Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The man who unlocked the cathedral

My friend and long-time mentor, Dan O’Donnell, died on September 11, 2005. I’ve changed his name to preserve his children’s privacy, but it’s still a story I want to share.

As a wounded Marine on Iwo Jima, he heard a chaplain whisper, “If today is to be your last, you should begin it with a prayer.” As was his nature, Dan took the words to heart. So he spent the rest of his life starting every day that way.

Dan was surely the all-time oldest and longest-enduring altar boy. Every morning at precisely 5:25 a.m., he turned the key in the lock at the downtown cathedral and set about the humble task of making things ready for the early morning mass. Then he said his own prayers. A lot of people didn't know about this quiet habit of his.

Dan’s faith was profound and constant, but never, ever arrogant. His wife of over 50 years was agnostic, but Dan didn’t doubt God’s love for her. He would have thought that presumptuous.

He was the son of an impoverished shoe salesman, and he never forgot his origins.

Dan began his career as a journalist, and even did some speech-writing for LBJ. But he decided to become a lawyer after covering the efforts of a young woman to get into law school in the 1950s. That strong-willed woman eventually became his wife. He loved her with the same constancy that he loved God.

Dan wasn’t one to shirk from a fight. He took on more high-risk cases than any lawyer I ever knew. He took on one or two that even I tried to talk him out of, not because the cause wasn’t true and right, but because I could see how the law stacked up and could figure the odds. Sometimes the dragon just has too much fire.

But Dan was willing to go after almost any dragon even if it meant getting burned. Lots of trial lawyers ease up when they’ve made some money, but Dan was just the opposite. The more successful he got, the more he felt like it was his duty to take on the kinds of cases no one else would. “How will the law ever get any better if we don’t try to push it some?” he’d ask.

Of course, he was Irish, which helped explain his attitude. I loved that about him. He always signed papers in green ink, and he kept Bells of Ireland in his office.

Dan was a lion of a lawyer. During cross-exam, he could grip the throat of a lying corporate executive and rip the truth right out of his mouth. It was something to see.

When Dan died, the news articles talked about what a flamboyant lawyer he was. Combative and controversial, they said. But that wasn’t how I thought of him.

The man I remember is the man who turned the key in the lock at the cathedral every morning. The man I remember is the man who loved people – really loved them. He knew the name of everyone who worked at the courthouse, and the names of their kids.

The man I remember is the man who was equally at ease talking to Presidents as he was to paupers, and he might have found a pauper more interesting.

He loved the poor. He loved truth and justice. And he fought for underdogs.

Sure, he was a great lawyer. But most of the good he did – and he did a mighty lot of it – was quiet and behind the scenes.

The bagpipes played Amazing Grace and Danny Boy.

I miss him.

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