Today, we thank God as we remember the life of Jerry Shestack. His life, which blessed so many of us, raises two important questions. How could one person manage to achieve what amounted to several lifetimes worth of great accomplishments? And how could he possibly run so far on the race to greatness and yet never fail to be there when a friend or a colleague needed his guidance or help?
I had the blessing of working closely with Jerry for 25 years at Schnader and Wolf, Block. I doubt that anyone benefited more from Jerry’s teaching and guidance than I did. We formed a deep bond of friendship that passed through many levels, indeed all of the levels of friendship I have know and without a single bad moment. I will try to share what I had the privilege to see and perhaps shed some insights on those two questions.
Jerry had a vision of the practicing lawyer as a force in addressing the problems of injustice in our society. He rejected anything that would detract from (or narrow) that vision of the practicing lawyer. He never allowed the trappings of success or any other obstacle to stand in the way.
He had the brilliance of a first-class law professor, which he surely would have been if he had chosen that path.
Jerry had a clear, compact, elegant writing style, unlike that of any lawyer I have ever seen. His briefs were page-turners, classic works of persuasion.
Jerry had a unique, commanding presence in all forms of oral advocacy and public speaking, whether the audience was a client or a judge who needed to be told what was right and just. He had deep, intuitive knowledge of all of the principles of rhetoric and all of the techniques of advocacy. He knew how to use the perfect phrase or the series of questions leading to only one possible answer to force his listener to the conclusion he urged.
Beyond all of that, Jerry had an enormous work ethic and, for most of his life, unusual strength and endurance, which enabled him to work longer, harder and with greater intensity and productivity than most of us can sustain.
But there was one thing in this unique combination of abilities. He had a special boldness, courage and determination. You see, when you combine brilliance with boldness, and even a kind of desperation to accomplish important and great things, the result is what we call genius. But was the spark for that inspiration and boldness and what sustained all of that energy?
The answer is “Who”, not “What”.
Fortunately for Jerry and fortunately for all of us, Jerry’s race to greatness was also one of the great love stories of our time. Jerry loved to say that, if he had not met Marciarose, he would have searched for her forever. When he found her, they ran the race together. Their love for one another inspired and sustained both of them as they blazed pioneering trails in Journalism and Law, sharing a passion to help build a truly great society. When they achieved greatness, when they could have had it made, they continued to sacrifice, working to include all of us in a life of brilliance, grace and elegance. In a special way, they made all of us and, indeed, our City and our Nation, a part of their love story.
Jerry also had another advantage. He had a deep religious faith that he believed required him to pray, which he did faithfully, and his grandson, Dov, has inherited that special ability to pray. However, Jerry believed he also had a duty to act in accordance with those religious beliefs. He thought it was his duty to live a good life in this world, to do everything in his power to improve the lives of his family and friends, to advance our society, to enhance justice and to protect the dignity and human rights of all of his brothers and sisters. More than any person I have ever known, Jerry had the courage to act boldly, creatively and fearlessly in accordance with his beliefs, of doing exactly what he thought should be done.
What was the result of this unique combination of ability and advantages? David Smith and others have listed Jerry’s accomplishments so well. Al I can do is to drop a few names: Sandra Day O’Conner . . . . Thurgood Marshall . . . . William Brennan . . . . Robert Drinan . . . . Oliver Hill . . . . Jerome J. Shestack. I have just listed the names of six of the lawyers who won the ABA medal during the past 20 years. The Medal, given once a year, recognizes only those lawyers who indisputably have made truly great contributions to the cause of justice. If we go back 35 years to 1941, the winner was George Wharton Pepper. That is the level of greatness we are remembering today. Yes, there are other deserving lawyers who go without recognition, but when your name is placed among that precious few, there can be no doubt of a lawyer’s greatness.
Jerry saw the enduring power of a good example better than anyone. That is why he made it such a point to mentor so many of us and to help any friend or colleague who needed it.
Jerry would challenge us to continue the race. He deliberately chose to surround himself with friends and colleagues who challenged him constantly. He never tried to dominate those he loved. Instead, he relied only on his ability to influence and persuade us.
Jerry would urge us to run the race to the best of our own abilities, in our own circumstances, to act boldly, creatively and with all of our energy. Yes, he would repeat his favorite speech, which David mentioned, and remind us that, if we strive to run as far as we can on the path of goodness, we will find far more joy than pain, and perhaps even come close to greatness.
Some of you may agree with my one sentence definition of a “best friend”, which I gave in a letter I wrote to Jerry 2-0 years ago. It is my only chance to have the last word in a conversations involving Jerry. I told him that, when a friend provides more than the great pleasure of his company, much more than even loyalty and support for one’s family, work, hopes and dreams, when a friend changes his friend for the better in a fundamental and enduring way, then at last we find true meaning in the phrase “best friend”. For me, and I am sure for many of us, Jerry is today, and will always be that best friend.
Joseph C. Crawford