I was on vacation tromping around the Scottish highlands, approaching William Wallace's famous battlefield at Stirling, when the cellphone rang.
Jack Kevorkian was dead.
Instantly, I remembered a bizarre scene back in 1995. I was covering Kevorkian and his assisted suicide crusade for the New York Times and other media, and had gone to see Mel Gibson's movie about Wallace, "Braveheart," with Dr. Death and his flamboyant and brilliant lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger.
When the hero hands his bride a band of knitted cloth during one of the film's few tender moments, Kevorkian blurted out, "Is that a medieval condom?"
Then, like any slightly immature teenager, he looked around mischievously for approval.
This was after Kevorkian, then 67, had been on the cover of national magazines, heralded as a visionary, and after a Lou Harris poll showed that he was one of the most widely recognized people in the nation. Bizarre? Yes. But this story also illustrates something about this very strange little man:
He was an iconoclast to the core, both philosopher and petulant adolescent willing to challenge authority regardless of the consequences. He forced society to face the fact that medical science was -- and is -- keeping many people alive for whom existence has lost all meaning, and who would rather be dead.
He proposed a logical and sensible scheme for allowing sane persons to end their lives if a panel of physicians, including a psychiatrist, approved and agreed they were mentally competent.
When nobody would come forward to support him, he took matters into his own hands, helping a select few patients who he believed had the right to choose to die when they figured they'd had enough. Soon the pathologist became a worldwide phenomenon. He and his attorney courted publicity at the same time they claimed not to seek it -- and became rock stars of a kind in the affluent, post-Cold War, pre-Monica and pre-Osama world of the early and mid-1990s.
Yet there was also an immature and self-destructive side to this only son of blue-collar refugees from the Armenian holocaust. The day we saw "Braveheart," Kevorkian told me he wouldn't live to be 70. "Nobody in my family has made it that far, and I won't either," he said.
Ironically, his reputation -- and perhaps acceptance of physician-assisted suicide -- would be much different had his prophecy come true.
When he reached three score and 10 in 1998, prosecutors had failed to convict him in five cases, possibly the greatest act of serial jury nullification in American history.
Each time, Kevorkian admitted what he had done, which was clearly against Michigan law. But the jurors also saw videotapes of his "patients" eloquently detailing their dreary lives, and in most cases also talking how their doctors wouldn't give them the time of day, and did not seem to care much about pain management or their loss of dignity. Older jurors remembered a mother or an Uncle Louie spending years in the back bedroom, pleading for death.
I talked to many of the jurors afterwards. They were never going to convict him. Eventually, all the metropolitan Detroit prosecutors announced they would no longer prosecute Jack Kevorkian. He had made what he did de facto legal.
But he then proceeded to destroy his own cause. From Lou Gehrig's sufferers and people with bone cancer he went on to "help" women who said they had chronic fatigue syndrome, and a man who drove around in a golf cart labeled "UN Commando force."
When that didn't bring the authorities after him, he insisted on performing active euthanasia, videotaping it, and giving it to Mike Wallace and "60 Minutes." The prosecutor had little choice then. To make sure he was convicted, Kevorkian fired Fieger and tried to defend himself. This time, his client really was a fool.
As they led him off to jail, Kevorkian told me, "Now I've got them right where I want them."
But the prosecutor said, "Prisoners don't usually get to hold press conferences."
Away from the cameras, Jack Kevorkian was soon forgotten, and his longtime threat to starve himself to death never materialized.
After Sept. 11, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, death-on-demand didn't seem quite as sexy.
By the time he was released eight years later, Jack Kevorkian had been largely forgotten. That's not to say he did not have an impact. Oregon and Washington have enacted limited assisted-suicide laws. Kevorkian's escapades were invaluable in helping the hospice movement win funding as a far more palatable alternative to the rusty van and the carbon monoxide mask.
Yet I still wonder. Once, when he was briefly jailed in 1993, I asked the former pathologist if he thought assisted suicide would ever be fully legal.
"Yes, but not for the right reasons," he said.
"You are a baby boomer, right? There are 75 million of you, and way fewer in the next generation. You think they will pay to keep all you on machines and tubes forever?"