My first brush with politics was in college, and in the circus of Middlesex County politics, the first clear head I came across was that of Rich Piatkowski.
"How ya doing?" he said, grabbing my hand in a vice-like grip, and then he began making quips about what he called "RINO" (Republican in Name Only) politicians.
Nobody could ever have accused Piatkowski of RINOism.
Piatkowski wasn't a fake or a phony. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Reaganite probably before President Ronald Reagan got into the Oval Office. He was exactly what he appeared to be: a conservative, a man of principle, and a very smart guy with a completely wicked sense of humor.
A sense of humor always came in handy in Middlesex County politics, particularly if you are a Republican. Piatkowski's good nature, and his absolutely irrepressible sense of honor and mastery of doing the right thing, kept a lot of College Republicans afloat in races that appeared almost hopeless in one of the original deep blue Democrat counties.
When you're in college and trying to figure things out, people like Piatkowski make a deep impression. There are countless kids whose lives he touched and whose politics he influenced. The thing was that he was real, and he told the truth as he saw it without flourishes or apologies.
Last year when I heard Rich was sick, I felt horrible for him, but more so for a world where it seems that truth telling is an extremely scarce commodity and a lost art. It wasn't just that Rich ran for offices and lost. He never gave up. He never walked away from a fight. He never gave up calling things as he saw them.
It's the people like Piatkowski who keep at it and who don't walk away who make life a lot easier for people who never knew he existed. By holding politicians' feet to the fire, by asking questions, by demanding accountability, by showing up at meetings when other folks would be cozying up to another episode of "American Idol," Piatkowski was doing the work of a citizen that other citizens eschewed.
If your taxes didn't go up, it was because Rich, and people like him, showed up to make sure the politicians didn't go on a rabid binge spending your money and indebting your children into the next century for it.
Rich was one of the good guys. He will be sorely missed.