The other day, the spring issue of Cooperative Living arrived in the mail. It’s published by Southside Electric, which is a group of cooperatives that provide electricity to rural areas throughout Virginia.
A little history lesson: electric cooperatives came about because for-profit utilities did not want to run electricity to rural areas. Rural houses were located so far apart that the cost of running the lines outweighed the potential revenue. As of the mid 1930’s, nine out of ten rural homes still had no electricity. In 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, which lent money to allow the creation of non-profit electric cooperatives. These cooperatives continue to provide electricity to rural areas like Smith Mountain Lake, where we have a house, which will probably be up for sale soon if anyone is interested. Because these cooperatives are non-profit entities, every year they return their excess earnings to the cooperative members such as myself. I get a check for about $15 every December, which I usually forget to cash. Last year’s check is still in my purse.
Anyway, as soon as the Cooperative Living arrives, I always flip to the last page to read a column called “Rural Living” by Margo Oxendine. Great name, isn’t it? Margo is a plump, red-headed woman who lives in Bath County in the western part of Virginia. She writes about her dog Brownie, her neighbors, stuff like that. Her column is always amusing so I read it first.
This month’s column was entitled “Paw-Paw, Brook and the Blue Pajamas.” In it, Margo described an experience by a four-year old girl named Brook. Brook went into anaphylactic shock and had to be transported to the hospital by helicopter with her mother. When they arrived at the hospital, Brook’s mother asked her how she liked flying in a helicopter with her mother.
Brook replied that Paw-Paw was there too. Paw-Paw was Brook’s grandfather and had died recently. Brook and Paw-Paw had been the best of pals, according to Margo.
“Paw-Paw knew I was scared, so he came to sit beside me on the bed,” Brook explained. “He was wearing blue pajamas. He held my hand the whole way.”
Was Brook just dreaming? Maybe, but the article reminded me of a similar experience that happened to me a few years ago . . .
The best job I ever had was working for Hunton and Williams, which is a large and venerable law firm in Richmond. It is ironic that this was my best job, because Hunton has the nickname “Hunton and Gruntin” since the lawyers work so hard.
I had a “sweetheart” deal, however. I only had to bill 1800 hours per year, instead of the usual 2000. This meant I worked 50 hours a week instead of 80. Hunton considered this part time.
I was hired specifically to work for a partner named Jim, who was the head of the utilities team. He also did commercial contract work for the company I eventually went to work for.
Jim was a large, imposing and frankly scary-looking man. He had dark hair and dark features. When he wasn’t smiling, his forehead would furrow and he would look angry. He was intimidating at first. When I first met him, I was not at all sure I was going to like working for him.
I found out he was from a small town in the Shenandoah Valley—a country boy who remained down to earth even after he became a partner and the head of a team at Hunton and Williams.
One of his favorite jokes: “A Virginia state trooper pulled over a pickup on I-81. The trooper asked, “Got any ID?” The driver replied, “Bout whut?”
He was a brilliant man—he had been a nuclear engineer before he went to law school– and an extraordinary lawyer. Taylor Reveley, who used to be the managing partner of the firm and is now the president of the College of William and Mary, said it was because of his “giant throbbing brain.”
I had never done commercial contracts before I worked for him. In fact, contracts was my worst grade during my first year in law school! I told him I had no experience with commercial contracts (I didn’t tell him about my contracts grade.) He said, “don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” And he did.
I learned more in the six years I worked for him than I had learned in the previous 15. We would sit side by side in a conference room as he meticulously went over each contract I had written, pointing out where my language could be interpreted in a way other than I had intended. He did this in such a kind way, however, that I never felt stupid. He would critique my work, but he never criticized. When I messed up with the clients (which I did), he never blamed me and never let me look bad in front of the clients.
He treated everyone with respect and courtesy—the other lawyers on our team, the admins, the clients, and opposing counsel. He knew the meaning of collegiality because he lived it every day. Every day at 10 minutes to 12, he would round up all the lawyers on our team, partners and associates, and we would go upstairs to the dining room to eat lunch together. He knew how to build and sustain a team. He was the glue that held our team together.
He was also generous. For one thing, he was not afraid to give other people credit when they deserved it. We found out later that he was a member of the Seven Society, which is an ultra-secret club at the University of Virginia. The Seven Society gives large donations and gifts to the University. I was not surprised to learn that he was a member, because he was a philanthropic man in many ways and yet quiet about it.
Taylor Reveley described him best: “Jim was that rare human to whom others look for leadership during bad times as well as good. People willingly followed him because he was so thoroughly decent. Ever reasonable, ever balanced in his responses, never prone to carp or denigrate, Jim was a bastion of integrity and fairness. ”
One day, I noticed that the whites of Jim’s eyes were yellow. Jaundice. I mentioned this to one of the admins. It turns out everyone in the office had noticed, as well as his wife, but he refused to go to the doctor.
Jim was what we call a “man’s man.” Every year he took off on the first day of deer hunting season. He enjoyed deep sea fishing off the coast of North Carolina. He often took groups of guys (guys only) on his boat, which was a large Grady White with twin diesel 250 hp engines. I don’t know much about boats, but I understand this was a big-ass boat. He was a big man who lived a big life. He once drank two-thirds of a fifth of Wild Turkey at my house and didn’t appear the least bit impaired. It was not surprising that he refused to go to the doctor.
Jim had twin daughters who reminded me of Jenna and Barbara Bush. They were blonde and pretty, but rather flighty. I think he had trouble relating to them, being as macho as he was. He adored his son Wade, however. Wade was a strapping young man, friendly and charming and very good-looking. When Wade came into the office, all the women would swoon, including me.
Wade swept into the office one day, said a quick hello to Jim’s admin, went into Jim’s office and closed the door. Twenty minutes later, Wade left. Moments later, Jim emerged from his office and gave his admin a piece of paper.
“Make an appointment with this doctor,” he told her quietly.
Jim had pancreatic cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, the five year survival rate for patients with pancreatic cancer ranges from 14% to 1%, depending on the cancer stage. In short, it is a death sentence.
Jim lasted about 18 months.
While he was dying in the hospital, I went to visit him once. He was lying in bed, breathing slowly and deliberately. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight. The skin on his face sagged. He barely moved when he said hello to me. He couldn’t even turn his head. I got very emotional. The next day his wife called Jim’s admin and told her to tell me not to visit him again. I can understand that, but it hurt. I never got to say good-bye.
On the day Jim died, I was helping to negotiate a case settlement at the State Corporation Commission. I received a call at about 4:30 from a colleague on our team, Eric. Eric told me that this was probably the end.
That night, I took an Ambien and went to bed early. It was just too sad to bear.
While I was sleeping, I could feel something at my ear, saying something that I could not hear. You know how your dog or cat will stare at you while you are sleeping until you wake up? It felt like that. I woke up, but there was no one there. The dogs were fast asleep on the other side of the bed.
I looked at the clock. The time was 9:23.
About twenty minutes later, Eric called to tell me Jim had died. I asked Eric what time Jim had died.
He said it was about 9:20.
You can think what you want, but I think Jim was saying good-bye to me.