David Woodman was a generous 22-year-old who lived on the edge of absent-mindedness. As a former San Josean and a student at Emmanuel College in Boston, he would readily give up his coat or gloves to a homeless person. "It used to make me crazy when he'd come home with no coat after I knew I had just gotten him one," his mother, Cathy, said.
David didn't make the distinctions of class or money that the rest of us often do. One of his favorite pursuits was to play chess with a homeless man who brought his own set with him to the Fenway area of Boston. In the end, that was the inspiration for the memorial his family created for him.
On a recent swing through the East Coast, my wife and I saw plenty of memorials. In the little town of Goshen, N.Y., I inspected an obelisk erected for one of my ancestors that said -- erroneously -- that he had voted for the Declaration of Independence (It was close, but no cigar). At West Point, we saw paintings of the great generals. We viewed the standard homage to the past in Boston in the shape of buildings, statues, graveyards.
Nothing moved me as much as the two metal chess tables and a tree that David's family planted near a set of basketball courts in an urban park.
I knew David when he was growing up in San Jose because his family, like ours, sent kids to St. Timothy's Lutheran School. For a while, we were the only two families with four kids who attended. I remember a blond, gentle and athletic kid.
David's family moved to the East Coast in 2000, when David was 14. My wife kept in touch with the Woodmans through email and Facebook. So when David died after being taken into the custody of Boston police in 2008, we heard about it right away.
Taken into custody
The circumstances are still murky: On the night of a Celtics championship, David and some companions were walking near Emmanuel College when he apparently made a wryly sarcastic comment about the concentration of cops on a particular corner. Witnesses said the cops, noting that Woodman was carrying a plastic cup, slammed the student to the ground and handcuffed him.
While David was in police custody, an old heart ailment flared and he stopped breathing. The cops did not move fast enough to get him medical attention -- and while he was revived, he died 11 days later.
After an investigation made clear that the cops had not followed correct protocol, the city of Boston made a $3 million settlement with his family. With the money, the Woodmans have started a foundation to help the homeless and benefit the young men of a juvenile facility in Springfield, Massachusetts, the kind of place where David hoped to teach one day.
"It seemed obvious that whatever we were going to do in his memory needed to be to reach out to the ignored or forgotten," his mother said.
Which brings me to my point. David's family made sure that the chess tables had pieces tucked into plastic bags in the seats. "When the chess game is over, the pawn and the king go back in the same box," says the inscription, attributed to an old Irish saying.
The pawn and the king go back in the same box. It's not a bad inscription. And it's what a young man believed.