“I attended the funeral of a pediatrician in New Jersey last weekend. The place was packed. This fellow was revered in the community. His patients just loved him. And here’s the thing: he was such a humble guy.”
We pulled on our coats in the locker room and gathered our belongings, preparing to head out after the morning workout in the pool. One of my swimming buddies has a link to New Jersey: his wife’s family is from there. The pediatrician of whom he spoke was a cousin of his father-in-law.
“Google him if you get a chance,” my friend said, as we walked down the hallway past the front desk. “Be sure to read the condolences in the guest book—the comments are amazing. There must be at least 120 of them.”
“What town did he practice in?” I asked, as we exited the building.
My friend told me the name of the small town.
“Is that anywhere near Paterson?” I asked.
“I wonder if he knew the pediatrician William Carlos Williams. Williams practiced in Paterson and wrote Life along the Passaic River. He was also a poet.”
“A poet-pediatrician,” my friend smiled.
“You might have heard of Robert Coles,” I went on, “the child psychiatrist who teaches literature at Harvard. As an undergraduate, Coles did a paper on Williams. His advisor suggested that he send it to Williams. Coles did, and he received a reply from Williams, who wrote that the thesis wasn’t bad for a Harvard man.”
We walked to our cars and stowed our bags.
“Williams invited Coles to visit him. They struck a chord. Coles eventually ended up practicing psychiatry at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. That was back in the ’60s, during the school integration crisis. In New Orleans he witnessed the mob of people jeering at Ruby Bridges, the little black girl who had to be escorted to her school every morning by federal marshals.
“Coles got to meet Ruby and her family professionally. He couldn’t believe the kid’s ego strength. He kept waiting for her to break. How much abuse could a 6-year-old girl take? Finally, at one of their sessions, he told Ruby that her teacher had noticed her lips moving as she walked to school. He asked her what she was saying.
“She told him that she was praying. ‘Praying for your safety?’ Coles asked. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I was praying that God would forgive those angry people, because they really don’t know what they’re doing.’
“Later, Coles complied an anthology of Williams’ writings called The Doctor Stories. He also published a posthumous tribute to Williams, House Calls.”
My friend smiled. “Good story. It’s all connected.”
I shut the door of my car. “Ripple effect—like stones cast in a pond.”
When I got home, I did an online search for Robert Rento. In a few clicks I had accessed his obituary. Here are several salient excerpts.
For over 40 years he evaluated students at Passaic County Technical Institute where he was known for making a connection with each and every child. “This was not so much a job to him as it was a calling,” recalled one nurse.
At her father’s core, daughter Susan Cottle said, was “a God-given ability to get on an elemental level with another human, often with humor or kindness as the connective tissue.”
“And he was an excellent communicator. When he walked out of that treatment room after seeing a kid, those parents knew exactly what was going on.”
Dr. Rento took advantage of his semi-retirement to reach far beyond his Clifton roots, traveling to Nepal, China, and Brazil with volunteer, non-profit medical teams to provide aid to children. These trips touched him deeply and re-invigorated his desire to continue his life’s work as a physician. In 2009 he received the Humanitarian Award from the Knights of Columbus for this work.
Dr. Rento will be remembered for his strength of character, for “getting the job done,” for his love of story-telling, his boundless energy, and perhaps mostly for the kind, competent manner in which he cared for those in need and all those he loved.
Some will bear witness through their words, others through their actions; still others—precious few—through the lives they lead.
Like stones cast into a pond, they resonate through the murky depths, generating those ripples which spread wider and wider until they are finally embraced by the great arc of the far shore.