Thursday, October 19, 2006
Farewell, Mary Beth
I first met Mary Beth Black when I was a law student working at Lakeshore Legal Aid in Port Huron, Michigan. I was representing a tenant, she was representing a landlord. She called to see if we could reach a settlement before getting to court. In the way only a law student could, I carefully quoted a court rule and told her she hadn't properly served my client so we wouldn't be appearing at all.
"I don't have to take this shit from you," she said, and hung up on me. Five seconds later the phone rang again and she talked with my supervising attorney, Steve Lockhart. They settled the case, and I learned how to get my client more than she could have gotten by following the court rule.
It was the beginning of a great friendship that lasted twenty years. Both of us did our best to beat each other up, and I learned so much from her. We shared lunches and laughs, and she gave me endless advice on practicing law and, most recently, motherhood. We didn't always agree, but we each recognized in the other a willingness to work our hardest for our clients, but rise above it to be friends at the end of the trial.
Last Sunday night, Mary Beth Black, aged 61 and in her thirtieth year of pratice, put a gun to her heart and pulled the trigger. We buried her today.
The St. Clair County Bar filled six pews in a huge church: her family and a grateful community filled the other pews. It was so hard to say good bye.
Mary Beth started practicing at a time when women lawyers were still an oddity, and an unwelcome one at that. She was smart, and a hottie. The old boys gave her a hard time. And through it all, she kept winning and grinning, and clicking down the halls of justice in her trademark high heels. She was a person who invaded your space. She'd lean in and touch you. If you were in the middle of a case with her and she was out-lawyering you, it would piss you off, frankly. She ran for judge a few times, and she had just survived a primary for the open District Court seat. She'd have made a fine judge.
Instead, she lay in that damned casket looking awful, because only Mary Beth could have done her make up right. It was a final irony that this woman who cared so much about her public face looked awful for this farewell. The torment and sudden severe health problems that led her to shoot herself took a toll.
Mary Beth leaves only questions for me. Her parting was, as one friend and sister at the bar put it, "signature Mary." She decided she wasn't going to take this shit anymore and she ended it.
Her daughter, the pride of her life, eulogized her. At the end of it, Alicia quipped through her tears, "If I can be just half the woman my mother was, I'll be really tired."
It was impossible not to weep. I will miss her, and I will never completely accept that she's gone. In the end, she won. Mary Beth would have loved the celebration of her life that brought all the old boys to church in their dark suits and grim faces. I hope we all remember what a gift to the practice of law she was.
Farewell, Mary Beth. You were a fine friend and a you could be a goddamn pain in the ass. In the end, that's really the best a lawyer can be.