[Today was my father's funeral. Over 600 people showed up to mourn my father's passing and to celebrate his life. It was an incredible difficult, sad and yet powerful day. What follows is my eulogy, which a few folks asked me to post. It borrows, not surprisingly, from my post from the other day, but not completely. I have to say, it was probably the hardest speech I have ever had to give.]
I am not sure how I’m supposed to follow Elizabeth’s speech… I think she gave us all our call to arms… but I’m going to try anyway.
Thank you all for being here today. To see so many people who loved Dad and want to be here to say goodbye to him is just incredible.
In a moment of true, wonderful irony, though, Dad’s funeral is, of course, happening during an Eagles game. I’d like to think that if there is an afterlife, Dad is somehow flipping the afterlife remote control between being here with all of us and the game. And of course, he would be doing so for two reasons… first, let’s be clear, he’d want to know the score of the game, but second, Dad would be profoundly uncomfortable with all of us saying really wonderful things about him. So, as we say goodbye to my father and say all the things we love so much about him, I just want you to imagine that high laugh of his – and picture him changing the channel to the Eagles game, because he could have never sat through this.
And that’s as good a place to start as any – because my father was a great man who did not accept his own greatness. Even as he was fighting against cancer with more strength and courage and honesty than I can imagine, he complained about his procrastination. My father… who was expending such energy and will and strength to fight for more time… still talked about the things he didn’t do. He never quite accepted his own greatness, all he had done, all the lives he profoundly changed. I wish he could have been here today if only to see the incredible good he did in the world.
That’s not to say he wasn’t proud – he was. He wasn’t vain at all. He was the most down-to-earth person you could know. But he was proud in all the right ways. When I was in high school, I had to do a paper on a US Supreme Court case, and my father took some friends of mine and I to the Trenton Law Library, so we could do research. Dad stayed with us, and about a half an hour into the day, he called me over to one of the stacks. He had some of the books off of the shelves so he could show me where he had argued cases in front of the New Jersey Supreme Court. He told me about the cases, and there was such pride – justifiable, earned pride – that he could show his son those accomplishments.
That was one of those moments with my father that I cherish, because it was this window that let me know that as important as it was for me that he was proud of who I was, he wanted me to be proud of who he was as well. Needless to say, I was always incredibly proud to be Sid Lehmann’s son.
How could I not be? My father was, simply put, my hero. He spent his life in service of working people. He could have used his considerable, powerful intellect chasing down wealth and power, and I have no doubt that he could have acquired both, but instead he chose to serve. My dad is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, and he chose a life of service. And more than that, he had a fundamental and powerful respect for the people he served.
Because my father’s intellect was really only matched by his humility. It didn’t matter how smart he was, he respected the gifts and the intellect and the lives of the working people he served – and really of all the people he met. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you should never use your own intellect to make others feel less smart than you, but as smart or smarter than you, and if you respected the ideas and perspectives of others, you could and would learn from anyone and everyone. My dad believed that whatever gifts one was given, they had to be spent lifting others up, not putting them down.
Dad believed also that kindness could be created writ large in the work you did in the world. You felt it from him, and his work as a labor lawyer came from a few deeply held beliefs. One was the idea that the purpose of life was that you should try to leave the world a little bit better off because you happened to live in it, and the other was that every person had a right to dignity and a fair shake at life.
He learned that idea first from his own mother – it came from her belief that you should never intentionally try to hurt another person. He had a fundamental and abiding respect for all people – or most anyway. He couldn’t believe or understand or forgive those who occupied a place of privilege–whether by birth or through their own success–and did not use their position to better the lives of others. It simply made no sense to him.
I remember when I was in college at U. Penn – and probably a little more (a lot more) full of myself than I should have been. I was questioning a lot of my beliefs about unions and working people and what people “deserved.” At the time, the New York Daily News was on strike, and it was looking like the paper was going to go under. My dad and I got into a heated argument about it. I’d call it a discussion, but in my family, we argue. I was arguing that it made no sense for the unions not to give in and I said something about the paper not really “belonging” to them anyway. My dad replied by saying, “You know, maybe the union would be better off if they were run by a bunch of [expletive] Wharton MBAs, but that doesn’t mean that working people don’t have a right to a say in their own lives, and you should remember that of land, labor and capital, only one of the three is sentient.”
That was over twenty years ago, and I’ve used that argument ever since. No one has ever made a better one.
And so it was from my father that I learned that kindness has to be tempered by true steel in your spine – a lesson that has proven invaluable to me as a teacher and principal. But my father’s steel – my father’s courage – was incredible. Last year, after most people with a terminal cancer diagnosis would’ve long retired, my dad was still fighting. I remember him telling me about taking on Gov. Christie’s state appointed monitor in a case where my dad represented the custodians for the Trenton Public Schools. Gov. Christie’s unelected appointee wanted to privatize the custodial jobs, and my father would not let him. He rallied the Trenton Board of Ed to side with the union, imploring them not to lay off the parents of the very children they served, and in a letter to the state he wrote, “the state monitor should learn that urban communities and school districts exist for reasons other than transferring public monies to private corporations.” He did this while he was dying of cancer. We should all wish for one-tenth of the courage and the steel and the resolve that my father had.
That resolve that belief in standing up for what is right was not just in his public life but in his private life as well. That was who he was, that is what he passed on to me and to my sister who probably understood that lesson better than I did. There was no delineation between the morality of my father’s public life and morality of his private life. He was who he was in all aspects of his life, deeply committed to justice, deeply committed to fairness, deeply committed to kindness.
And he was so much more than political. He also loved the life of the mind, and there was nothing more fun than great passionate debate. I remember coming home from college shortly after having gone to a pro-choice rally in Washington, DC. Dad and I were driving somewhere and my Dad – who was deeply pro-choice – was arguing an anti-feminist, anti-choice line of reasoning, and I finally got so angry that I said, “You don’t even believe your own argument right now!” And he replied, “Yeah, but I just really love to debate with you.” And after I finished banging my head on the dashboard of the car, I realized even then what an incredible compliment that was. That love of the give and take of a debate — that willingness to learn from others while you were debating, even if it meant you didn’t “win,” I learned that from him. It was from my dad I learned how you can argue to learn, not just argue to win.
The list goes on and on… my dad was my baseball and soccer coach when I was a kid. He embraced Ultimate Frisbee when I fell in love with the sport, even learning to throw a forehand, just so we could have a catch. He was my moral compass. And as my life and my career has become what it has become, he was my best advisor and strategist. In one of the great joys of my life, over the past decade, I was able to be a strategist and sounding board for him as well. And he has been the most amazing grandfather to Jakob and Theo and my niece Amelia. He is one of the truly greatest men I have ever known – and likely ever will.
It’s funny, I say all of the time, “I am the son of a union lawyer and a teacher. I am the most derivative human being ever, none of my ideas my own.” Dad tried to argue that point with me–perhaps not surprisingly–but it really is true. My best ideas are merely an outgrowth–a logical extension–of all he and my mother taught me.
I haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that I will never have another conversation with my father again. I am sure I share that with many of you. And as much as anything else, I am angry that we were robbed of his third act. He and I talked about the things he knew he wasn’t going to have time for. There were still windmills to tilt at. There were still battles to fight. And in an era where it is so important to make sure that all people have a right to a say in their own lives – a right to self-determination and self-worth, we have lost one of our great champions in that fight.
So, Elizabeth has already given you her list – and it is an excellent one – but let me add one more thing. Let us all – to quote my Dad – try to make the world a better place because we happened to have lived in it. The world is a better place because Sid Lehmann lived in it for sixty-seven years. It is because of the way he lived both his private and public lives. Now it is our turn. We have to ask ourselves – “What would Sid do?” And granted, the answer would usually involve profanity, but then there would be action. We should all work just a little harder to make the world a better place because we happened to have lived in it. To do that is to honor his life and honor his memory. And it has the added benefit of being the right thing to do, too.
Thank you, Dad, for being the most incredible father I could have ever wanted. Thank you for making me want to make the world a better place and for, along with Mom, showing me a path to do so. Thank you for making sure that I have known I was loved every day of my life.
I love you, Dad, and I’ll miss you more than I can say.