Eulogy -- 4?3?2011
I’m really honored that Leslie and Selma and Adrian asked me to speak to you all about Marty. I wasn’t able to speak at my own father’s and brother’s funerals, so I understand how difficult it is, but Leslie and Selma and Adrienne are really doing me a great favor allowing me to talk. It was my great fortune to have worked so closely with Marty so many years thereby enabling me to reminisce with you about things that happened that show what a mensch he was.
I want to tell you that I’m going to call him Marty throughout my talk, and I’ve been able to do that for a few years, but there was a time when I was positive I’d never be able to call him “Marty.” It was Mr. Gerel then. And I’m sure for many of you it was Mr. Gerel until yesterday. I think that’s more than a function of age. It has something to do with the respect he engendered in everyone who dealt with him and the esteem, almost reverence, with which we held him.
Staff members from the other offices are already reminiscing about his favorite booth that he and Selma occupied at the holiday party, where he would sort of hold court and people would stop by to pay their respects to him and Selma. I tried to get him to come and sit in his booth this past holiday season even if for only for a half hour or even 15 minutes, but I couldn’t talk him into it.
I guess most of you know Marty and Lee Ashcraft started the firm in 1953, at least one of them while still working full time for the government. They started in a small walk?up office in DC. Two offices side by side and a tiny reception area. Marty loved to tell of how they had to share the fan by putting it between both of their offices. No air conditioning and you know how sweltering it can be in DC in the summer. When the rare new client would come to the office, the one who was interviewing the client would get the fan. The other would sit in the other office and keep calling the office to make it sound like they were busy.
These were humble beginnings, and they built something great.
And Marty didn’t come from a privileged background. He used to tell of growing up in New York where his family was very poor. During one period they were living near Coney Island, and in the summer they would earn money by moving the furniture to the sides in their apartment and allowing bathers to rent a place to change clothes and leave their things while at the beach.
He would tell of how their apartment was only a few blocks from the subway and as a small boy he would run down to the subway to find people getting off the train to go to the beach, solicit them to come use their apartment as changing place.
So, what he built with his whole life and with Ashcraft & Gerel, he built from scratch.
On the beginnings of the firm, I actually have copies of their hand written tax returns for 1953 and 1954... prepared by Vera Ashcraft… Showing for 1953 gross receipts of $843.00. There is a long list of expenses in the total amount of $1009.00. Telephone service for the year was $196.00. Office door sign writer… $14.00. Magazine subscriptions… $21.83. Stationery… $122.47. Mimeographing… $90. Office supplies $16.22. Typewriter rental $16.00. Parking $2.50. Business lunches… $21.05.
Marty used to tell how in order to save money on their court pleadings they would type up to the top and bottom of the page and as far to the left and right as possible, leaving no margins.
The same hard economic times probably gave rise to his life long habit of always tearing off pieces of paper to leave us notes, rather than using “post?its.”
Most of you know that he worked full time until just before the end. People would marvel at how a man that age could keep working the way he did. But we would ask him why he’s still working and he always said he loved the work and that’s why he kept on.
He was even trying to figure out a way to get into the office using a wheelchair until a month or so ago. We heard from the concierge in the building that he was in touch with him to see if a wheelchair was available.
I first met Martin Gerel in 1976 when, after my first year of law school, I was looking for a clerking job. I worked at Holy Cross Hospital and one of his clients was a patient in the therapy department where I was an aide. She got me the interview.
In the interview he was so quiet and brief with only a few piercing questions, that I found myself talking too much and volunteering too much information, something many a witness has since found themself doing when questioned by him. He somehow got me talking about my grades, and I had done pretty well, but not as well as I hoped in research and writing. Why I volunteered that little tidbit of information, I’ll never know, but when he heard that, he took off his reading glasses, held them in one hand, peered over at me and asked “Why is that?”
Well, I then gave another speech trying to talk myself out of that box, and I apparently did, because I got the job, but when I left the office I was embarrassed and didn’t think I’d made it.
I have to tell you that if you wanted to write a list of all the positive character traits that someone could have, Marty would probably be said to have possessed virtually all of them.
He was quiet, dignified, poised, gentle, gentlemanly, loyal, courageous, devoted… to family and friends …
His poise under pressure was unmatched.
Someone Friday called him a gentle giant.
He was a leader among men. Wise. Solomonesque if you will.
At our partnership meetings he always sat at the head of the table, probably more because we wanted him there than that he wanted to be there. There was never a decision to have him sit there. He didn’t ask. We didn’t explicitly ask him to. It just happened, because we all looked to him for guidance.
He would listen to the debate, and only after waiting until it was the right time, would he speak up and offer his own views. He knew about timing. We waited to hear from him. He would always plan what he would say and how to say it, and what he would say was always measured and temperate.
And he was very sensitive to the views of others, rarely willing to push his own views. But he guided us.
What a model he was for other lawyers. I can honestly tell you that I have never encountered a lawyer as tenacious and vigorous in his advocacy as Martin Gerel. Young lawyers would go into his office to brag about a good settlement offer, and he would always find a way to try to get you to ask for more. And he always did ask for more… Sometimes way more… Sometimes ridiculously large amounts. And it used to flip me out at how often he got more than I would ever have thought he could have gotten.
He loved it when he would tell me of having gotten a settlement I predicted he never would get or having won a case I never would have taken.
Sometimes his aggressiveness with a case was just too much. He once came to me with a case involving a bungee cord – the type you might use on the top of a vehicle to hold extra luggage or anything else on the roof. The bungee cord had snapped off the edge of the roof, apparently because the user hadn’t secured it, and when it snapped it put his eye out. I didn’t think there was even the shadow of a case, and I told him I didn’t think I could do anything with it. You know, I gave him the old “pencils can stab”and “knives can cut” and “bungee cords can put your eye out” talk. And I was right. The case never went anywhere, but not before Marty consulted with 2 other lawyers in the firm. Which is something he did often. If I declined a case, he would call around to see if anyone would take it and pursue it. I’m sure there’s more than one lawyer here today who recalls getting calls from Marty about an extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, case, and some of you may even have taken the cases. Sometimes we didn’t want to disappoint him.
But this tenacity was something we all knew him for.
What a great role model if you want your lawyers to be looking for the most they can do for a client and for the firm.
And Marty was brilliant. I once went into his office to speak to him about something, sat down in his chair across from him waiting for him to get off the phone… If you wanted his attention you sometimes had to go in and sit and wait, and that itself was a good learning experience. This time he was reading a newspaper and talking on the phone at the same time, every now and then grabbing a pencil to jot a note from the phone call. But this was a complicated phone conversation and I could see he was listening and also actually reading and absorbing the news articles while he was listening and talking. That’s something I could never do.
I remember about 1977 when the first handheld digital calculators came out. Someone came into the office and showed this thing to me. It was made by Texas Instruments. I still have it. I asked this person where he got it. We were in Silver Spring at the time. And I ran across the street to a place called Greenan and bought one. I ran back across the street and went into Mr. Gerel’s office and said “Look at this really neat thing I just got … “ And I showed it to him. He said: “Why do you need it?” I said “because it’s fast. You can add a long column of 3 digit figures really fast… “
He didn’t say anything. He just picked up his pencil and a legal pad and started making a long list of 3 digit figures.. There must have been 20 or 30 of them… Then he said “You say go…”
And I did. And we raced. And we tied. And when we tied he said, “So why do you need it?”
You know, I mentioned how poised and dignified he was… When he turned 80 .. Maybe it was 85, but I think it was 80.. Jonathan Beiser and I decided what a hoot it would be to take the dignified Mr. Gerel to Hooters for lunch up the Pike. But we figured he wouldn’t go if we told him in advance where we were going. So we told him we wanted to take him to lunch and he said fine. As we approached the restaurant and started to turn in, we told him “We’re going to eat at this little restaurant here called Hooters.” …
Well, he knew what Hooters was. When we told him that, he didn’t even blink. We went in, had a great lunch… I’m sure he may even have enjoyed it… And then we went back to the office. But when we finally told him where we were going, he wasn’t about to let us see him blink or pause or hesitate.
He had a good sense of humor and he never took himself too seriously.
Some of you may remember when he got hair plugs in the early days of hair plugs, and refused to pass his hearings off to someone else. He could have. He was the senior partner and any of us would have been glad to cover his hearings for him. But he didn’t. He would go to these hearings wearing a disposable paper medical hat to cover his scalp… For sterile reasons… and everyone was wondering what to make of this… But he didn’t care what anyone thought or said in the back of the room and he wasn’t so vain that he would hide in his office to avoid people knowing what he was doing. That was Marty.
I loved to tease him over the years with a couple of anecdotes… true stories about things that happened to him, and even he thought they were funny.
When I was a law clerk he had this big case and I wrote a motion for him and he had to go argue it in Upper Marlboro. We were still in our Silver Spring office at that time. He went down to Upper Marlboro to argue and he got back around noon and when I heard the door open I walked out to see how it went. And he’s standing there in the doorway holding his empty hands out, looking perplexed. I said “What?” He said “I can’t find my briefcase”… And I went running out of there, drove down to the Upper Marlboro courthouse to look for it and as I’m driving down Route 202… it’s spring time.. This is a country road. I’m maybe a mile or 2 before
Upper Marlboro, and I suddenly in the distance see SNOW. As I get closer I see it’s not snow.
It’s paper. In the fields to the right and left… And I think to myself, can this possibly be his file?
I pull over to the shoulder and grab the first sheet of paper I saw, and sure enough it’s his file. Big case. Must have been a thousand pages. I was running way off the road into the field, gathering them all. He had left the briefcase on top of his car. It had fallen off and had been run over. And I found the briefcase with a tire track down the middle of it. Burst open. The zipper was broken.
I saved that briefcase for 10 years as a momento, because it had a tire track down the middle of it… Then one day Len Ralston was cleaning up… He had a tendency to do that every now and then… And he threw out that briefcase!!!
And then there was the time when Marty was going down to Florida to join Selma who was already down there, and he flew out of National Airport. He gets to Florida, is looking for his key to their condo, patting his pockets, and can’t find his key chain. He starts thinking about it and figures he left them in his car at the airport. So he called Larry Pascal who lives in Virginia and asked Larry to do him a favor and go to the airport to try to find the car and keys. Larry of course agreed and went over right away and found it. Marty had left the keys in the car with the ignition running and the car had burned up all its gas and had just died. I guess Larry probably ended up having to get someone to open the car and then jump start it.
These are just some of my stories. Everyone in the firm has their own fond memories of Marty, and we’ve already started to exchange them. And that’s the way it should be.
Wayne Mansulla on Friday said “He was one of a kind and truly a renaissance man. Oh so few of those left.”
Mark Schaffer said: “When a President dies, there is the riderless horse. For us it will be the empty chair at partner’s meetings. Edward R. Murrow once described the passing of a leader, saying that “the central cog has dropped out of our universe.” True.”
It was one of our staff members, Sharon Miller, who called him a “gentle giant.”
Jimmy Green said “He never let his ego surpass his intelligence. He never lost his grounding. He never forgot people he knew along the way. As far as I could tell he never forgot anything!”
Hunt Brasfield said: “Marty inspired all of us.”
Michelle Parfitt said: “Over the next days, as we gather our thoughts and fond memories of this wonderful man, we will smile and be grateful for his spirit, guidance, wisdom, love, friendship and passion for justice for all people. His legacy lies in all of us and we must continue to carry on his mission. This I know. He will be watching over us.”
But these are just thoughts from within our firm. One of the most outstanding characteristics of
Martin Gerel as a man was his love and devotion to his wife, his daughters and his grandchildren. They meant everything to him. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for them.
Their photos were all over his office. He would burst with pride at their mere mention. His family was more important to him than anything else.
He really loved you all so much… Selma, you were his real partner… his life partner.. we were just his business partners. You were everything to him.
Walt Whitman wrote a poem I was going to read to you that sort of encapsulates my feelings about him, but I won’t read the whole thing here, because it is just too heart rending. Most of you know of it. But it’s really the just the few words of the first line that express my feelings:
O CAPTAIN! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done…
A better poem for us would be one called “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” by Mary
Elizabeth Frye. It’s not long:
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you wake in the morning hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there, I do not sleep.
(Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there, I did not die!)
Goodbye Marty…. We’ll miss you.
Robert G. Samet, Esquire