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Eli Segal: An Appreciation

Dotty Lynch is CBSNews.com's Political Points columnist. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points.


"I have been talking to his close friends, "said Matt Bennett, "and they are all a wreck about this." 'This' is the sickness and death of 63-year-old Eli Segal, a former Democratic campaign operative and head of countless good guy organizations including AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps created during the Clinton administration.

Bennett, who worked with Segal in the Wesley Clark campaign for president, had been asked to compile material for an obit, something no one ever wanted to see.

On Wednesday, Boston's Temple Israel was packed with hundreds of friends of Eli's from presidential campaigns ranging from Gene McCarthy and George McGovern to Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark, in addition to many alums of AmeriCorps.

Since the word spread that Eli was seriously ill from mesothelioma, there have been over 7700 visitors to the Caringbridge.org web site, a fabulous site that kept people informed of his condition and allowed friends to e-mail messages of love and concern for the smart, warm consummate citizen and politician who touched so many.

Eli had a wonderful smile and a twinkle in his eye that made you want to see it over and over. My husband - who worked for him as a young lawyer on the McGovern Commission tasked with redoing the Democratic Party's nominating rules - said he never remembered working so hard, not because Eli put any pressure on him but because he never wanted to let Eli down.

David Henkel, who worked for Segal at AmeriCorps, had the same recollection. "Disappointing Eli would be like disappointing your Dad," Henkel said. Eli was one of those inspirational leaders who threw himself into campaigns and causes and brought people with him because his excitement and commitment were so complete and so infectious.

Eli never stopped getting excited about people and causes and never stopped believing he could make a difference. He was, of course, human and would occasionally get discouraged. His friend Miles Rubin once told me that he thought some people got discouraged because their expectations were too high.

But Eli would bounce back and after others from a campaign or a project had returned to "real life," Eli would be back in action and on the phone, coaxing them back, telling them that this candidate or that idea was the greatest yet. And soon they would re-up in Eli's Army.

Senators Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton both spoke, invoking the words of John and Robert Kennedy, and of Eli himself.

Former President Clinton and Senator Clinton had visited with Segal one afternoon a few weeks ago to say goodbye to a man who was their friend and who devoted himself to them and succeeded in leaving a major legacy for the Clinton administration in AmeriCorps and the Welfare to Work project.

Clinton showed her softest and most personal side as she remembered Eli, as if his warmth enabled her to let down her guard and speak from the heart.

The service was filled with personal memories of this committed liberal who was the antithesis of the caricature of liberals promulgated by the right. Segal was first and foremost a man dedicated to his family, especially to his wife of forty years and his children, who said over and over that he was never too busy to stop everything for them.

Eli was a Democratic stalwart who recognized the need for bipartisanship and corporate partnerships to bring about real social change. His main indulgence was not white wine and brie, but coffee ice cream and jelly beans, which he loved to sneak to his grandson.

And he was a patriot. The most tender moment in the service - a letter to Eli from his son, Jon – was followed by the congregation singing a true anthem of the early 60s: "Try to Remember." Eli's wife, Phyllis, then led the group in the AmeriCorps pledge:

I will get things done for America -

to make our people safer, smarter and healthier.

I will bring Americans together

to strengthen our communities.

Faced with apathy, I will take action.

Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground.

Faced with adversity, I will persevere.

I will carry this commitment with me this year and beyond.

I am an AmeriCorps member,

and I will get things done.

I told Matt Bennett that the devastation Eli's friends feel is a combination of their fading youth and his enduring spirit. Because of that spirit, those friends can't let go of their youthful idealism. They have to keep believing and trying. Because if they stopped, they might disappoint Eli. And how could anyone ever think of doing that?
By Dotty Lynch
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