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Sunday, November 29, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Victim Was Trying `To Make A Difference' -- Herman Liebelt Had Varied Interests, Causes

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

When Metro express bus Route 359 plunged from the Aurora Bridge Friday afternoon, Herman Liebelt became a misspelled name on a list of victims. It was the most attention he had received in years.

But as one of the few people who knew him well tried to explain yesterday, Mr. Liebelt's life told a story underscored with one simple theme: An anonymous life doesn't mean a wasted life.

"This is a guy who, although by the standards of this culture was not successful, was in his own way continuing to try to make a difference," said Bob Podrat, the friend. "He certainly didn't give up."

Mr. Liebelt died yesterday morning of injuries caused by the bus accident.

"He led a life that was self-examined," Podrat said.

Ever the philosopher, Mr. Liebelt would have appreciated the allusion to Plato's "Apology." The 69-year-old was a card-carrying theosophist and a man armed with two library cards who had such wide interests he could swap Tom Clancy for a rarefied philosophical tome as easily as the wind shifted, Podrat said.

All of his interests - painting, philosophy, music, animals - bespoke a certain nobility, though Mr. Liebelt was far from well-off.

"He had a rich interior life," Podrat said. "He was a guy that was trying to make sense and meaning out of life."

A trim man who managed, on a budget, to make even a sweat shirt look neat, Mr. Liebelt sported the silver goatee of an aging jazzman.

He was born June 24, 1929, and grew up in Amsterdam, N.Y. A handsome young man who knew his way around a tenor saxophone well enough to become a bandleader in his hometown, he earned a music scholarship to the University of Southern California, but spent only a few years in college, his friend said.

Mr. Liebelt served on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War, and later spent several years in California's aerospace industry as a purchasing agent, his friend said.

"He had the struggles many people had in life," Podrat said, referring to Mr. Liebelt's divorce years ago and financial troubles. He is survived by three grown stepsons in California, Podrat said.

He and Podrat met a decade ago while Podrat was consulting for the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens.

Mr. Liebelt moved into Podrat's basement apartment, staying for six years before moving this year to senior-citizen housing downtown. He still took the bus for his weekly walk around Green Lake, and would chase it with a cup of coffee at The Urban Bakery.

Some interpreted Mr. Liebelt's passion for conversation - he would talk with almost anyone, Podrat said - as loneliness. His friend thought it something else.

"He would come out and sit at Green Lake. . . . Because of his openness, his sense of knowledge, peace, or whatever you'd like to call it, people would approach him," Podrat said. "There was always room on the bench" for serendipitous conversation about passing weather or deep concerns, he said.

The day of the accident, Mr. Liebelt had come by to see his friend after his usual walk around Green Lake. True to his zest, he wore a snappy cranberry-red beret, as if in honor of Thanksgiving, Podrat's sister recalled.

Mr. Liebelt boarded Route 359 an hour later. That so gentle a man died so violently stunned Podrat. But the senseless death, he said, takes nothing from a meaningful life.

"By the way he touched other people" through his daily chats, Podrat said, "he was a success."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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