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From The Morning Call
June 3, 2006

Civic treasure Dorothy Roth stood tall

Bill White
''Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill?

''He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.'' — Psalms 15.

A year after Dorothy Roth's husband Saul died, she unveiled an unusual tombstone for him. It was large enough to carry extra details about his life.

She explained that she had a problem with the dash on most tombstones, the one between the year you were born and the year you died. That dash is so inadequate to convey all that lay between.

''Only those who knew and loved that person know how much that line meant,'' she said. ''Not how much he or she owned — the cars, the house, the cash — but the things that mattered. How the person lived and loved, and how much of themselves they shared with others.''

Looking back on Saul's life, she concluded, ''Saul spent his dash well.''

I didn't know Saul, except through reputation and the shrine his wife maintained in their home. But Dorothy died on Tuesday at age 83, and I can tell you firsthand that her dash was amazing.

The biographical highlights are impressive enough. The tiny South African transplant and her husband raised a wonderful family. Dorothy was a tireless civic activist and a talented artist. She fought for drug treatment programs, treatment of sex offenders, veterans' rights, the arts, education. She was a strong voice for racial and religious harmony and honest government. She was a trusted adviser for mayors, legislators and other political leaders. She was a prolific and influential writer of letters to the editor on a wide range of subjects.

Still, all that is as inadequate as the dash between 1923 and 2006. To really understand what we had and what we have lost, you needed to meet her in person. Dorothy truly was one of a kind.

Gracious, funny, cultured and increasingly frail in her older years, she would be easy to underestimate as a nice little old woman — unless you've seen her flay a politician or a bureaucrat, fighting for a cause that was important to her, refusing to back down. There was steel under that ladylike exterior.

At her funeral Thursday, this was described as ''vigorous honesty.'' ''Fearless tenacity.'' ''Irrepressible.'' ''Indomitable.'' Even ''pugnacious.''

The Rev. Franklin Sherman, former director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College, explained, ''She wouldn't take 'who cares' for an answer.''

I don't think I've ever met anyone who took her responsibilities of citizenship more seriously. The 80 percent of you registered voters who shunned the polls last month would do well to remember Dorothy Roth, who insisted on being wheeled a few years ago from her hospital bed so she could vote in the primary election. She complained that the resulting newspaper photos made her look like ''a bat out of hell,'' but they spoke volumes about her values.

''I feel a great responsibility because this is my country by adoption,'' she told me later. ''I feel I can never give back to America what I've received.''

I'd say America made out very well in the deal.

Robert Csandl, executive director of Treatment Trends, reminded the mourners that Roth has been complaining for the last few years that she was shrinking with old age.

''I would think to myself how tall she really stood,'' he said.

As we left the funeral home, someone commented, ''We lost a great one.'' Still, as I write this, my strongest emotion isn't grief. It's gratitude.

Dorothy Roth spent her dash with us. For that, we all should be very grateful.

bill.white@mcall.com

610-861-3632