Deceased June 22, 2023
For a long time now, when I’ve thought of Denis, who died suddenly last June of a cerebral hemorrhage, I’ve thought of Travis McGee, the protagonist of a series of novels I escaped to during graduate school. McGee, a kind of salvage expert, took his retirement by increments, life being too full to wait for the golden years. So as soon as he had solved someone’s problem and come up with a little extra for himself, McGee would take to his boat, The Busted Flush, and sail off smiling.
So it seemed with Denis who found his way, mostly through his books with Nolo Press, to both the time and the means for all sorts of passions that he would have hated to deny: travel with Naomi Puro, his partner of 40 years, in Europe and in the States, often with biking added, basketball, rock ‘n roll, dancing, painting, reading, writing, trips to a summer home in the Adirondacks, meeting with his poetry reading group, with his poker-playing friends and with those with whom he practiced speaking French. Were there others? Probably. Activities not to be missed.
Just a couple of months before his death, Denis and Naomi went to Amsterdam again, this time for the Vermeer exhibition and for more biking. Naomi chose photos from that trip to announce his memorial service in San Francisco. And there’s Denis, fastening his biker’s helmet and grinning. You don’t find many grins like Denis’s. That open, inviting smile: this will be fun; let’s get with it. Few people found enjoyment like Denis. Even fewer are as ready to include you in it.
But fun wasn’t the only urgency. Look at the way he chose his legal and political affiliations from law school on. McGee is but a thread of his story. His first source was Thoreau. I’m thinking of a well-known passage that begins, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately.” Let’s just change a word or two, “I went to California because I wished to live deliberately.”
And live deliberately he did. With his degree from Columbia where he edited the law review and with his subsequent clerkship with a federal judge, the door was open to fight his way up the ladder of corporate law. Instead, he went to Oakland to assist clients with no prestige and less money and eventually to writing legal self-help books to mitigate those odds even more. Those were deliberate choices of how to put his expertise to work while supporting himself adequately to pursue a life deliberately lived to include those many passions that drew folks to him.
He is survived by his life partner, Naomi Puro; by five sisters and brothers; by many close friends in California; and by a number of us who found in Denis a very special friend.
David Hamilton ’61