Today would have been the 70th birthday of a most incredible lady - one I had the pleasure of knowing for most of my life, and working with for 14 years. To say she broke barriers would be an understatement. She was the first woman to become a member of the local Rotary Club. She went on to become the first female judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Yes, I am referring to the late Honorable Karen J. Williams. Growing up, her father's Doctor's office was just behind my father's drugstore. Our town was only so big, so our paths crossed often. I was good friends with one of her younger sisters - there were 5 girls in the family.
One Sunday afternoon at a family picnic, the Judge (as she was known) out of the blue, asked me if I would be interested in coming to work for her. I was a paralegal by training. A little taken aback, I replied, "I would love to but I don't type."
She laughed,"Oh, I don't need you to type, I just need you to keep my law clerks happy."
And, so within a week, I found myself working in her chambers. Very soon I learned that "keeping her law clerks happy" was another name for keeping the trains running on time. These 'Law Clerks' she referred to were some of the best and the brightest young attorneys to come out of the top law schools in the country. Having a clerkship for a Federal Appellate Judge, was second only to one with a Supreme Court Justice. Keeping them 'happy' was not hard.
Juggling the schedule of a very busy federal judge, who was also a devoted and very much involved mother and grandmother, was active in many local civic and social organizations, often traveled internationally, and enjoyed entertaining (often a party of 100's), was a challenge. She was also very active in her church, a member of several social clubs, and with her extended family.
The Judge kept her own calendar. My job was just to make sure everything else flowed seamlessly around her. I quickly learned there was no "User's Manual" or "How to Guide". I found myself moving and sorting documents - court opinions for review, bench memos to be studied, court correspondence on the many motions, orders, cases, and opinions that were being circulated to be read and often responded to.
Everything was digital, which made the work faster and easier to maintain. Well, that was the design. However, when you were working with a very active lady who carried a bag with her at all times, filled with "hard" copies of most of these documents, managing the paper alone was a job. She could be found in the stands of a baseball or football game with a pen and a proposed opinion in her lap - multi-tasking the work of the federal bench along with the keen interest and support for her children.
And, she never quit. Even as she traveled internationally, her work with the court continued. Other judges took time off to travel. They would notify their colleagues, that for the next week or two, they would be 'out of touch'. The court should carry on without them. I can never remember her doing so. Whether it was -South Africa, China, Argentina or Uruguay, her work continued.
I quickly learned that in FedEx terms, "Overnight" to Athens, meant overnight while "Overnight" to Istanbul meant several days. When I tried to explain to her that to receive any postal mail at the ranch they would be staying at in South Africa involved a ride in a vehicle for 45 minutes through the bush to the nearest post, she was undeterred. "Well, call UPS. They say they go anywhere." After speaking with several folks in the UPS logistics office, I learned that 'anywhere' did not include this particular game ranch located deep in the bush of South Africa.
When she was with one of sons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, she requested the use of the doctors' fax machine to send and receive documents. Needless to say, much to their dismay, several reams of paper were required to handle her 'project'.
But that was the "Judge" side of her. There was also the lovely, tall, thin, elegant lady, who spoke with a soft southern accent. She dressed in designer suits, she managed to pay only pennies to the dollar for, having a dear friend who could buy her clothes directly from market. She was the first to show up with a homemade cake when someone was ill. Never missed a former law clerk, friend, or colleague's birthday. And always had a personalized baby blanket made for the birth of the child of any of her 40 something law clerks.
Often the local people were clueless and that suited her just fine. When asked what the Judge did, a fellow church member replied,"Well, I know she's some kind of Judge although she doesn't have a court room. She must not be too important, she can't fix a parking ticket."
Once a law clerk was taken aback when her hair dresser, upon learning who the attorney worked for, commented,"We always knew she would be someone special. She always had such beautiful skin." Or one of her former teachers who lamented, "I just don't understand, she could have been so successful had she learned to type."
The whole office would go eat BBQ at the local establishment every Thursday (if we were in town). The only things that set her apart from everyone else who sat at the long communal tables enjoying lunch were her perfectly coiffed hair and immaculate suit. Although everyone their knew her, I would guess 95% were not aware of her professional stature. And, she would have it no other way.
She was beloved by everyone. A reporter from the New York Times once interviewed one of other judges on the court, one on the opposite end of Judge Williams on the ideological spectrum, hoping to get a disparaging comment about Judge Williams. He was sorely disappointed in Judge Micheal's response: "Well I'll tell you one thing, if someone in my family dies, she will be the first to show up with food."
There is so much that can be written about her life and her career. She would compliment me to friends and colleagues as her 'right hand.' To which I reminded her that she was left handed. The Judge set a high bar. She is one of the few people I can honestly say touched everyone she met. We often laughed at the truth that she and I spent more time with each other than we did with our spouses. She was a role model, a mother figure, a dear friend, and the sister I never had. My life is so much richer thanks to her being part of it. And, so much emptier, now that she is gone.
Not a day goes by that I do not think of her. I miss her dearly. And,in that, I know I am not alone.