In Memoriam Dan Sachs '60
By Matthew Nimetz, in The American Oxonian, October 1967
Daniel M. Sachs
(New Jersey and Worcester, 1960)
died of cancer on June 20, 1967. He had struggled gallantly against the disease for nearly three years, never losing his self-command, not faltering in his determination to devote his life to public service.
Dan was widely known and admired as one of Princeton’s finest athletes: he was captain of the freshman football team; in his sophomore year he was chosen as an All-Ivy tailback after having scored eight touchdowns and gained 477 yards rushing and 155 yards passing. At Oxford he won a Blue in rugby, playing against Cambridge at Twickenham in 1962. But to concentrate on his athletic achievements is misleading, for sports was but one part of his life and one that he preferred not to emphasize except as a manifestation of his intense but good-natured competitiveness and of his dedication to self-discipline. “I get little satisfaction out of athletic honors,” he once wrote, noting at the same time that he was among those who found it ”attractive to scorn our peculiar excellences while at the same instant we labor to perfect them.”
There was nothing of bravado about Dan. If anything, he was introspective, reserved, and soft-spoken, not from shyness but from a sense of deliberateness that made him reluctant to speak out or to impose himself unless he was sure of his ground and his company. He was self-confident and felt no need to impress a casual acquaintance, although he usually did; he preferred to observe people and their activities and to absorb what occurred around him. He was not fond of gossip or aimless chatter. Grand subjects—the major political issues of our age, the great events of history, philosophical problems—preoccupied him and would entertain his attention and his sense of humor. In his last weeks, for example, he spoke enthusiastically about Robert Blake’s new biography of Disraeli, several reviews of which he had just read, and he recounted with bursts of laughter—painful for him at that advanced stage of his illness—some amusing anecdotes about the Prime Minister’s Turkish policy. Dan read history avariciously and intelligently, not so much as an abstract study but quite genuinely as a way of feeling a part of great events and of being in the company of great men.
Greatness, as a concept, fascinated him and attracted him. How does one pursue a heroic life in our age? he would ponder. He well understood the fortuity of human affairs (destiny, he would call it), but placed greater faith in will power, self-discipline, and native ability. He understood what Dag Hammarskjold meant when he wrote “We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours.” Dan made no secret of his ambition to engage in politics and to help shape history. In a revealing letter from Oxford he wrote: “For some reason the Provost of Worcester College invited me to reside in the Lodgings with his family for 5 days. As you know, Lord Franks was one of the architects of the Marshall Plan, Nato, and the Atlantic Institute. I took all my meals with him, and we talked. And when I left, I was asked to sign my name in their Great Book: Dan Sachs, Emmaus, Pa. And I turned back those pages into the past and read history: Winston Churchill, Montgomery Eden, Bevin. Perhaps Destiny will call me to the stage of history, mock my hopes, betray my dreams and leave my memory for some young man to contemplate in a frayed Great Book. It signifies nothing, perhaps; the way is difficult and solitary; but it is as compelling as some great magnet which would wrench the soul loose from its earthly moorings. And it is the path I would choose.”
Translating his ambition into practical terms was difficult and occasionally caused him anguish. At Oxford he wavered between PPE and various degrees in history before deciding to take the regular B.A. in history: by then he had lost a Term or two, but never regretted the choice: “Those old, dusty documents make me sneeze,” he wrote, “but I cannot remember when I’ve been so enthusiastic about my academic work.”
Harvard Law School was his next destination. He went to Cambridge, suspicious of that large and impersonal institution, and unenthusiastic about spending three years at a discipline he was pursuing only as a means to a governmental career. The subject matter of the legal curriculum —especially in the first two years—he found uninspiring, and he missed the warmer and more thoughtful atmosphere of Oxford. One would visit his room in Harvard Yard, where he was serving as an adviser to college freshmen, to find him absorbed in a volume of history, a topical essay, or a Kazantzakis novel, reading material that he would only reluctantly put aside to prepare—cursorily —his classroom assignments.
In 1964 he was married to Joan Lundstrom; in 1966 he obtained his LL.B. and made arrangements to return to Pennsylvania to begin the practice of law. However, his illness, which he had thought arrested by a local operation in 1964, recurred, requiring the amputation of a leg in August 1966. Nevertheless, he joined a firm in Allentown a few months later. He did not view law practice as an end in itself, but the work gave him satisfaction since it provided an opportunity to work on “real” problems affecting ”real” people. His daughter, Alexandra, was born in September 1966, and her birth added a new dimension to his life: he enjoyed being the head of a family, a responsibility that gave him courage to face his tragic ordeal. His disease spread; he went through he prescribed treatment, never deluding himself about his chances of recovery but never acting otherwise than as if he would emerge successful. He followed the 1966 elections with particular interest, and was pleased that he predicted every race but one correctly. He remained determined about his own political career, and in fact was asked to consider running for the local school board. “If I live,” he wrote in one of his last letters, “watch me in Pennsylvania.”
It is our loss that his ambitions were never to be fulfilled, his talents lost to his country, and his fellowship and spirit lost to his friends.