Being an academic or, perhaps, being a reader, I always find myself thinking that I'd really like this writer or that writer. Well, I've learned that just because people write things that you admire it doesn't follow that you will admire them. I've heard a few stories about theorists whose theories I've admired that have completely disillusioned me. Though, on the flip side, I've never met a person I've admired whose theory I didn't also think was pretty darn interesting and worth learning from.
Rawls, apparently, was an incredibly kind person. When in the audience where someone was critiquing his work had to basically be forced to stand up and respond to the critic (I've also heard that he was extraordinarily shy which may have been a consequence of his stuttering — the fact that, like me, he stuttered endeared me to him right away).
He also had incredible integrity as an academic. He would, instead of finding flaws in works he taught (and, I'm going to assume, read) he would say that it was too easy to critique someone in hindsight and that more interesting was to figure out what was of worth and significance in a position, to really understand what the person was saying and why and then work with that. My guess is that part of this was a consequence of his stuttering (I only stutter under some circumstances now but it used to be so bad as to make me unable to speak and from this vantage point you end up really appreciating people who are patient and listen instead of trying to finish your sentences for you or quickly tear down your ideas). I didn't know that Rawls taught this approach to philosophy but when I did, it was a breath of fresh air since that's the way that I had begun to both do and teach philosophy and it was definitely something that had not been encouraged in my education. To discover that this was Rawls' approach gave me the beginnings of a community (unbeknowst to the other members, of course).
My one brush with Rawls was when I went to my sister's graduation. She and two of her friends organized a dinner for all three of their families and I ended up sitting across from one of her friends' grandfather. Here's the conversation we had (the grandfather doesn't end up being Rawls):
Him: So, you're a graduate student? What are you working on?
Me: I'm writing my dissertation on ethical theory.
Him: Really? What about?
Me: Oh, it'd bore you.
Him: No, I'm interested. Tell me.
Me: I'm defending a particular method of defending moral positions
Him: Really? What method?
Me: Seriously, we can talk about something else. It's seriously boring to most people
Him: No, really.
Me: It's a method of another philosopher who's gotten lots of criticism
Me: Really? This professor who teaches at Harvard, John Rawls.
Me: No. Professor John Rawls
Him: Yeah, Jack. He's my cousin
So, I return to graduate school and a few weeks later there's an envelope in my box with a return address of Harvard Philosophy Department and "J Rawls" scrawled above it. Of course, I'm thinking someone's playing a joke on me. I open it up and there's this note from Rawls saying that his cousin told him that I'm writing a dissertation on him and that he wanted me to know that he's currently working on a book (it was Political Liberalism) and if I wanted a copy of the manuscript he'd be happy to send it to me. Of course, being the dolt I am, I wrote back said 'no' I wasn't working on his political theory as much as I was working on moral epistemology and then proceeded to take the opportunity to clarify that my understanding of a basic point was correct (and the point was so basic as to not warrant even asking if I was correct).
So, there you go, my little story. I carried that letter around with me everywhere I went. In fact, I should probably get that old briefcase out and rescue that letter.
Rawls has, admittedly, set the bar very high but there are a few other people I would like to be like because their level of integrity and kindness is so incredibly high. My dissertation advisor — whose kindness and integrity is demonstrated with each passing year to be even higher than I had ever imagined as he continues to provide me with support — and a few administrators I've had the good fortune to work with.