Sunday, May 04, 2014

Shadows from My Past

Two shadows from my past crossed my bow this weekend--and from portions of my past that had nothing to do with each other.

One, Harry McAlpin, honored in memory as the first black correspondent ever to cover a White House press conference.

Say again, Harry McAlpin?  Yes, Harry McAlpin.  I knew him in my own newspaper days, in the 60s in Louisville as the executive--CEO?--as a black insurance company.  These were the years of civil rights turmoil and Louisville had its own share of the action, albeit nothing like, say, Birmingham.  The McAlpin I knew (I wouldn't have thought of calling him Harry) was self-contained, carefully put together, always correct in his public presentation.  He wasn't a barricades kind of guy.  But you quickly learned he was somebody you wanted on your radar; somebody who knew and understood the deep structure of the movement and might, if treated with proper respect, be gracious enough to explain.

Among many other things, I owe him for the gift of an important insight about the ways of politics.  As with so many other southern states, understanding the white response to racism in Kentucky required understanding at least two seemingly incompatible constituencies.  One was the silk-stocking liberals in the city, exemplified not least by my employer, Barry Bingham, the publisher of the Louisville newspapers (and a man who enjoyed having people utter his name in hushed tones).  The other was the bumptious, rabble-rousing populist streak, exemplified (and well, too) by the bumptious rabble-rousing A.B. "Happy" Chandler.

I think I had already figured out at that point that Happy, for all his cornpone manner, was purposeful, smart, funny (really funny) and imbued with a deep-seated streak of generosity, not least about blacks.  McAlpin confirmed my view. He let me understand that he liked Happy too, perhaps rather better than he liked his silk-stocking neighbors (who could also be fair weather friends).  McAlpin recalled the kerfuffle over integrating the pubic schools in Sturgis, KY in 1956, when Happy was governor.  "He sent the tanks into Sturgis," McAlpin said.  That was enough for him.  Point taken.

So far, so good, but here's the odd thing. I have absolutely no memory of having known about his White-House correspondent years.  "You're a reporter?" people will always say. "I used to be a reporter"--citing their time doing the social notes for their high school yearbook (I admit I have played this card myself from time to time).   You'd think I must have known--I once wrote a long profile about his career (it's in a box in the shed--maybe I'll fish it out later).   Or maybe--it would have been in keeping with his character--it just wasn't something he was going to talk about.

We turn next to the obituary column of the New York Times this morning,  and its report on the passing of Rabbi Myer Kripke of Omaha, whose main claim to fame in the eyes of the Times copy desk is that he invested early with his bridge-buddy Warren Buffett, and took home some $25 millions for his troubles.   "Took home" is metaphorical here since if I read this right, Rabbi Kripke drove an old Chevvie, lived in a rented apartment, and gave most of the money away.  I'd come across his name last  year in this magnificent piece of long form journalism about his daughter, who shares the queen-sized bed in her Greenwich Village apartment with one of the world's greatest collection of dictionaries.  I learned about papa there; I learned also about his son, her brother Saul, the philosopher.

I never knew the rabbi, the daughter or the philosopher (nor Buffett either, come to that).  But it crossed my mind as I read the obit--could it be? And sure enough, just a moment's Googling makes it clear that Rabbi Myer was the brother of Homer Kripke, who just might have been the smartest lawyer I ever knew.    Well: there's smart and there's smart and I'm sure there are plenty of lawyerly skills that Homer wasn't particularly adept at.  But as a book-lawyer, as a student of bankruptcy and commercial law, Homer had no master.  He came to academia only late, after long years in practice.  I can't think of anybody (well, yes I can, just one) who better married the street with the academy.

Early in my career, Homer invited me to go on one of his course books as co author.  I was flattered beyond imagining.  In the end I turned him down; I came to suspect he wanted an assistant, more than a a partner, and I wasn't disposed to do that. But also, I doubted that I would be able to keep up with the pace and acuity of his understanding.

We crossed paths from time to time in later  years, of which I remember one instance particular.   About quarter of eight one autumn morning  in the 70s, I was in my office at the law firm  when the phone rang.  "This  is Homer Kripke  You published xxx in the yy Law Review. On page nnn, there's a footnote.  It says: etc.  This is incorrect. Actually, our reasoning was just the other way around.  So the solution is not unwise, as you say.  The solution is just what it should be [click]." 

I was about to say "of course he was right," although I'm not so sure.  Fact is, I was enough diverted by the whole presentation that I don't suppose I can make an effective judgment as to whether he was right or not.   

Harry McAlpin.  Homer Kripke.  I wonder if they ever met.  Probably not.  But I met them both, and am the richer for it.

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