David Grossman, Remarks at Funeral

According to Jewish tradition, those who deliver eulogies are admonished not to exaggerate, because the tendency, of course, is to stretch the truth and make the person being eulogized seem bigger and better than he or she actually was.  In Gary’s case, however, there is no need to exaggerate because he truly was a tzaddik, a righteous man.  Gary was one of the few people about whom it can accurately be said that he devoted his life to performing mitzvot, or good deeds, to trying to fix a broken world, a concept known in Jewish thought as tikkun olam.  But what was even more remarkable about Gary than his own mitzvot was his ability to both inspire and enable others to perform mitzvot of their own, to carry out the work of tikkun olam.  

I was a student of Gary’s at the Law School back in the late 80’s and, with apologies to my other professors – some of whom are sitting here – Gary was the only one who really inspired me.  He was the only professor I knew who was not only thinking about and analyzing how to do the right thing, but was actually spending his life doing it.  For that reason he became my mentor and, in a sense, my hero – someone whom I sought to model my life after.  And that was true not only of me but of literally hundreds of his former and current students who were similarly inspired by him – and I know because I’ve heard from many of them, as has Jeanne, since Gary’s death.  I doubt that there has ever been a law professor who has had such a profound influence on so many students and inspired so many others to a life of mitzvot, of tikkun olam.

But it wasn’t just about inspiration.  What is even more remarkable about Gary’s legacy is that he was not just a spiritual tzaddik, but a down-to-earth, practical one.  From the ground up, he built and developed a system that exponentially expanded his mitzvah work, enabling hundreds – and by now, thousands – of others to themselves engage in tikkun olam, to right injustices by providing legal help to tens of thousands of people who otherwise would have gone without.  That’s the really neat thing about the Legal Services Center – where I now work – and the clinical program as a whole:  it allows students to learn at – and in the case of the staff, also get paid by – one of the most powerful institutions in the country and at the same time do mitzvot, engage in the work of fixing the world.  

The obituary that appeared in the Times on Saturday sort of got it backwards.  It said there that the clinical program founded by Gary provided a “service dividend”, as though the help we give our clients is somehow only subsidiary and incidental to the work of teaching skills to our students.  While that may be an accurate current spin required by the contemporary political climate in the country and at the Law School, it doesn’t reflect the historical reality of Gary’s vision.  For Gary, doing the work of tikkun olam and expanding the circle of people involved in that work was the primary goal in setting up the program – and remained the primary goal as he refined and developed the program over the years.

Now I’ve said that Gary was a tzaddik, a righteous man – and I should add in the interest of accuracy that there are those who on occasion accused Gary of being self-righteous.  

Those accusations usually arose out of situations in which one found oneself criticized by Gary, which I think we all were at one time or another.  I think also that we all knew that Gary’s criticism resulted from the fact that he had such enormously high standards for our work.  But there really was no self-righteousness or hypocrisy in his criticism, because he applied those same high standards to his own work as well.  One of the students who was in Gary’s class this semester told me yesterday that the thing that most impressed him and his classmates about Gary was his ability and willingness to beat himself up, to criticize in great detail his own performance in some cases he handled with the DC Public Defenders’ Office – and that was almost forty years ago.  

Gary’s penchant for constant criticism and reflection resulted from his understanding  that the kind of mitzvot that he had dedicated his life to, and that those of us working for him were striving to carry out, required a lot more than just good intentions.  Complex skills, hard work, and high standards were also required.  Gary pissed off a lot of people when he harped on it, but that’s the lesson that he taught to the do-gooders in the legal services world – and to his staff and his students: that a big heart alone was not enough.  You had to put in the work if you wanted to be a good lawyer, if you wanted to change the world.  

Not that Gary didn’t have a big heart, of course.  Everyone who knew him personally knew that he did – which is, of course, why the cause of his death is so ironic.  In trying to figure out for purposes of his obituary to which charity to direct people in lieu of flowers, I asked Douglas what organizations Gary would donate to.  “Anyone who asked,” was his response.  And that, of course, points to another irony:  the fact that Gary was going to be teaching a course in financial planning.

But, as all of us here know, it wasn’t just through charity and other mitzvot that Gary showed his heart.  He had a way of touching everyone with whom he talked in a way that made you feel as though you were someone special to him.  There’s no better evidence of that than this funeral itself, which was supposed to be a private matter for his family and closest friends.  Apparently, he made a couple hundred of us feel as though we were his closest friends. 

 I don’t know exactly what quality or qualities of his enabled him to do this, but Gary had a tremendous knack for connecting with everyone.  Part of it was his sense of humor, and perspective.  For a tzaddik, he was firmly grounded in the real world.  I remember from back when I was a student Gary chastising a particularly earnest, and politically radical, classmate of mine who was berating other students for spending time filling out and analyzing the NCAA basketball pool instead of discussing political theory.  Gary told him, “Peter, if you can’t understand and deal with the NCAA pool, you’re never going to make a difference in the world.”   In that same vein, Gary had recently been lobbying to reintroduce the Legal Services Center’s annual office prom, where Gary in the past had been the primary hoofer on the dance floor and had reportedly come dressed up in outlandish costumes.

Another quality of Gary’s that enabled him to connect so well with so many people was his passionate devotion to learning and thinking.  This made him immensely interested in whatever it was that you happened to be working on or reading or thinking about.  How many of us over the years have loaned books to Gary because he insisted on learning about whatever subject we had mentioned to him? (And, by the way, we never got the books back, because they got sucked up into his vast library.)  

I had the task of driving Gary’s car back to JP from the law school last Thursday evening and so got a chance to see what he had been doing on his drive over:  It turns out he had been listening to one book on tape – on anthropology; he had another book open on the front seat next to him – on education theory; he had a bible in the back seat; and he had the ever-present box of pencils on the seat next to him.  He also had the passenger side door partly ajar and a parking ticket on his windshield.   That was Gary; he was always too busy learning and trying to figure things out to pay attention to the niceties of driving etiquette.

And, of course, there was his family.  Lest anyone who didn’t know Gary personally think that his whole life was in his work, with his huge legacy in the worlds of law and education, I must tell you that that wasn’t him.  That’s another way that the Times obit, with its out-of-context quotations from Gary, got it wrong.  It said that the day-to-day helping of his clients was his greatest personal satisfaction.  It wasn’t.  I know because he told me so in the hospital when he thought he was dying two years ago.  It was his kids, and Jeanne, that meant the most to him.  Of all the new projects he was passionate about in the last months – between the new courses he was teaching, the book he was beginning to work on – the one that gave him the most pride and satisfaction was his job as the assistant coach of David’s basketball team.  

And at the risk of overdoing the basketball references, my fondest memory of Gary (and everyone has a different one) had little to do with his work of tikkun olam or his greatness as a lawyer and a teacher.  It was an afternoon I spent with him on the Cape two years ago when he was just two months removed from his heart transplant.  We got out on a basketball court right by the bay and we played a game of two-on-two, Gary and David against me and one of David’s friends.  Although he was still not feeling well after the surgery, I don’t think I ever saw Gary happier than he was that day, hitting David on backdoor passes for lay-ups.  That’s how I’ll remember Gary: a great man who inspired thousands and provided help to millions, but fully content in the role of set-up man for his own family. 

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