While waiting for my grandson Stephen to return from day camp today at the Tynan School, in South Boston, everybody was talking about how Robin Williams touched, so many people from Boston's lives. He had time for everybody while filming "Good Will Hunting." "So much to live for, yet it's all mystery", one South Boston mother said to me. "It's always one day at a time isn't it," another grandmother said. "We've had our share of Hollywood celebrities over here, but we felt Robin Williams was one of us." "Ray, you should represent us at his funeral. He was like family," a Boston policeman said to us. The children were 50 minutes late, so the 20 or so parents and grandparents had plenty of time to discuss and reflect on the tragic and breaking news about Robin Williams tragic death. I even told them the story about how Robin called me one day while I was U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, asking me, if I thought the Pope would ever meet with him. "Yes, of course. The Pope is a good and caring man, and so are you", I responded. Robin was always trying to make you laugh, so I never knew when he was serious. But after his suicide became public, more things about Robin became clearer to me.
When people feel stigmatized and don't know where to turn for support and understanding, maybe they will think of Robin Williams and feel that they are not alone and that other people do care. Every life is precious and we all depend on each other. To break the dependency on drugs or alcohol we turn to others for help, but where does a person, who is privately suffering from mental illness and depression turn? I hope to each other. Maybe this will be Robin's most important contribution in life--looking out for each other in time of need. To know each other's pain is to know God. Robin showed us how to laugh, now maybe we can show each other how to care.
What a defining and teaching moment this could be in America. Robin saw and understood the pain of depression and mental illness. Maybe it's time the rest of us did as well. Neurological illnesses are simply not receiving the kind of attention that is needed in the United States today by our political leaders. I've been saying this a lot lately, but not much ever gets done about it. Just politics as usual. A health care system that doesn't help millions of desperate people. More medical research is needed. I have seen too many good people take their own lives because of despair. Maybe Robin Williams tragedy will help our country to be more up front and finally begin to deal with brain illnesses.
In the early 1980's, I received a telephone call from Robin Williams. "Mr. Mayor, I like what you and the other mayors are trying to do in helping all those homeless people sleeping on the freezing city streets. I hear you are building a new facility to provide a warm bed, medical care, a decent hot meal and job training in Boston. We want to help you." At the time, I was Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Committee on Hunger and Homelessness. Federal cuts in affordable housing and the closing of mentally ill facilities, all across the country were denying the homeless of their dignity and causing havoc in our cities.
Robin Williams apparently heard about what we were trying to do and became a big supporter. I invited him to Thanksgiving Dinner at the new Long Island Homeless Shelter with a few hundred homeless men and women. The guests said they have never had such a good time. Robin talked to them individually and as a group for over 2 hours. The respect he demonstrated for each and every homeless man and woman was inspiring. I thought that this guy really connects with these people, many slept on the streets and in the Boston Common. After the dinner and entertainment, I drove him and Billy Crystal around Boston before taking him back to the airport. He asked me a lot of questions about a survey and report about the homeless population in America, which I was the author of. He seemed especially concerned about the mentally ill, but also asked the staff to point out who the military veterans were. I had boxes of candy for the homeless, but I gave them to Robin to hand out. It was like giving him a million dollars.
But that would not be the last time I heard from Robin Williams. He would call me to seriously discuss the homeless crisis in America, especially the large number of confused men and backed it up with comedy benefits and financial support for other big cities. He even called me when I was U.S Ambassador to the Vatican. "I'm coming to Rome. Do you think that the Pope would see me," he asked. I wasn't sure he was serious. "Sure, the Pope would love you. He's a kind and caring man, just like you," I said. I never knew when he was kidding, but this time there was a long pause on the phone.
He never came to Rome. I met him again in Boston while he was filming "Good Will Hunting" where he won an Oscar for his role in the movie. At the awards ceremony, he publicly praised the people of South Boston and said, "God Bless the people of South Boston. You're a can of corn. You're the best."
I don't have to tell anyone that Robin Williams was not only a great actor and comedian. But he was even a better person, as best, as I could see. Under that quick wit and funny one liners, I saw a sensitive and complex man. He was always performing and maybe didn't want people to know, who he really was. A man with a value system, who felt others pain. When the White House and State Houses turned their backs on the poor and sick homeless in our cities, he saw the pain and despair. He called me on behalf of the homeless and mentally ill in our cities to ask America's mayors what he could do to help us out.
Robin wasn't looking for headlines, he was trying to help people who needed it the most. People he seemed to understand and certainly cared about.
I'm no medical doctor or expert and I don't even know if Robin Williams was religious or not, but I do believe, that there has to be a special place in Heaven for him.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.