Remembering Sid Lezak (1924-2006)
Bill Long 5/2/06
When older colleagues and friends die, I not only feel a sense of personal loss but I confront afresh the reality that there are fewer and fewer towering trees to protect me from the swirling and uncertain winds of mortality that blow around me. A poet has written,
"Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day."
This essay will be a slight protest against the spirit of that poem--a protest that celebrates the memory of a man who not only was an influential figure in a half-century's development of law in Oregon but, even more, was an encouraging mentor, optimistic friend, and consummate host.
I can add little to what long-time friends and family members will say about Sid, either at his memorial (May 4) or on other occasions. What I can say is the way his life and wisdom touched me at two crucial times of my career and life in the great State of Oregon.
Meeting Sid Lezak
I met Sid shortly after moving to Portland in August 1982 to take a position teaching religion and humanities at Reed College. Sid had just retired from a 21-year stint as US Attorney for Oregon in which he served with distinction under six Presidents. I was just coming off of the hardest six months of my life, where I had to cut short a German fellowship at Tuebingen where I was writing my dissertation in order to return to CA to care for my father before his death, in December 1981, to a painful leukemia at age 56. Sid and I met at the City Club of Portland, and then we kept running into each other at event after event--whether it related to Reed College, the Democratic party, or other public affairs issues in the state. We took an immediate liking to each other. What immediately struck me was the largeness of his vision, scope of his intellect and, not least, his personal interest in me. He never gave me any specific advice but I had the most curious sense whenever I was with him that he was always speaking a message to me: that one could succeed in this world by exercising patient good will toward all-comers, and that openness and being straight with people was the path through which this success could develop. As an impatient 30 year-old in a new city, I needed to hear this message--a message I don't know if I have fully learned. But Sid is the one I recall whenever I think of what consitutes the basic elements for professional success in life.
On the Deck
Twenty years later I shared another memorable time with Sid. This time, however, it was in the company of about six other people on the deck of his SW Portland home. Volumes could be written by those were privileged to share a summer meal on the Lezak's deck, for it was here that a combination of friendship, joviality, humorous repartee and serious political and cultural discussion took place. The Germans have a word for such an occasion, which escapes precise English translation--"Gemuetlichkeit." I saw at least two different sides of Sid that evening. First, I saw him in relationship with Muriel, his scintillatingly brilliant wife, whose book on Neuropsychological Assessment is the Bible in the field, and whose frequent references to him as "Lezak" throughout the evening brought back memories of childhood last-name calling that made me smile. I also saw Sid, however, in his capacity as matchmaker--one that he told me, as we were talking privately during the evening, he was very proud of. It happened that I was the subject of his matchmaking efforts that evening, for he had learned only a few weeks previously that I was single after 24 years of marriage, and he thought he would try to repair my lack by inviting an engaging single woman to his deck, along with a few other married couples, apparently for window dressing. It happened that nothing developed between me and the woman from that occasion, but it didn't diminish in the slightest the warmth and amiability of the evening.
Thus I saw, from Sid Lezak, that a life well-lived consists of a multitude of things--of satisfying work, of public engagement, of discussions of people and ideas, of freely-flowing wine and abundant food, of attempts to connect people in intimate ways to others. Sid truly was a wise man and a good man, a person whose example and kind words to me will forever emblazon him on my heart.
I have written about three hugely influential people on this page (Sid Lezak, Robert McAfee Brown, William Sloane Coffin) whose lives I have had the privilege of intersecting over the past 30 years, and each one of them reminds me of a classical or biblical story or character. For me, the classical passage that comes to mind when musing on Sid is Plato's line from the end of the Phaedo. The Phaedo is set in the form of an account told by Phaedo, a disciple of Socrates, to Echecrates about the last hours of Socrates' life. In his summative sentence about Socrates' life, Plato has Phaedo say:
"Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best."
I can't help but think that this description is not far off the mark in describing our friend Sid Lezak.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long