“Porkchop - you can’t clean a floor with a dirty mop.”
-Jack “Frenchie” Helm (explains life to McKay “Porkchop” Chauvin)
Jack “Frenchie” Helm was my oldest friend. By that I mean, we were friends, and he was really, really old - forty-three years older than my friend (his youngest son) Jelly and me. We started calling Frenchie “Frenchie” because our friend Crash felt strongly that Mr. Helm, as he was known back then, could and therefore should wear a beret. Being the wise man that he was, Frenchie knew full well that no one can or should wear a beret and, therefore, never put Crash’s theory to the test. The name stuck just the same.
After Jelly had grown up and moved away, Frenchie and I continued to talk semi-regularly on the phone, and to meet for lunch whenever we could. While I very much enjoyed our discussions about books, politics, and sports, that time was best spent listening to Frenchie talk about the formative times of his life. These included wistful reminiscences about the simple joys of his boyhood growing up in depression era Louisville (idolizing his stoic but loving 9 ½ foot tall police-sergeant father), to thoughtful recollections of both the splendid triumphs and appalling failures of the human spirit he witnessed during his career as an artillery officer in the United States Army during World War II and the conflict in Korea (stranger than fiction accounts of army life that, if they weren’t true, would fall somewhere between Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22). In addition to being a great storyteller, Frenchie was also a great storylistener. He listened attentively, laughed enthusiastically, and held his usually perceptive questions and comments until the end. The point I am trying to make so far, in order to fully drive home the point, I’ll be trying to make later, is that Frenchie was one of the finest and most thoroughly decent people I have ever known. So that you don’t have to take my word for it, and as much as he would not want me to, I should probably share a couple of examples of how he lived his life.
He was thoughtful. Frenchie, who had a lifelong love of learning, chose not to accept his diploma from Male High School out of concern that if he did, his brother (who did not graduate) might be made to feel dumb. He was generous. Although he did not have a great deal of disposable income to dispose of, at the beginning of every school year he would pay for some young man to go to Trinity High School who would not otherwise have been able to afford it. The only condition he placed on the gift was that he never be told who got the money, and that the recipients never be told who gave it. Frenchie was useful. He taught an adult literacy class for the homeless at Wayside Christian Mission and, spanning some four decades, served as a sponsor for an untold number of fellow travelers in the secret society for sobriety. He was hard-working. When Frenchie got out of the Army, he started a small cleaning/janitorial supply service. He found profound satisfaction in a difficult and often thankless job well done. Frenchie was spiritual. Way too modest to set himself up as an example to others, he led a life of calmness, compassion, and consideration that nevertheless served as an example to everyone who knew him.
So, here’s what happened. When he finally semi-retired, he sold his business but continued to work as a consultant to a number of other businesses - mostly churches. The guy he sold the business to sued him, alleging that the consulting work was in breach of their sales agreement. It wasn’t. Frenchie, who knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, took being accused of wrongdoing very personally. It mattered to him. Unfortunately, as the case wound its way through the Jefferson Circuit Court, he was made to feel that it didn’t matter to anyone else. More importantly, he was made to feel like he didn’t matter. No one, including and perhaps most importantly the judge, ever acknowledged his existence despite his presence in the courtroom. When he wasn’t being outright ignored, he was being given the clear impression that he was taking up more important people’s much more valuable time. No one, including and perhaps most importantly the judge, took the time to explain anything about what was happening or why. He was marginalized, patronized and, as a result, more than a little demoralized by this experience.
Listening to him describe his slog through Circuit Court was very upsetting to me. Frenchie was upset too. The difference being that I was mad about how he had been devalued, while he, as was his way, was concerned about how others might be similarly devalued. His take was not that he deserved more and better - and here’s the point - but that everyone deserves more and better. Anyone and everyone who has their day in court (even the jerk who sued Frenchie) deserves not only to be acknowledged, but to be made welcome by the people, including and perhaps most importantly the judges, who spend every day in court.
With this in mind I promised Frenchie three things: (1) I would make sure to always introduce myself and speak directly from the bench with the parties in both civil and criminal cases; (2) I would make clear to them what it was we were doing that day in court; and (3) when deciding what to do, I would try to explain why I thought that’s what needed doing. All of this takes a little extra time and, as such, sometimes annoys busy lawyers who I watch watch their watches or thumb-thump their smart-phones while I chat with a criminal defendant about his haircut or ask after his grandmother. But, as I learned from Frenchie, it’s important that I take that time, because feeling disrespected and being disrespected feel pretty much the same.
I had only been on the bench about four months when Frenchie died in 2004, but I think about him every time I head out to the bench. I think about him because the last thing I see as I’m leaving my office is a hat (a fedora - not a beret) that Frenchie gave me. It sits on top of my coat/robe rack as a reminder of my promise to my old friend and of my responsibility to complete strangers.
People, to include people who are lawyers and lawyers who are judges, are driven to varying degrees by ego. That’s not necessarily bad thing. It’s that part of us that makes us want to “win” an argument and look good doing it. It’s also the part us that makes us want to not look bad when we lose. Whatever you want to call it, it is part of what makes great trial lawyers and great judges great because it’s part of what makes them work so obsessively to be better – to be the best - at what they do. But here’s the thing - while our drive to be the best may inure to the benefit of the litigants - IT ISN’T ABOUT US!!! Ego can be a tremendous source of motivation to do what we do at the highest level, but it can never be why we do what we do. Regardless of whether anyone is the best, everyone in the legal system has a sacred obligation to always do their very best for the people that system serves. IT’S ABOUT THEM!!!