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He Was Always Just Rick

I was only a first-year law student, when two very good looking third-year female law students asked if I wanted to go with them to a Lawyers Guild meeting. I could not refuse, since as 3Ls they must have known a lot more than me, and, as noted, they were quite attractive.

The National Lawyers Guild is a left-leaning association of attorneys. The meeting was attended by a few law students and a few dues-paying members. Most of them were wearing Lawyers Guild T-shirts with a quote from labor organizer, Mother Jones. The quote was,

I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.

At some point, I noticed that one of the members selling the T‑shirts had thick glasses. I asked who it was and was told, “Oh, that’s just Rick.”

Richard B. Teitelman, a lawyer, an activist, an intellectual, a crusader for the downtrodden and for Legal Aid, a bar junkie, a Jew, a blind person, and a Missouri Supreme Court judge, died last week. At times, Rick’s hair was rumpled. Sometimes he forgot to shave. He was short, heavyset and liked to eat. He was friends with all of the restaurateurs in town and none of the tailors. No one meeting Rick would have pegged him for a lawyer, and certainly not a Supreme Court judge, yet he was both. In fact, Rick was the first person of Jewish descent, and the first legally blind person to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court. Despite groundbreaking accomplishments, he always remained just Rick.

Legally blind at 13, and a sufferer from diabetes for most of his life, Rick was an example to all of us that negatives in life don’t limit possibilities. It was suggested to Rick’s mother that he be placed in a home for the blind, but she and Rick had other plans. Since he found reading challenging, Rick concentrated on mathematics. On his way to college, he scored a perfect 800 on the math SAT. However, rumor has it that Rick failed the state bar exam on his first attempt, as no reader was provided for him. When he did graduate, he couldn’t get a job, so he operated his law practice out of his apartment. A couple of years later he landed at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. It was at about that time that I met my friend to be, Rick, at the Lawyers Guild meeting. He ended up working at Legal Services for 23 years and serving as its director for 18 of those years. The force of his personality brought prestige to the job of helping the poor, and as Rick said, “You don’t have to read to solve problems.”

Although as the years went by, Rick hobnobbed with governors and federal judges, he was always on the side of those who had the least. Not married, and having no kids, Rick took great interest in his friends and their families. He never failed to ask about my wife, and would constantly tell people how at 11 years old my oldest daughter, Mariah, was his youngest ever volunteer at Legal Aid. Mariah would be dropped off at the Legal Aid office where she would stuff envelopes, file and do things as needed.

Rick, a tireless advocate for lawyers, served in many capacities of the organized bar. Despite the fact that he couldn’t drive, he was everywhere. Although he had his own agenda — the bottom line being help to the less fortunate — he was never curt or argumentative with those who held other priorities. You might not agree with Rick, but you always liked and respected him.

He had been president of the local bar a couple of years before I was, and as president I asked him to serve as my chief of staff. He selflessly served in that role. He did, however, on occasions, point out that although he was the chief, he didn’t have much of a staff. At the final dinner of my presidency, I presented him with a six-foot hooked staff. It made him look a bit like Little Bo Peep.

Although Rick had to read with a magnifying glass, he seemed to know more about virtually any subject than anyone else in the room. He was constantly jotting off notes of congratulations, leaving uplifting messages on voice recorders in the middle of the night, or sending books and other gifts out of plain human kindness.

Rick’s personality was large and his reputation reached well beyond his own state. Within minutes of the announcement of his passing, I received a call from a Michigan lawyer whose law firm had received the sad news.

I saw Rick a few weeks ago at a CLE. I was shocked to see him in a wheelchair, and for the first time ever, he did not immediately recognize me. We had been talking about going to lunch, but he couldn’t be pinned down and just told me we would get around to it. We won’t.

A couple of months ago, when Rick learned that Mariah had given birth to her second boy, a package turned up at my law office. It was a picture frame. At the bottom of the frame was written the words “My grandson.” I thought it was a little hokey at the time. Today it is sitting on my desk with a picture of Everett in it, and the memory of Rick permeating the room. As we travel through life, we all try to do our best. Some do better than others. On very rare occasions, some leave a void that no one else can fill. That’s the void being felt by those of us who had the fortune of crossing paths with the blind Supreme Court judge who was always just Rick.

Levison, Mark

© 2016 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm of Lashly & Baer. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

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