Walter C. Urbigkit, “he was a good friend of mine, I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine!” Walter loved the language enough to use it fully. A dictionary in your hip pocket was helpful when you had a conversation with him. We first met in 1969. I was barely old enough to drink and we’d leave Democratic Party meetings for a booth at the old Club Araby on Carey Avenue. We’d order one round and another, listening attentively to Walter talking politics and quoting Robert Service poetry.
Walter loved Robert Service poems. This morning I came across “A Busy Man, “ one that reminded me of Walter’s profound life.
This crowded life of God's good giving
No man has relished more than I;
I've been so goldarned busy living...
I've never had the time to die.
I’ve not known anyone so “goldarned busy living” as Walter. For a while my family and I lived in a house next to his law office. I’d get up before 6 AM every morning but the light was already on in the office window I could see though the one in my kitchen. There was Walter, a stack of law books in front of him, already long at work.
I served with Walter in the Legislature, had the joy of sitting next to him. I believe him to be the only member of the Wyoming legislature not only to read every bill but to understand them all as well. He could speak with authority on every issue. I had known him for many years before it occurred to me that at least some of what he said was mere opinion and not actually gospel.
I recall one of those long evenings at the Araby. He was unhappy with the outcome of the 1972 Democratic National Convention. I thought they had done the Party and the nation a service by nominating George McGovern, a candidate who would end the war in Viet Nam. But Walter was an old Hubert H. Humphrey liberal. As Walter dropped a tip on the table and stood to leave, he said, “I guess my problem is I am just not much of a liberal anymore.”
I realized later that it wasn’t Walter who’d changed. It was the definition of “liberal.” Walter’s idea of a liberal was not George McGovern but Hubert Humphrey, who defined liberals for his generation saying, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Whether you quote from an Urbigkit speech on the floor of the House of Representatives or from one of his opinions as a Supreme Court Justice or simply recall one of his dissertations during a late night Araby conference, that was the thread that ran through his life. It’s what he believed whether he was running for office or sharing a conversation over a drink. It’s who he was and why he will be missed.
It’s regretful Wyoming doesn’t take more time to remember and celebrate its fallen “stars.” They burn brightly across the sky and fall to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Within a generation or less they are but footnotes in a history book. Walter didn’t live his life hoping to be remembered but we’d do well to remember his as we live whatever life we have remaining.
Walter C. Urbigkit earned the rest God promises us all, the one with which Robert concludes his poem.
And now I'll toddle to the garden
And light a good old Henry Clay.
I'm ninety odd,
so Lord, please pardon my frequent lapses by the way.
I'm getting tired; the sunset lingers;
The evening star serenes the sky;
The damn cigar burns to my fingers . . . I guess . . .
I'll take . . . time off . . . to die.