His voice for health care comes as he grows weaker

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Last Tuesday, 60-year-old Robert A. Letcher showed up for a rally outside a congressional office in Columbus, Ohio, and decided he no longer could just stand there as an angry crowd screamed obscenities at him and fellow supporters of health care reform.

So he grabbed hold of his walking stick with one hand, held his sign in the other and slowly walked to the other side of the driveway. Then he sat down on the pavement and held on to his handmade poster, which read:

Got Parkinson’s?

I DO and YOU might

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Thanks for Helping!

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Columbus Dispatch photographer Doral Chenoweth captured what happened next. The video, which went viral on the Internet and on TV news shows, is not for the faint of heart.

A man in jeans puts his hands on his thighs and leans over Letcher. “If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town,” he yells. “Nothin’ for free over here. You have to work for everything you get.”

Letcher remains silent.

Another man — dressed in a white shirt, tie and khakis with a cell phone clipped to his belt — joins in the taunting.

“No, no!” he yells. “I’ll pay for this guy! Here ya go. Start a pot. I’ll pay for ya.” The man then pulls out a dollar and throws it at Letcher.

A man standing next to him, patting a baby strapped to his chest, grins as the guy in the tie turns away and then pivots to yell again at Letcher.

” I’ll decide,” the man shouts, pointing at his own chest and then jabbing his finger at Letcher, “when to give you money. Here, here’s another one.” He throws another dollar at Letcher. “Here ya go.”

Someone else yells, “You love a communist! A communist!”

Letcher never says a word.

The video, which does not identify Letcher or the men who taunted him, ignited the blogosphere. Most people, even those who oppose health care reform, were horrified. Here in Ohio, a lot of us felt a particular brand of shame. We know that images of screaming white guys trying to take down a man who’s already on the ground feeds the worst stereotypes of hateful hayseed Midwesterners. We also know they don’t speak for us — or most of America.

On Friday, I reached Letcher by phone at his home in Columbus. Why, I asked, was he willing to sit down on that pavement and subject himself to that kind of abuse?

“Because I could,” he said in the slow, halting voice of a man for whom talking is now an act of physical exertion. “My weakness is my strength. I was the calmest person there. And I was the safest person because anyone who touched me would have been arrested.”

Letcher has no interest in returning fire, even though his life has changed so dramatically in the past five years. He has a doctorate from Cornell University and taught at three colleges, most recently Ohio State University’s John Glenn School of Public Affairs. He has been on the progressive side of causes his entire life but never more so than when he became the beneficiary of government health care.

After he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2005, Letcher went on Medicare, which paid for the brain surgery at the Cleveland Clinic that changed his life.

“Everyone who loved me cried after that surgery it helped me so much,” Letcher told me. “I had been so stiff and in so much pain. I could not lift a sandwich to my mouth. … I didn’t care whether I lived or died.”

He cares now. That’s why he showed up at that rally in Columbus and made those opponents of health care reform confront the reality of Robert A. Letcher.

“I don’t mind those people ridiculing me, laughing at me,” he said. “This battle is about people like me, and I knew if I sat there, they could not just ignore me.”

His protest is one of gratitude.

“I will spend the rest of my life thanking the public for my health care,” he said.

After what happened to him last Tuesday, I’d say the gratitude is ours.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books.

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