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After a lifetime of service that has taken him from the civil rights cauldron of 1960s Selma to the Minneapolis school desegregation battles of the 1970s and '80s, former lawyer Chad Quaintance has settled into a role that even he did not imagine.

But this new chapter is part of a natural progression that suits his heart, his temperament and his faith.

Twice a week, 80-year-old Quaintance walks from his home in Minneapolis' Lowry Hill neighborhood to work as a volunteer chaplain at Hennepin County Medical Center. There, he comforts patients and their families who are dealing with life-or-death crucibles.

How does he help? He offers an ear, a hand to hold, a loving heart.

"Chad's almost blind, so his presence is based on conversations with patients," said Dr. Eileen O'Shaughnessy, a nephrologist at HCMC who has worked with Quaintance. "Patients say they feel his presence when he's with them, and they look forward to having him here."

Quaintance, who is still able to see big objects, is part of the hospital's spiritual care team that works hand-in-glove with medical professionals. The team sees people in their most desperate, vulnerable moments.

Some of these patients and their families are open and fearless. Others don't have as clear a path around issues of life and death. In all of it, Quaintance's team offers words of encouragement.

"Sometimes we have to find a way to make meaning out of suffering," said O'Shaughnessy. "Chad … is a comfort to our patients."

Quaintance has been volunteering at the hospital since 2010, inspired to serve partly by his own trauma. His daughter, Mary, died by suicide in 1995, a rupture that has given him insight into loss.

At the hospital, he typically meets with six to 10 people each visit.

"I really believe in listening to their stories," he said of his work. "It's not something that I'm giving them. It's something they are giving me. Sometimes I'm touched when something reminds me of Mary."

To whom much is given

The eldest of three children, Quaintance grew up in the Oregon mountain town of La Grande, the son of a biology professor and a homemaker mother. He remembered that his independent-minded mother would take the kids to Sunday school and leave them there while she walked home.

"She said, 'I want you to make informed choices when you grow up,' " said Quaintance, who also leads a weekly class on walking one's faith at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

"My mom and dad both had a strong moral sense about treating both people and the environment with respect."

He remembered that once, as a child on a drive to see his grandfather in Idaho, his father pointed out a barbed wire fence. "He told me about the Japanese internment camps," said Quaintance of his father.

Later on the trip, they stopped by a roadside Dairy Queen and his father pointed to a Mexican man who would not be able to buy ice cream.

"He told me that they don't serve Mexicans," Quaintance recalled. "That really got me."

His awakening continued in high school when he was elected to the Order of DeMolay — the junior Masons. When his chapter admitted one of the few black kids in the school, the international organization said that the new recruit couldn't be a part of the group because of his race.

"When I said I was resigning, they asked, 'How could you? You took an oath of brotherhood,' " Quaintance recalled. "I said, 'That's the reason I'm resigning.' "

He found other examples that belied the promises of freedom and opportunity for all Americans. The Oregon state constitution, for example, originally prohibited blacks from owning land or living in the state.

"I was startled, and gradually woke up to the reality of the country that I loved," Quaintance said. "Our history is bits and starts. We're sinful people who are forgiven and get another chance."

All of these events eventually changed his early childhood dreams of world travel — a wanderlust triggered in part by his father's sabbatical. When he was a teenager, the family lived for a year in the Panama Canal zone. Quaintance later enrolled at Princeton, then known as a prime training ground for international thinkers, with his eyes set on going into the foreign service. But something kept pulling him away.

He decided he wanted to do some kind of public service. He attended law school in Oregon and was hired by John Doar, deputy head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department from 1961 to 1965, when he was promoted to head. Would Quaintance want to work in civil rights?

Quaintance leapt at the opportunity, moving to Washington with his wife, Lucy, and their newborn daughter, Mary. But work was taking him often to the south, so they decided to move to Selma, then a hotbed of civil rights protests. When they went looking for an apartment, "people found out we were from the north, [and] no one would rent to us," said Lucy.

Quaintance prosecuted cases for the Justice Department at a time when protests were erupting throughout the south. He often felt isolated during that time, comforted by his wife, with whom he has now been married for 57 years.

"It was probably the central period of our lives, but at the time it was lonely, hard," she said. "And they were so mean to our daughter in preschool about what her dad did."

Life is gentler now. The Quaintances take pleasure in their grandchildren from their two sons, both in the arts. Tom Quaintance leads the Virginia Stage theater company and screenwriter John Quaintance has written for the likes of "Will & Grace."

Quaintance sees his current work as part of his continual spiritual journey.

"He is someone who really lives his faith," Lucy said.

Quaintance likes to evoke the apostle Paul, especially when talking about offering spiritual care. In giving, the giver also gets blessed.

"Our culture is not big on vulnerability," Quaintance said, "but it's what makes us fully human."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390