Monday, May 5, 2008

On Dad and the Law--Epilogue

In this final, and rather more serious, installment about my dad's experiences with the practice of law, I explain how we came to leave Pocatello. I hope at some future date to return to my Pocatello experiences, telling more about growing up there, especially, my experiences in Jr. High and High School. But for now, I am going to leave Pocatello and start using this space to post other experiences and ideas.

Well, it was clear that Dad was getting discouraged. He had been successful at so many things, but never, I feel that he thought, at his practice of law. He started to say how badly he wanted to be a judge. "Why?" I asked him. "Because," he explained, "everyone hates lawyers." "I would think that they would hate the judge even more." I responded. "Oh, no, no matter what happens, even when it is really the judges fault when something goes wrong in a case, no one ever blames the judge. They always blame the lawyer. If he loses the case, it's his fault and his fault alone, they feel. If he wins the case, the client is still unhappy because he(the client) is convinced that the lawyer should have won more, or even if he wins all he asked for, the client then thinks he should have gone for more in the first place." In these articles I have made fun of two local attorneys, Mr. Barton and Mr Swapp, who brag in advertisements about how much they win for their clients. Of course, unlike what I said in an earlier article, they do not always win one million dollars, or even claim that they do, but I have always suspected that the people on the adds, are not really their clients. I have suspected that they are probably actors. The reason is that they are so happy. "Oh, Mr. Swapp" (and their manner and facial expressions imply, "that wonderful, wonderful man") won me X amount of dollars." Unless Mr. Barton's and Mr. Swapp's experience is vastly different than my dad's, those people are not really happy, no matter how much they (Barton or Swapp) won for them.

At any rate, Dad was really, really tired of being a small town attorney. And so, he ran for judge. In the entire history of Idaho, a challenger had never unseated a sitting judge (or so Dad said), but he was convinced that he would provide the first exception. One of the district judges, (whose name eludes me) was, Dad claimed, an alcoholic. Dad could not, of course, state that in his campaign. That was unethical and besides, The Bar would not allow it. But he could, and did, point out that the man's court record was not good. He was constantly missing court appointments and postponing trial dates and in other ways, not meeting his obligations. Well, anyway, Dad lost the election. Within a few years, the judicial commission felt obligated to ask the man to retire, so Dad felt that he should be appointed, having run for the position, and actually, done quite well. But no, in what was probably intended as a slap at my dad, the judicial commission appointed his partner, George Hargraves, instead. Why they did that is anyone's guess, but many saw it as an attempt--a successful one--to humiliate Dad. For one thing, George's heart had never been in the law. He had a number of hobbies that were his real interest. According to my dad, long before the judge thing ever came up, Dad had had to help George in almost every case he had attempted. To now make him a judge in Dad's stead, was an almost unbearable insult.

It was at this point that Dad remembered, that he was, after all, a bureaucrat at heart. He went with his hat in his hand, after more than 20 years, back to his former employer, the Social Security Administration. A few years before he had been appointed by the church as Stake President, the lay administrator over several congregations, the one obligation that he felt would keep him in Pocatello. He was on his way out the door late Friday afternoon, headed for Salt Lake City for General Conference, when he got a phone call from Social Security, offering him a job as a Federal Administration Law Judge, if, and only if, he could come almost immediately. It seems they had a large backlog of Black Lung cases that required immediate attention and a new judge was needed to handle the load. He promised to call first thing Monday morning with a response. While in Salt Lake, he spoke with Elder Boyd Packer, the church leader who had called him to be Stake President. Elder Packer gave him his blessing about accepting the new job, so Dad did and in a couple of weeks, he was gone, leaving Mom behind to close his law practice and to make arrangements for the house and other things that needed to be done.

During all this, I was away at college, as was Gavin. Erin was in Italy eating spaghetti, soaking up culture, and hopefully doing a little missionary work on the side and Loni was in Rexburg at Ricks college where her husband, Allen, was a professor. We were all, (except Erin, of course, who was too far away and too busy soaking up culture) to gather for one last big Thanksgiving dinner in the old house. After Thanksgiving dinner, Dad and Mom would drive back to Virginia with a trailer full of furniture and other things, and the rest of us would go our separate ways. I was really looking forward to this last time together in the house that carried so many fond memories. But the night before Thanksgiving, it began snowing and was a regular blizzard. Dad said that he and Mom could not wait for dinner, but had to leave early in the morning. So everyone dispersed, leaving me alone with a sleeping bag in an otherwise empty house. Dad came up to me before he left, handed me $5, told me to go to a restaurant and get Thanksgiving dinner and asked me to stay the night and meet with the real estate agent the next day and give him the key to the house.

Later that night, as I looked out over the valley, I wept, knowing that I would not likely ever live in so beautiful a place again. In front of the house was a small forest of junipers with a stream running through them. Across the street was a golf course with the Portneuf River running behind it and beyond that was Pocatello overlooked by the black lava cliffs and rising above them the mountains that surrounded the valley. As I looked, I reflected on all the things Dad had done. When we first came back from Germany, he had gotten involved with the campaign to eliminate gambling. He had been the chairman of the Pocatello School Board. He had served as a trustee of the state and national school board association. He was a major in the local Civil Aronautics Patrol, he had been president of the Community Concert Association, a popular speaker and singer at both church and civic events. His Lion's Club Quartet had won national recognition. He had started and directed numerous choirs for civic and church events, all this and much more that I can't remember and probably things I never knew about. But in spite of this, I don't think he ever really felt successful as a lawyer.

It was just before Christmas a couple of years after we were back from Germany. Dad gathered us around the kitchen table. "I don't want you to expect anything for Christmas this year," he had announced. "Business has not been good this year, and we have no money." "Don't worry Dad," I said. "Santa will bring us some nice things." Mom cried, but Dad just lowered his voice. "Sometimes", he said solemnly, "Santa doesn't bring things to poor people." It was at that instant that I realized something very important about Christmas and Santa. Well, we got some very nice things. I got the big red bike I had asked for as well as some nice clothes. After Christmas I asked Mom how we could afford this. She said, "I really do not know." And so for weeks, every time a police car came by, I expected him to stop and take back the bike, or worse, to take Dad to jail for non-payment of debts. After a few weeks, I realized it was ok and began to enjoy to bike. Years later, I asked Dad, "Why did you tell us there was no money and then get us the nice things." "You know, it was the most amazing thing," he said. "A client who owed me money and who I had pestered for months for some sort of payment, and on whom I had really given up all hope of ever receiving anything, came up to me a couple of days before Christmas and paid his bill in full."

Several years later, Dad had brought me into school. I was student body president of Pocatello High School and thought, therefore, that I was Someone and that I needed to look like Someone for the Homecoming Events, so I asked Dad for a new suit. Dad got really quiet. "Son," he said after a pause, "I have not made any money this whole year. We have lived entirely on savings for over a year. I cannot buy you a suit now or probably anytime soon. I wish with all my heart that I could." And he began to sob. I had never, in my whole life, heard my dad cry, so I said,"I don't really need a suit." and cried myself. What had happened was that Dad had signed a petition to place the "right to work" on the ballet in Idaho. He claimed later that he did it because he was a Democrat, like almost everyone else in Pocatello, and that Democrats believed in giving the people the right to vote on important issues. He quickly learned that, although there were a great many Democrats in Pocatello, there were very few democrats in that sense. Eventually, his practice picked up and he was able to do better, but that was really the blow that resulted in his leaving town. For my part, although I didn't get my suit then, when things did improve, especially after Dad went to work as a Federal Judge, he would buy me a new suit on every occasion and several non-occasions, until I finally protested that I had more than enough suits to last me the rest of my life.

As I lay in our empty house thinking about the years I had spent there and guessing, correctly it turns out, that it would be my last night as a resident of Pocatello, I couldn't help but ask myself, "What if Dad had succeeded? What if he had become the Idaho equivalent of Barton or Swapp or the San Francisco lawyer who dropped amputated legs into the laps of the jury? Or what if he had been like Seigfried and Jensen and had over 20,000 clients pounding on his door to win their law suits? Or what if he had become "Merrill K. Gee and Associates" with law offices all over the state of Idaho? What if he had actually done any or all of these things and become rich and famous? I paused and pondered, "What more could he have possibly given us than he had, in fact, actually given us?"

1 comment:

Loni said...

Kaey, thank you for this incredible tribute to the greatest man I have ever personally known. This was awesome.