Keter Shem Tov

It is possible some readers will think this an unusual title for a story written by a preppy WASP who has two middle names.

It is.

It is also a tribute to a wonderful friend and an unusual friendship.

According to Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (I had to Google the quote), “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty, but the crown of a good name is above them all.” Keter Shem Tov means the crown of a good name. They were the words used by the Rabbi at Dick Weill’s funeral the other day.

I knew Dick for half a century. We met when I stayed a night in Omaha with Bob Kutak, who headed the law firm I would join a few years later. Bob had to visit Dick, who was hospitalized with a bad back. Despite the pain, Dick was animated, and it seemed to me he waved his arms about rather a lot for one who was bedridden.

It would be several years before I saw him again, when he interviewed me for a summer job over dinner at a fancy New York restaurant.

The interview was … awkward. My law school record was not nearly good enough to meet Dick’s standards, but Bob, his boss, was dead set on hiring me. I recall a phrase like “just give me something to work with here.”

I disappointed him, but he forgave me.

During the summer I worked there, Dick took me to the closing of a bond deal in Grand Island, Nebraska. He was from Lincoln, and I was from Old Westbury, Long Island, New York, two communities that are easily differentiated.

Along the way, Dick told me all sorts of things about agriculture, focusing especially on soybeans. I listened intently, as my prior exposure to agriculture consisted of tangential childhood references to fox hunting, steeplechasing and polo. Those childhood references were not because we did those things, rather because others near us did.

Only later, did I learn that Dick’s agricultural references were equally tangential. When I told the story of the round trip to Grand Island, another lawyer laughed and said, “Dick doesn’t know a soybean from a cow.”

Ever thereafter, if I thought he was “embellishing” a story, I would invoke the quote and it always brought him back to reality.

We worked together in Omaha for five years, but then the firm sent my wife and me to Washington and we saw each other less often. We were both extremely close to Bob Kutak, the firm’s leader, but it was not an equilateral triangle. Bob was the Senior Partner; Dick was his chief operating officer; and I was but a new associate.

For years, there was a joke that when Bob promised something to a client he would say “we’ll do it.” The client heard the apostrophe not knowing that Bob meant “Weill do it.”

Years later, when we had our second child, I began to understand the potential rivalry for Bob’s attention that Dick might quite logically have felt.

Bob’s sudden death in the early 1980s changed the trajectory of the law firm and especially changed the trajectories of Dick’s and my careers. Kutak was charismatic and we were believers in his famous visionary and inspirational ideas. They were called “sunset speeches” as in walk with me into the sunset.

Novelists, or experienced observers of people, would have correctly predicted that the loss of Bob would be hardest on those closest to him. Whatever the firm would become, it would never be the same. In due course, we both left for different pursuits and would never again work together.

Fortunately (but also intentionally), we stayed in touch, perhaps not realizing how rare that is for guys.

We had a years’ long series of conversations about time management, and he introduced me to a series of cassette tapes called “Your Time and Your Life” in which we learned to “prioritize our daily action lists.”

Despite the differences in most everything about us, we shared a character trait politely referred to as Type A and pejoratively referred to as anal or perhaps even hyper–anal. We were lucky to have had each other for these discussions as both of us learned the futility of discussing the joy of putting a checkmark next to an important accomplishment with anyone else.

We once had a conversation about whether it was preferable to have sex or to check an important thing off our list. We concluded – not entirely un-seriously – that the best choice was to put “have sex” on our lists then check it off. I believe our respective wives will be learning of this only now.

Dick became hugely successful and shared that success with charities focused on young people and mentoring. He and his wife, Judy, were passionate about their charities, but Dick obsessed about giving enough away, and their philanthropy was an “A” on his prioritized daily action list.

When I began writing after retiring, he was one of my most loyal followers. He often hated what I wrote about politics and our conversations about some of my stories would begin with him asking “how can you think that let alone say it?” Many of his admonitions were influential at least in weaning me away from the topic.

On the other hand, he loved the stories about St. Paul’s, Harvard, court tennis, hockey and generally being a WASP. Those phone calls would sometimes begin with “was that story soybeans and cows?”

Dick, I am sure Bob liked you best and he made the right choice. Thank you for sharing so much of your life with me. I am for the better for it.

Keter Shem Tov. You deserve it.

 

 

32 Responses to “Keter Shem Tov”

Carter, August 04, 2021 at 3:36 pm said:

Great piece , Haven

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Sam Brown, August 04, 2021 at 3:53 pm said:

Wonderful eulogy . One would hope that Keter Shem Tov is included in whatever eulogy we deserve when it is the time comes and maybe a mention of Polo , steeple chasing and other waspy things that may come up ! Btw I checked the sex box too …. But she already knew that . Also being a Kentucky Boy … cows and soybeans don’t mix well . The cows founder and the farmer loses twice !

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Haven Pell, August 04, 2021 at 4:00 pm said:

Thank you. I was wondering if steeple chasing was one word or two

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Nigel Pendrigh, August 05, 2021 at 10:51 am said:

Very nice eulogy Haven

Steeple chase or steeplechase – I think the spelling depends from whence one came! 🙂

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Haven Pell, August 06, 2021 at 10:05 am said:

I saw a one word reference online so that might be the USA version.

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Jim Green, August 04, 2021 at 4:23 pm said:

A gracious tribute Haven…What’s in a name? Over many years I too have learned the simple answer: Everything.

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HavenPell, August 04, 2021 at 5:01 pm said:

Thank you Jim. You are exactly right.

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Jodie Hohensee, August 04, 2021 at 6:10 pm said:

Thank you for sharing your memories of your time with Dick. Very touching.

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Haven Pell, August 04, 2021 at 6:13 pm said:

Thank you Jodie. It was wonderful seeing you the other day.

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Rick Spellman, August 04, 2021 at 6:16 pm said:

Haven, wonderfully well done. Bob always said three inspiring Bob Kutak said: dream no small dreams, God is in the details, and work is joy. Dick also lived these things. We were so lucky to know them both. Rick

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Haven Pell, August 04, 2021 at 6:25 pm said:

Thanks Rick. Great to see you the other day. We were indeed fortunate to have known them both.

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Tom mccormick, August 04, 2021 at 6:54 pm said:

Haven What a warm and loving essay. Dick was a wonderful man. My experience was similar. He was a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm. He and Bob mentored me in the art of lawyering and we were together with so many wonderful men and women at Bob’s law firm on our way to great things. Once Bob was gone the joy and excitement of building inside the firm was lost. Dick and I and a crew in DC that included you my friend went off to pursue bigger dreams. (As Bob directed…Dream no little dreams!). I reached out to Dick many times and he always had the best advice to offer. I will always be in his debt. Haven thanks so much for your note.

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Haven Pell, August 05, 2021 at 6:34 am said:

Thank you Tom. The “insider” group around Bob was special.

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don gleason, August 04, 2021 at 10:39 pm said:

Great tribute, Haven. The Rabbi (2nd century I think) had it right.

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Haven Pell, August 05, 2021 at 6:32 am said:

He sure did in this case.

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Susan Weiss, August 04, 2021 at 11:34 pm said:

What a loving and inspiring tribute!

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Haven Pell, August 05, 2021 at 6:32 am said:

Thank you Susan. A great guy.

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Keith Colburn, August 05, 2021 at 8:37 am said:

Haven, I always thought the obituaries in The Economist were the best, but your loving tribute to Dick Weill tops them all.

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Haven Pell, August 05, 2021 at 8:47 am said:

Oh my God, Keith. That air feels much too rare for me. But thank you for mentioning me in the same breath as The Economist.

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Ashley Ebersole, August 05, 2021 at 10:25 pm said:

A wonderful remembrance. I never realized you got your start at the present day Kutak Rock.

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Haven Pell, August 06, 2021 at 10:04 am said:

Ashley, I did indeed. I think I was somewhere between the 20th and 25th lawyer there.

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JOHN Garrity, August 06, 2021 at 4:24 pm said:

Good one Haven, and he must have been an interesting fellow. At least his ag knowledge passed through you to your son! Hope that you are well.
Best, Jack

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Haven Pell, August 07, 2021 at 10:20 am said:

Thank you Jack. Willy’s Nebraska birthplace did give him some credibility in that space.

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fred Dillen, August 06, 2021 at 7:21 pm said:

I am a stranger to all of this, but began reading and couldn’t stop. What a generous remembering. Thank you.

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Haven Pell, August 07, 2021 at 10:19 am said:

Thank you Fred. A good guy is easy to write about.

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Jim Schutze, August 07, 2021 at 12:07 am said:

What a kind and elegant trubute.

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Haven Pell, August 07, 2021 at 10:18 am said:

Thank you Jim. Much appreciated.

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Dianne Warner, August 10, 2021 at 2:14 am said:

I’m so sorry, Haven, to read of this deep loss. A beautifully written tribute to a great friend.

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