A Bell Tolls for Walter Sartory

March 31, 2009

"Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."  John Donne

When Walter Sartory left the Center for Inquiry’s Winter Institute in January, I remember hoping to see him at our   conference in Washington D.C. in April.

 He was painfully shy and mostly silent during the 5 days of classes in   Hollywood , but he seemed to enjoy the stimulating lectures and discussions. Maybe he’d be a bit more comfortable in Washington, I thought.

My anticipation turned to shock recently when I learned of his   brutal murder , apparently at the hands of a pair who was after his money. The two suspects have been arrested and seem to be en route to long prison terms.

I don’t know enough about Walter to write his obituary here, although from   what I read , he was a highly capable engineer at the   Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and had few friends.

Despite his discomfort around most people, Walter found purpose in his atheism and spent considerable time and money to attend CFI classes and conferences. At these events, he found like-minded people and information about secular philosophy. These activities also probably afforded him some relief from the fundamentalism of the bible-belt towns where he lived in Tennessee and Kentucky - the latter minutes from the   Creation Museum .

Although I barely knew Walter Sartory, his death does affect me.

How do secular humanists deal with death - especially senseless death?

For me, the first step is always sadness. I wouldn’t call Walter a sweet old man - he was far too shy to be sweet - but he was a likeable, decent man, and he made the effort to be part of our gathering. It saddened me to think of a frail, 73-year-old man suffering any kind of harsh treatment. No innocent should have to endure such torment, or die such a death.

The second step for me was anger. The mere thought of this heinous crime is infuriating. What kind of bully could terrorize a reclusive old man? It made me feel helpless. I dreamt of answering the door at his house when the murderers arrived. They’d see me and decide to call the whole thing off. But that can’t happen. The past is frozen in place and there is nothing we the living can do.

The next step for me was understanding. I remind myself that a vast majority of humans fall within a range between pure virtue and total malevolence. Walter crossed paths with two people from the cruel end of the spectrum and did not have the means to evade or defeat them. Sometimes there is little we can do about the random events that overtake us.

As horrible as Walter’s death is, it does not create cynicism in me. To simply characterize the world as a cruel place is to miss the mostly gray tones. But his death reminds me that there are vicious people out there - a fact unlikely to change anytime soon.

Where do we go from here? We can be ever vigilant against those who would do harm to others. We can find some reasonable attitude toward the sick and the brutal that both encompasses compassion and insists on the safety of the Walter Sartorys of the world.

And we can remember Walter himself, an introverted man who sought the company of fellow atheists and humanists, and the knowledge behind their worldview.



#1 Reba Boyd Wooden on Tuesday March 31, 2009 at 3:58pm

A very touching tribute.

#2 Reba Boyd Wooden on Tuesday March 31, 2009 at 4:29pm

I sent this link to my brother-in-law.  He and my sister live near Morgan Monroe State Forest just north of Bloomington.  He worked for a while as a security person there but don’t think he would have been working during the time any of this happened.

#3 jim (Guest) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 at 5:00pm

Cheers.  A toast to Walter.  No one should leave us without a few well-chosen words.

#4 Edward F. Gumnick (Guest) on Tuesday March 31, 2009 at 5:19pm

I enjoyed the privilege of meeting Walter Sartory at the CFI Winter Institute. He joined a small group of us for lunch between sessions one day, and although he didn’t say much, he listened with great attention, then chose his few words with care and deliberateness. I wish that there had been time to know him better. What a sad and senseless tragedy his death was!

Thanks, Jim, for your tribute to Walter.

#5 Valerie Bertinelli Weight loss (Guest) on Thursday April 02, 2009 at 2:23am

Sent this to my brother, I am sure he will be touched as well!

#6 asanta on Tuesday April 07, 2009 at 2:54pm

What horrible people to commit such a heinous crime.He seemed to be a nice elderly man just trying to live his life. What a touching tribute to a man who did not seem to have any close relatives, it is obvious that the few friends he had were genuine and caring.Quality is better than quantity any day. Hopefully justice will ensure these people will not victimize anyone else…ever.

#7 Steve Allison (Guest) on Monday April 13, 2009 at 5:39pm


I appreciate so much your tribute to Walt.

I worked with him off and on from 1979 to when he retired from Oak Ridge National Lab in the early 1990’s.  He was quiet but had quite a sense of humor.  When he learned I was having wisdom tooth surgery he poked his head into my office and said “Steve, they wanted me to have that too but I was hoping I’d get lucky and die of cancer first.”  I nearly died laughing. 

It hurts me to know how much injury physical and mental they put him through.  I’ve thought of him often since learning of his murder.

#8 Lily (Guest) on Sunday April 19, 2009 at 9:41pm

I knew Walt, but only on line.  He actually was a quite remarkable man.  He suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which would explain what was seen as his shyness, many people who have schizophrenia have problems socializing.  But in spite of all his illness put him through he achieved and maintained levels of education and career few victims of schizophrenia can. Nor most “normal” people either for that matter.  In addition to his brilliance he was warm, quite funny at times, and supportive of others. 

I only learned of this dreadful atrocity last night, and haven’t come to terms with it yet so can’t say much more.  I’m glad to learn Walt had people here who cared about him.  He also had a lot of friends elsewhere on line who are appalled and saddened by what was inflicted on him.  He is a real loss.

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#11 Dianne Nelson (Guest) on Monday April 27, 2009 at 2:31pm

Walt was a friend of mine for about 15 to 20 years. We only spoke online and he was a great person to know. He was supportive to his online friends and we are going to miss him terribly. I can’t believe he had to endure such torture. All those years of paranoia and then for that to happen to him. He will be missed dearly.

Dianne AKA girl

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