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Monday, December 5, 2016

WASHINGTON — In thinking about inequality, we tend to focus on practical remedies such as raising minimum wages or supplementing the incomes of the working poor. We have far more trouble affecting that ineffable thing we call luck.

You do not get to choose your parents or where you are born, and no government program can guarantee that you’ll benefit from acts of kindness and generosity that you do nothing to earn.

These thoughts are inspired by the death on Monday of one of the best human beings I will ever know. Bert Yaffe, 93, was a businessman and a decorated Marine combat veteran — he was a tank commander in Guam, Bougainville and Iwo Jima — who carried shrapnel in his body to his last day. He was also a citizen-politician who ran for Congress in 1970 because, having fought proudly in a war he considered absolutely necessary, he came to oppose a war in Vietnam that he saw as a terrible mistake.

A native of Sparta, GA, who never lost the soft Southern inflection in his speech, he moved after he left the service to my hometown of Fall River, MA. He had married his beloved Erna and taken over a family business. He lost her to cancer in 1977, and her death deepened his engagement with the cause of health care reform and disease prevention. This passion was an integral part of his commitments to civil rights, social justice and peace.

I got to know Bert when I was 16, shortly after my father died. I was already fortunate because he had been a very loving father, and I also had a godfather and uncles looking out for me. Bert was a life-changing bonus.

He had been the local organizer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 anti-war campaign and was a prime force behind what became the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protests. We met when I interviewed him for a high school project on the reform movement in the Democratic Party, and it happened almost instantly: He decided to take me on as an extra son — and, bless them, his own children, Eric, Cheryl and Rob, welcomed me as part of the family.