Don Edwards, R.I.P.

October 11th, 2015

Annapolis and Anne Arundel County lost a remarkable, delightful former neighbor on October 1, when Don Edwards, a 20-year resident of Mayo, passed away at the spectacular age of 100.
Don, and his late wife, Edie Wilkie, were passionate enthusiasts of the Chesapeake Bay. Their beautiful waterfront home was on Holly Point, between the South and West Rivers, on high ground looking southeast down the Bay. They birded and boated and swam and entertained there in high style. (Full disclosure: my wife, Susy, and I were longtime friends and frequent guests of Don and Edie and, on one stunning fall day, were married beneath the tall trees on Holly Point. So, there is no pretense of objectivity here.)
William Donlon Edwards, as he was christened in 1915, spent 32 years in Congress, representing San Jose, CA, and a swath of San Francisco Bay. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights, he became a celebrated champion of free speech, human rights and equality for women, minorities and the disabled.
Don was proud to be labeled “relentlessly liberal,” and counted among the highpoints of his Congressional career the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in 1975, the abolition of the infamous smear-machine, The House Un-American Activities Committee.
No pacifist – he had served in the Navy in World War II – Don nonetheless was an early and vocal opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam and opposed our other hapless adventures in Grenada, Iraq and elsewhere. I once asked him what we should do in Iraq after Saddam Hussein had been overthrown, when conservatives were warning that we must not “cut and run.”
“Cut and run,” he said, flatly.
Had we listened to Don, and to Edie, who was as ardently anti-war as her husband, we could have saved a decade of losses and heartache.
Don was a proud, capital D, Democrat, who had grown up in a prosperous, Republican family in San Jose and been president of the California Young Republicans. Disillusioned with the GOP’s rightward drift, he won a four-way Democratic primary in 1962 by 726 votes and never had a close election again.
Graduating from Stanford University, Don was a crack golfer who went on to win the Bing Crosby Clambake — the forerunner of today’s ATT Pro-Am tournament– at Pebble Beach as an amateur. When he told his crusty and opinionated father that he wanted to turn pro and play golf for a living, the elder Edwards blustered: “Don’t be ridiculous! There’ll never be any money in golf. Go to law school.”
After Stanford Law, Don became, by his own description, “the worst FBI agent in the history of the Bureau.” One of his early assignments, was to photograph the automobile license plates arriving at a mob funeral outside Detroit.
“I hid behind a bush beside the side of the road,” Don told me, laughing. “When a car approached, I’d jump out, take the picture, and jump back. When the film was developed, all I had were pictures of the bush!”
In Congress, the former agent became a leading critic of the Bureau, which he thought compromised people’s civil rights, and especially its dictatorial Director, J. Edgar Hoover. The enmity was mutual.
Once, when Don floated the idea of retiring from Congress years before he did, it made the papers and Hoover clipped the article at his desk and scrawled across it: “Good riddance!” and signed it “H.” Don eventually got the clipping, had it framed, and displayed it proudly at Holly Point.
He also framed and hung in the bathroom at Holly Point his member’s pass to the impeachment hearings of Richard M. Nixon. Don was among the committee members who voted in favor of all the articles of impeachment.
Don’s life-long commitment to racial equality led him to march in Mississippi in 1964 and demonstrate against apartheid in South Africa decades later.
With his usual good timing, Don announced his retirement from Congress at the age of 79 before the election of 1994, when the GOP captured the majority in the House.
He and Edie divided their time after that, summers at Holly Point, winters in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA. When Susy and I visited them in Carmel, as we did once or twice a year, Don would always ask me: “How’s the Bay?”
“I love The Chesapeake,” he’d say with a big smile.


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