His email handle was Happy Wally. His happiness came from his wife of 50 years, the joy of his grandchildren, and by trying to give away all of his considerable real estate fortune to make the world better. In this goal too, Wally seemed to succeed before his death Monday.
When we got together, about twice per year, usually over breakfast or lunch, he always had a written list of questions for me about one of our consumer group's missives or quotes in the newspaper, and how we could get the political change we desired. We would go over them one by one. He would shake his head at the injustice de jour, and how political corruption sustained it, and we would talk tactics.
Wally's questions weren't the probing inquiries you would expect of a successful real estate developer who had invested his winnings in progressive causes for decades. They were the happy, innocent questions of a deeply curious human being who simply cared about others who did not have the same wealth or safety he had.
Caring for Wally wasn't simply caring. He was literally embarrassed at living comfortably in a world where so many were uncomfortable, and wanted to give all he had to change it.
Health care reform. Campaign finance reform. Peace in the Middle East. The most vexing questions for humanity are where Wally Marks gave his time, energy, curiosity and money.
You could see that Wally was a humanist just by witnessing his quiet, gentle way. He helped with kind words, good ideas, calls to friends and big checks that he handed over without comment, strings or pomp. The donation came simply with a pat on the back and an almost embarrassed look to the pavement that he could write such a check in the first place. It was as though he was paying a debt to you.
The last time I saw him, almost exactly a year ago last Passover, for a matzo brie breakfast the Lux Hotel in Bel Air, he told me that within a year his money would be gone because he would be successful at giving it all away. I gratefully took the check he offered, and was glad to see how content the thought of full divestment of his wealth made him.
Wally Marks was a rare man, and a true Progressive. He gave all he had for progress with no expectation of anything in return other than knowing that the conditions of other people with less would be more equal to his own. It made him happy.
I can only imagine how, over the years, many of his liberal neighbors, who have since given their fortunes back to Bernie Madoff or the stock market, thought Wally was nuts. In the end, Wally Marks showed them his simple path to progress worked: living is giving.