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facts & arguments

Dick DeShaw

Philosopher, blogger, prison guard, father. Born on March 6, 1938, in Havre, Mont.; died on July 9, 2014, in Kingston, Ont., of a heart attack; aged 76.

Dick started out as a journeyman ironworker in Spokane, Wash., always into books, a fascination that found a home in philosophy. "I have grown to love paths that lead from reason to understanding," he said.

Summers he worked the high steel, winters he went to university. While doing outreach work at a small church, he met Rose. On their second date he said, "I always thought my wife would be a brunette," leaving her to interpret this as a proposal.

They married and moved to Seattle, where son Andrew was born. Dick worked on the freeways, up to his waist in mud. Aghast, Rose got a job at Central Washington University and sent him back to school, where he took a double major in psychology and philosophy. He graduated at 30 and received a philosophy fellowship from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The family moved to Canada, with Dick shaving his beard and donning a suit and tie after hearing that hippies were being turned back at the border.

By his mid-40s, he had a master's degree in sociology from York University and started doctoral work in social and political thought. When daughter Rell and son Louis came along, he and Rose took turns working and going to school. They became Canadian citizens while running a group home for the Children's Aid Society in Toronto.

Then Dick applied to be a prison guard at Collins Bay Institution and moved his family to Kingston, Ont. The jobs he had taken to finance his education had catapulted him behind bars. "Ideal employment for a philosopher," he called prison.

As a social worker, he would sometimes visit parents in his caseload who were serving time. Later, as a guard, he occasionally met the grown children with whom he had worked, now imprisoned themselves. "Our graduates," he called this sad situation. He had also worked for an organization that helped prisoners, settling the affairs of those newly sentenced or finding jobs for the newly released. A focused, completely nonjudgmental listener, Dick could win over the toughest con.

Over the years, as crime became more violent and drug-related, so too did the inmate population. But Dick took the lockdowns, knifings and the regular breaking of his nose in stride, while blogging about incarceration.

After being stabbed by a prisoner, Dick developed post-traumatic stress disorder, which brought an end to his career and threatened his marriage. In despair, he began searching philosophy for something to help. Meanwhile, rather than leave him, his wife found her own way out through Al-Anon's 12-step program (although neither she nor Dick drank). Incorporating the steps into the writings of Spinoza and Descartes, who had their own guidelines for living, Dick at last found the healing that eluded him through counselling or medications. When he spoke at a national PTSD conference last June, Dick demonstrated that stress disease, for him, was a thing of the past.

With pipe, long beard and a cap bearing Spinoza's image, Dick became a familiar sight sitting in front of his home, talking and reading. He believed we are always in eternity. "Eternity is just a euphemism for now," he explained. "And we always look backward at now."

Rose DeShaw is Dick's wife.