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A Great Partner’s Influence Lives on, Long After They Depart: In Praise of Bob, Tom, Rosemary, Jim, Floyd and Ernie

July 10, 2017

This column was originally published in The Grand Rapids Lawyer, a publication of the Grand Rapids Bar Association, in June 2017 and is republished with permission.

I understand the reason(s) why there are so many lawyer jokes, although those who tell them ought remember that, to many barristers, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Regardless, those who relish lawyer jokes probably never met Bob Eleveld. Bob, a former senior partner where I practice, passed away last month. He was very hard to dislike.

Born in East Grand Rapids and educated at Dartmouth and University of Michigan Law School, Bob was a calm and unassuming trial lawyer whose peers at our firm made him Managing Partner and whose peers statewide made him Chair of the Kent County Republication Party.

Bob was a never-say-die advocate, a resilient man who, as Managing Partner of our firm, often took his tie off on Memorial Day. He remained ‘tieless’ until Labor Day unless he was in court, which was an idea welcomed by otherwise buttoned-down lawyers who had not previously dreamed of a “casual day.” He had an optimism that often took the sting out of day-to-day work in our necessarily serious profession.

I’m not sure what I liked best about Bob, who made all things seem possible in serving clients. He had an expression – “NO PROBS” – meaning, “NO PROBLEMS.” I think that there was nothing that scared him and nothing that he was afraid to try in support of the good faith interests of clients.

And speaking of doing things that others wouldn’t think of? In mid-March, Bob engineered an event that was something like attending his own funeral. When an illness convinced him that his life would soon end, he sent invitations and spread the word that he wanted to see friends one last time at a local club.

Bob’s self-written invitation read something like an obituary except that, instead of noting that he lived from “1936 – 2017,” Bob replaced that information with the phrase “1936 – Not Yet.” The farewell was part of Bob’s genius, one more idea that wouldn’t have occurred to the rest of us, which is why when I told my wife about it she laughed and said, “Good for him!”

In Bob’s memory, I note that he would never want to be held out as the best of any group. Over at Warner Norcross, they had a guy named Tom McNamara, a colorful, engaging, and talented lawyer and a man who struck me as a tremendous mentor. At Miller Johnson, they had John Cummiskey. There’s a lawyer’s award named after him. It’s given in recognition of service to the poor and John’s belief that there is no justice unless there is justice for all. At Smith Haughey, there was Michael Barnes, who is also remembered through an award recognizing service to the disadvantaged.

There was Rosemary Scott, one of the first women to practice law in Kent County. When no “big firm” offered a job, she opened a solo practice while also working nights at American Seating. She practiced after the tenure of Floyd Skinner, who for 35 years was often the only African American attorney in Grand Rapids. Floyd’s civil rights activism helped build the GR chapter of the NAACP into the second largest in Michigan.

A former partner at Mika Meyers told me that every kid should have a grandfather, and every kid should have a grandfather like Ernie Mika. Ernie’s peers included Walter Freihoffer, a cigar-chomping U of M alum beloved for treating less experienced adversaries every bit as well as his contemporaries.

The best of the bar also included Henry Blakely. He typed away with a cigarette dangling from his lips, and filed paper after paper on behalf of indigent clients. Henry was known as the ‘Legal Aid King of Kent County’ for nearly 50 years.

Returning to my firm, whose people I know best, there was Jim DeBoer. He was often thought of as “James N. DeBoer,” the corporate lawyer’s corporate lawyer who set the standard for grace. It got quiet when Jim entered rooms. We didn’t want to miss a word of his advice, which was often as gentle as it was accurate. Speaking of lawyers who knew just what to say, there was Kent Vana. His pitch-perfect response — when the 25-year old me told him that my wife and I were expecting our first child — was nothing more than a prolonged, inspiring, and slightly crooked smile…

People like this are the kind of people you’d spend good times with. More important is that they could be relied upon during hardship. To the extent that people like Bob – and others like him – have provided examples of the profession at its best, then perhaps their ways, words, and deeds provide reasons why one might like a lawyer.

Sad news is that Bob Eleveld passed away one day after being too ill to join 500 admirers at his farewell. Still, people like Bob would probably say ‘Don’t mourn me. Remember me instead. Forgive my mistakes. Imitate what you will. Smile in my memory.’ 

Lawyer jokes aside, people like Bob – who always saw the glass as “half full” – are there to defend the profession in any event. They were, and they are, good people.

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