Theodore Cross, a white-haired man who walked on two canes, took me to the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island to look at his beloved reddish egrets last month. The birds hop, skip and dance while feeding in the shallow water. He had spent much of his life photographing them.
I had a marvelous time with Cross, who had just published his magnum opus, Waterbirds, a coffee-table book containing his best photographs. The consummate host, he lent me binoculars and made sure I got a turn looking through the lens of his giant Nikon. His enthusiasm was contagious, but he was weak and out of breath much of the time.
"Your story is really about mortality," he told me gently. "Watching the birds has, in a way, distracted me from thinking too much about the end."
He had recently planned his epitaph: He Passed on to a Better World Still Waiting for a Perfect Picture of a Reddish Egret.
On Sunday, he passed on before he could get a picture of a reddish egret that completely satisfied him. In a fall on Friday he had broken two bones in his neck. While awaiting surgery, he suffered a fatal heart attack in a Fort Myers hospital. He was 86.
"He was a very active man for a long time," his stepdaughter, Amanda Cross of Sanibel, said Monday. "In a way, going so quickly was a blessing."
Before he discovered birds, Cross was a Navy officer during World War II, the editor of the Harvard Law Review, the lead attorney for the Sheraton Hotel chain and a civil rights activist who marched in Selma, Ala., with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He wrote a bestselling book about black enterprise, Black Capitalism, and advised the Nixon White House about black business matters.
The lifelong Democrat amassed a fortune by rehabilitating small-business magazines and as the publisher of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. He owned property in Manhattan, Nantucket and Princeton, N.J., and spent every winter in his home at Sanibel to be near reddish egrets.
He traveled the world to photograph egrets, herons, storks, willets and red knots. "He has gone on ahead to a place where the birding is infinitely better," said Roemer McPhee, a friend for more than six decades and a frequent bird-watching companion when Cross visited Sanibel.
The day before he broke his neck, Cross watched the ospreys that had built a nest on his backyard dock at San Carlos Bay. "It was so cold the ospreys abandoned their eggs," McPhee said. "After a while, we arranged to have the eggs removed from the nest. Once the eggs were gone, another pair of mating ospreys took over the nest. I think they're sitting on their own eggs now.
"And so life goes on."