, Marie Catharine Auerbach often wore her emotions on her sleeve, demonstratively pronouncing concern and opinion, especially when she perceived disadvantage.

“Uncle Don,” by contrast, was reticent. “Oh, Marie” he would chide, then retire to a wing chair in the living room, next to a crackling fire. Such seeming passivity was often about things trivial ... no need to escalate emotion over a topic of little consequence in the long term.

But in matters of society’s greater good, DWV would quietly study until he saw the “whites of their eyes” – the true meaning and intent – and act with determined purpose and clarity if the greater good was fired upon.

Not by changing things to his own purpose, but maneuvering through the maze of excuses against an ordered system to defend basic rights. By such method he established and sustained dignity for the law, for our actions and for our rights. He reinforced a careful foundation for the future. He demonstrated integrity, and thereby distilled to eloquent purpose and meaning, collective actions of society for the benefit of present and future.

While quick impulse, immediate reaction would seem a quality in wartime, and often promoted in peace, it was Donald West VanArtsdalen’s calm, quiet assessment of the situation that served him through World War II. In some of the most aggressive and bloody campaigns in North Africa and Italy, he was a gunner or in the first wave of troop advance.

He tempered athletic ability with keen observation and assessment to survive five years and return with military decorations. He was yet to again serve his country through defense of the law – the principles that guide an ordered society away from conflict and for the greater good. He found voice to sustain the government for which he fought. Not unfettered freedom, but collective freedoms guided by basic common rights.

Steadfast assurance, commitment to work were matched with ease on weekends. Joined by Marie and often with nearby relatives, relaxation was animated with playful challenges as they swam, sailed, went skiing on water and snow, played ice hockey, tennis, rode horses and wind surfed.

As second generation onlookers, my brother, cousin and I would equally enjoy the shared laughter and inventive antics, including Uncle Don standing on the shoulders of Uncle Martin while water skiing behind Uncle George’s motorboat on the Delaware. Not for the faint of heart! Left to his own devices, however, DWV’s mountain skiing adventures often resulted in multiple leg fractures.

Never deterred, he brought the cast and crutches to work the following Monday.

But what makes the Honorable Donald West VanArtsdalen stand out? Integrity.

Unwavering respect for our country, our laws, our rights and ways of interaction. He avoided conversation on any topic concerning a case before him. He sacrificed memberships or affiliations with organizations – avoiding future conflicts. His respect for his office – military, family, friend, legal and judicial (since 1970 serving as U.S. District Judge in Philadelphia) – came before his personal interest or opinions. He wished to serve for the greater good outside immediate influences or rewards.

By holding integrity and respect for our Constitution, our Laws, Donald VanArtsdalen served to reinforce the core meaning and purpose of such tools for society. He was the mortar that holds us together with freedoms in a framework of rights. His actions and mere presence reinforced a higher sense of purpose among all around him. He gave dignity to the legal institution.

Many could act with self-importance in his position – DWV maintained humility. Many could find it easy to bend the rules to their advantage – DWV saw a greater purpose, beyond the immediate and served in quiet defense, with solid precision, for the greater good.

Donald West VanArtsdalen demonstrated that integrity is not an overbearing, unnatural requirement, but an easy way of life, a natural modus-operandi. He demonstrated that law was not something to avoid, “get around,” manipulate to one’s own purpose, but something to embrace as an expression of a greater vision, that incorporates rights and principles as an enrichment to nurture, not stifle, our freedoms.

It is not surprising that family, friends, colleagues and law clerks continued a devoted admiration to a simple, modest man who was quiet, purposeful, respectful and quick to laugh and celebrate unique events. The latter illustrated by Judge VanArtsdalen’s calling court recess to view the parade of tall ships arriving to the port of Philadelphia. They remember his respectful, gentlemanly nature as he dressed in formal suit to visit his wife in the hospital. “How is Mrs. Van doing today?”was his cheerful greeting.

Always humble, he perhaps viewed his role as one small component, albeit of noble order, to quietly, purposefully, humanly defend a most remarkable governing system. In quiet defense, Donald West VanArtsdalen was a symbol of integrity and dignity for the task at hand – for the greater good.

Kathryn Ann Auerbach of Erwinna, niece of Donald VanArtsdalen, is a consultant for historic and architectural perservation. He died May 21 a few months short of his 100th birthday.

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