A Gathering to Honor Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach

Last week on the summer solstice, June 21, the Katzenbach family held a memorial service in Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University to celebrate the life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, former attorney general. Everything about the memorial was an apt reflection of the man who passed away on May 8, 2012 at the age of 90.

His quick wit, sense of humor, and decency were on display for all to see through the memories of his friends and family. There was so much laughter in Richardson Auditorium that day that if you didn’t know better you would have thought you walked into a comedy club not a memorial service.

It was only fitting that the memorial was held at Princeton University, his alma mater, and an academic institution for which he cared deeply about, spending years on its Boards of Trustees and also providing pro bono legal services on occasion. Former Princeton President Bill Bowen was the first to pay homage to the man no longer among us. “He was truly ‘one of a kind’: a gentle giant of a man, as kind, compassionate and humorous as he was brilliant,” said Bowen.

Following Bowen were three lifelong friends, all of whom had known Katzenbach for a half-century or more – Herb Sturz, Jack Rosenthal, and Ward Chamberlin, the latter of whom had known Katzenbach since their teenage years at Exeter. He regaled the crowd with stories of a European adventure they took following high school graduation. They went on a biking tour of France and wouldn’t you know it, it happened to coincide with the Tour de France. The boys tried to ride ahead of the pack (avoiding several miles and towns on the route) so they could arrive at the next layover ahead of the cyclists, but hoping to be mistaken for them.

One of the most memorable stories was told by Jack Rosenthal. He recounted a visit Katzenbach made to the LBJ Ranch in which President Johnson took his guests deer hunting. Katzenbach was not thrilled about the prospect. He was not a hunter. “And then,” as Rosenthal told it, “inspiration struck. Katzenbach said, ‘Mr. President, as much as I’d like to shoot a deer, I don’t think I should, I don’t have a Texas hunting license.’” This was particularly problematic given his position, as attorney general and he didn’t want to violate the law. LBJ responded, “You know, I never thought of that.” Both Katzenbach and a deer were spared.

The three friends were followed by Katzenbach’s four children, as different as can be, but all inherited Katzenbach’s wit and knack for storytelling. The last of his children to speak was his daughter, Mimi. Her theatrical background and stage presence commanded attention. She explained why there was a Bloodgood Maple tree on the stage. The answer can be traced to the Revolutionary War and Katzenbach’s namesake, Dr. Nicholas deBelleville.  As she said, goodness flowed through his veins. During the Battle of Trenton, Dr. deBelleville ordered both sides to carry their wounded to a bloodgood maple tree in the middle of the battlefield and he treated them all. “Like his namesake on the battlefield,” said Mimi, “Dad did not discriminate among those who are wounded in the fight for freedom and justice.”

After the service everyone retired to the Prospect House, a Victorian mansion in the center of campus, which once housed Princeton University presidents such as Woodrow Wilson. At the Prospect House friends, family and colleagues from as far back as Katzenbach’s days in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to his tenure as general counsel at IBM, and beyond, mingled and reminisced about the man who not only impacted the hundreds in attendance, but also this nation.

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One response to this post.

  1. LOVE the LBJ anecdote! What a life he led… Thanks for the posting.

    Reply

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