by Mari Carlin Dart

Justin DartAs a child I did not know my uncle. Years ago when I asked my father about his older brother, he lowered his eyes and ran a heavy hand over his head with a sigh. Nothing. The old "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" approach. My mother was not so diplomatic. "Poisonous," she said of Justin Dart, Jr., "a heartless, caustic, sorry excuse for a human being."

My father Peter W. Dart died, mercifully, in his sleep on January 27, 1988. Years of dealing with the effects of polio and a serious head injury had taken all of the fight out of him. Long gone were the days of fly fishing the Roaring Fork River propped up on metal crutches. Gone was the beloved airplane he piloted as deftly and gracefully as a skater gliding across the ice. Gone, even, was all short term memory, sharpness of sight and the ability to take a deep breath. The last to be taken from him, only days before his death, were his crutches (in trade for a wheelchair) and his drivers license. The bleakness of the depression he had struggled with for years closed over him as he gave up the last vestiges of his independence.

I was surprised and admittedly curious when Justin rolled through the wheelchair accessible front door for my father's memorial service. I didn't know that by this time Justin was already deep into his work crafting legislation to empower people with disabilities. Indeed, Justin had put in nearly 30 years of tireless and selfless work on behalf of the disability community, speaking out in all 50 states and circumnavigating the globe in a crusade to affect change. All I knew was that this man in a battered old cowboy hat and boots was the stuff of scary stories in my family. He was legendary for the swath of pain and destruction he had wrought. But when I looked into his clear blue eyes I couldn't find any evidence of the arrogance and anger I'd heard so much about. On the contrary, when Justin took my hand for the first time and smiled gently at me in greeting, I recognized the stillness that comes from deep self-examination.

I felt only love. "How can this be?" I thought. What about the divorces, the trail of disgruntled daughters Justin had left in his wake? I felt as though a chapter of my family story had been ripped out. Suddenly nothing added up. I felt cheated. How could my father have denied me knowing this beautiful man--his only full brother--until now? And why did it take my father's death for me to be able to put my hand in Justin's? The answer, it turns out, was both simple and complex, as families often are.

Justin was born to privilege and power--the kind that breeds contempt and a sense of entitlement. I was sitting next to his adjustable, hospital-style bed in his crowded Washington D.C. apartment when he told me he and my father had grown up "in an atmosphere of hostility which totally dominated (our) childhood." Life was full of fiery dinner table discussions, unrestrained emotional eruptions and quirky turns of judgment, such as the time his father arrived home with two lion cubs--pets for his young boys. "My father was a college football star" Justin said understating the elder Dart by a mile. "(He was) a super successful executive and conservative political activist." Justin Dart, Sr. climbed to the top at the Walgreen Company then left, eventually forming what would become Dart Industries, a multi-national conglomerate. As if the bar was not set high enough by the aggressive ambition of Justin Sr., his mother Ruth Walgreen brought to the mix a sharp artistic intellect that was tempered with dark and stormy episodes of depression. "My mother combined movie star good looks (with) wealth and a genius IQ to become a prominent author," Justin said. It was a dysfunctional marriage. The two extremely driven and fiery parents had little time or inclination for child rearing , let alone parental bonding. "(We were) basically raised by maids and chauffeurs." Justin stated bluntly. The ill-fated match didn't last. In 1939 Justin Dart, Sr. and Ruth Walgreen divorced, but not before subjecting their young sons to a very bitter and public custody battle.

"I decided the only way to establish my own identity," Justin said of his youth, "was to become a hostile 'super loser.'" To prove the point, Justin blasted his way in and out of some the country's most prestigious prep schools. "When I was 14," he told me, "I broke the all-time demerit record at Andover." At home, sibling rivalry turned violent when Justin threw a dart at my father, sinking it deep into the bridge of his nose. "I was an obnoxious kid." Justin said. "I never met a person I couldn't insult or a rule I wouldn't break."

As if in cruel cosmic response to his contemptuous attitude six feet tall, handsome and rich 18 year old Justin Dart Jr. was stricken with polio in 1948. "The doctors at Los Angeles County hospital told my parents I was going to die in a few days," Justin explained, "but not to worry, I'd be better off dead than crippled." Without waiting to see if the doctors were right, Justin's family quickly had him moved to White Memorial Hospital, operated by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In one fell swoop, the course of his life was altered forever. He not only lost the use of his legs, but because of a hospital staffed by employees "to whom every human life was sacred," Justin found something he didn't know he had. "I measure the good part of my life from the time I got sick," Justin told me, not losing any of the irony of the statement.



More stories from Diahann Carroll issue:

Interview with Diahann Carroll

Interview with FCC Chairman William Kennard

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