Kelly Clark the artist

After a few days of reflection, my contribution to the public praise of this great man.

A lot has been said about Kelly as a lawyer (he was indeed one of the best of his generation), an abuse advocate (none better), and as a leader and mentor in the recovery community (dedicated to a fault). One thing that hasn’t been discussed as much was his deep love of language. You see, Kelly was an intellectual in the best sense of the word. He had been beaten up enough by life to stay connected to normal people, but his quick and curious mind never stopped looking for a more perfect way to craft words.

Kelly Clark

Kelly Clark

For 13 years, I wrote the first draft of most of Kelly Clark’s words as a lawyer. That’s not to say he just had me write something and signed his name to it—to the contrary, he fully engaged in the process, but he used my raw material to mold and sculpt truly persuasive arguments. We got to the point, rather quickly it seems in retrospect, where we knew what the other was thinking and what they meant, what we wanted to say, and how we were going to say it. He called me his “Brain in the Jar”—meaning that I sat in my office cranking out thoughts without all that messy human interface in the way. Putting the human face on things was Kelly’s job.

Kelly told me that in our vocation—and he truly believed the law was a calling—we worked with words the way a sculptor works with clay. One of my tendencies when rushed or disorganized is to retreat into complex, dense writing, yielding large blobs of unwieldy muck. Kelly taught me to see that and correct it, not by telling me to dumb down my writing (advice we both hated), or just “make it shorter” (which is not advice at all), but to hone it. To craft it more like a blacksmith would forge a sword. Remove what’s unnecessary and sharpen what works. He sent me to Colorado last fall for a seminar to do just that, saying that I was at this point an excellent legal writing technician but that I now needed to become an artist. That is how he viewed written legal advocacy, and writing in general.

Steve Hayward posted a great video with Kelly reading from a passage on the spiritual decline in the Episcopal Church. One of the things that most impressed Kelly was not the thought itself, which he understood and shared, but the way the author conveyed it.

But at the same time, Kelly wasn’t above having fun with writing. In one memo in an early Archdiocese case, the defense raised the concept of laches, which requires three elements. Setting aside the fact that laches does not apply to actions at law (a legal technicality that gave us an easy win anyway), all of the three necessary elements couldn’t exist in a properly pleaded child abuse case. So I used the quote on the “importance of counting” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a footnote:

First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.

I couldn’t believe he left that in; it made me happy as a little kid. Even better, we got the headline that Kelly always wanted from that motion (even if it didn’t get printed anywhere): “Christ Rules Against Archdiocese.” Tom Christ (pronounced “Krist” though) was the pro tem judge, and he knocked down a number of the Archdiocese’s defenses in that case.

Kelly wasn’t above levity of his own. In fact, the one time Kelly got truly upset with me in my writing was when I changed one of his barbs. We had a case in which a priest had abused a boy in part by grinding on the poor kid through clothing. Gross, terrible, a massive violation; but was it “abuse”? We said “of course it is!”, and Kelly emphasized this point by writing that “… humping is sexual (just ask any dog—it will bite you).” I took out the “it will bite you” in the final draft. Apparently, he thought that was a salient point; he was not happy-fun Kelly that day. But as long as my arguments didn’t leave him “with [his] **** in his hands in front of the judge,” as he would often say, he was pleased .

Still, over the dozen-plus years together, he taught me that it was far better not to take those cheap shots at the follies of opposing—and also taught me to break that rule in the utmost deserving of circumstances. Taking the high road wasn’t just advice, it was the way he lived. “Don’t get mad, don’t get even, just get ahead.” That was something he told me on more than one occasion, and sage wisdom given my bellicose nature. His advice had the effect of changing the person, not just your actions. His little cryptic red-ink notes—“Let’s talk” (uh-oh, or maybe even nothing), “Awkward” (meaning either rephrase it, or maybe just chuck the whole concept), and “See me” (heart stops, what did I do wrong?)—triggered more introspection and self-correction than a half page of explanations.

At times, we disagreed about how to do something, and we both gave in when the other was right (or particularly animated about an issue). For the last several years, we got to the point where there was little for him to do on my work product, because he had essentially done it all years before. I knew how he wanted arguments to read, and he knew that I would make them work logically and rhetorically as best the law allowed. God willing, I will always carry that little facet of Kelly’s personality in my head, guiding me on the best way to say things. I’ve always needed an editor, and Kelly, you were the best.

Kelly made me better at writing, but like all truly great teachers, he made me a better human being. His compassion, patience, and gentleness shaped me as much as his editorial comments shaped my work. When I told him I wanted to leave the firm last March, his first reaction was, very kindly, “You can’t leave, I need you.” My response was, “It’s OK, I’ll always be around to help. It’s just a phone call away.” But then he went somewhere that words didn’t matter, and where my help, meager as it was, was useless. And when I found out he had died, I wanted to tell him in the words J.R.R. Tolkien in the Two Towers, “Don’t leave me here alone! It’s your Sam calling. Don’t go where I can’t follow!” But he had to go, and he deserves his rest.

It was a blessing to see him off to the Mayo Clinic on December 8, and the news that we wouldn’t seem him coming back has been the saddest moment in my life since my father died in 1997. Kelly was more than a boss, more than a law partner, and even more than a friend. He was an Example. An example of how to live life right, how to work and help others, how to love and cherish your family and friends. Occasionally, after doing some incredibly boneheaded, absent-minded professor-type thing, I would mention to him that perhaps the purpose of my life was to serve as a warning to others. Kelly Clark was just the opposite. His life, his teaching, his mentoring, above all his patience, serve as that shining city on the hill—a phrase he loved from Reagan—to all of us on what it means to live a truly humane life.

Kelly deeply and truly believed in a compassionate and loving God, and I for one have no doubt that this all-loving God of the universe has taken Kelly into His arms. We love you brother, and we miss you. Godspeed to your rest. We will see you again in God’s time.