A Place at the Table.

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(Harry Holloway and Jane Kurtz wedding picture February 1, 1946)

Harry was born July 9, 1916, one of three sons, to a poor working couple living in a poor working class neighborhood in Pottstown. His parents, Harry and Anna  (Weikel) Holloway had little formal education. Hard work was valued more than education.  His family’s frugal necessity learned during the Great Depression would leave a lasting imprint on him for life. When he finished high school he began his factory working life.

Jane was born November 3, 1922 and had an older brother. They were raised in Lower Pottsgrove Township a rural area outside of the village of Sanatoga and neighboring Pottstown. Her mother, Florence (Shantz), was a housewife and her father, Herbert Kurtz, a self-employed contractor. A strong work ethic and traditional values ruled in this family over any thought of advanced education for a girl. Jane, however, was a free spirit and after graduation from high school she moved to the Poconos to work in the resorts and enjoy her freedom from family.  Eventually pressure from her mother to settle down brought her back to Pottstown after several years.

Harry and Jane married in Las Vegas on February 1, 1946 and had two children, my sister Lynn and me. My parents separated in the summer of 1964 and were divorced in 1966.

After the separation I lived with my mother and my relationship with my father began a slow distancing over the following years. As a teenager I had a strong desire for independence from my parents so he gave me room but never walked away.  He attended my sports events and taught me how to fix and build things. Indeed, there were many ways I could count on him.

Mom had the truly tough job of raising a teenage boy as a single working mother. My behavior was average but even average teenage behavior will give a mother grey hair.  She also gave me room to grow but was quick to pull me back when she thought I ventured too far from the straight and narrow.  Her silent sacrifices spared me from true awareness of our pay-to-pay tight budget.

My parents were not regular church attenders but they made sure that their children were exposed to Christian education in Sunday school and church during our pre-teen years and later in confirmation class.

It was rare to hear either of my parents criticize the other. Even after their divorce my mother invited my father to holiday dinners. There was always a place at the table for him. When he came, she treated him as though he belonged there.

When Hurricane Agnes hit Pottstown in 1972 my mother and I had to leave our apartment due to rising flood waters. My father opened his house to us for days until the water receded.

My parents’ relationship had many flaws and the divorce was hard on both of them but they overcame the hurt and treated each other with respect and, in my eyes, kindness when it mattered most.  They taught me many lessons about living a life that mattered.

My father died on November 17, 1973 at just 57 years old. Thanksgiving that year was only five days later. There was no plate set for him at the table that year but he surely was there with us. My mother died October 23, 1993. Unlike my dad she lived long enough to know and be known by all of her grandchildren so memories of her as mom and Gram still generate laughter.

Each year when Thanksgiving rolls around I often think of my mother’s tradition of offering a place at the holiday table for my father and of the sacrifices both parents made for me. I have been blessed by God, loved by my family and treated well by many people. All of them are invited and will be joining me at my place at the table for the years to come.

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(My dad on the right and mom’s brother Sam Kurtz on the left. Picture taken in 1972 at a holiday dinner in mom’s apartment, one year before my dad died.)

Kindness, Power and Cranberry Juice

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It was a Thursday morning and when I finished my morning routine I was heading to the Board of Assessment Appeals office to file a tax appeal for our house. The filing fee is $50 so I wrote a check and put it in my pocket. I went downstairs, ate my breakfast and got out the cranberry juice to mix with water for my usual breakfast drink. I shook the juice bottle and out sprayed cranberry juice on my white shirt. I had forgotten to put the cap on the bottle tightly the day before. Ugh! So, I changed shirts and put the wet one in the laundry sink with some detergent to soak. Sadly, that was not the first time I’ve done this. You would think I would remember after the first time. After my little laundry diversion I headed for Norristown with our assessment appeal.

At the Assessment Appeals office I handed the clerk the appeal, she stamped it and asked for the filing fee. I reached in my pants pocket. No check. I paused and thought, I know I put that check in my pocket, what happened to it? Oh, yeah, I put it in my shirt pocket which is now soaking with my shirt. Dumb. I told the clerk my little tale of woe. After a few seconds she said, I’ll keep your appeal stamped as received today since the deadline is only two days away. Just mail the check to me. Wow, what a break. This woman’s kindness just saved me another trip back to Norristown the next day. The trip is about two hours round trip so her gesture was a real time-saver for me. She didn’t need to do this favor for me. For all I knew she was bending the rules by doing this. She had the power to hand back my appeal and tell me to bring it back with the check.  Other filing office clerks have followed the rules strictly in other situations where something I tried to file was just not quite by the book.

Since I had this experience I’ve given some thought about people’s simple acts of kindness. It sure is nice to be on the receiving end of kind acts and words. Reflecing about it makes we aware that I could do better. Give someone my place in line or that parking space, drop a dollar in the bucket, say a kind word to a stranger or a child.  It seems some people spend a good deal of energy trying to gain and keep power over others in relationships, work, government and any situation where people need to interact with each other. A good deal has been written about power. There have also been studies showing how acts of kindness make the doer feel better and prompt some recipients to pass kindness on to others.

When people who have power over me show me some kindness I admire them. That clerk was a person who had the power to make me jump through hoops but instead acted kindly. She gave up some power to help me, a stranger.  Just imagine what the world would look like if, just for a day, everyone gave up a little power and performed one act of kindness for someone.

And some of us need a little more kindness than others.

cranberry juice and shirt

Highly Qualified Pa. Judicial Candidates in 2017

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Statue of justiceOn November 7, registered voters in Pennsylvania can vote for state judicial candidates. In this 2017 election, voters will elect judges for one seat on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, four seats on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and two seats on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Is this important? You bet it is. These are the men and women who will decide cases that will affect us for years to come.  The judges we elect will stay on the bench for at least ten years and decide hundreds of cases on appeal. These appellate courts have the final say in deciding and interpreting Pennsylvania laws and the outcome of cases.

By now you have probably received campaign advertisements in the mail like the one I got today telling me to “Vote for Judges Who Share Our Values and Stand for the Flag.” I am not sure what that means but I am told that the candidates listed are “experienced” and have the “highest ability, ethical standards & integrity.” How do we know who is qualified to make important decisions interpreting laws and impacting people’s lives?

One of the best ways is the evaluations published by the Pennsylvania Bar Association which has no political affiliation. The Pa. Bar Association selects a Judicial Evaluation Commission to evaluate and report on the qualifications of judicial candidates for the Pa. courts of appeal.  The Commission consists of lawyers and non-lawyers from across the Commonwealth. According to the Commission Chairman, Robert F. Morris, “the Commission only recommends potential candidates who have the legal ability, experience, integrity and temperament to provide satisfactory or outstanding performance as appellate judges and justices.”

Here is the link to the Commission’s report which rates the candidates as highly qualified, qualified or unqualified. Any candidate that did not request evaluation by the Commission is not listed. Also, the report on the judges who are already serving but are up for retention has not yet been published. Take just a few minutes and you will see all of the ratings. In 30 minutes you can read the evaluations and understand why the candidates received those ratings. It is important information and time well spent.

On the campaign flyer I received one superior court judge candidate I was urged to vote for was Mary Murray who has not been rated. I suspect the reason why she did not volunteer for a rating is that she only has judicial experience as a district justice  in what is known as small claims or majestrate court. She has never even served as a county court judge and now she seeks to be elected to the Pa. Superior Court. That’s the problem with campaign literature, its primary focus is political, not accurate information.

Don’t forget to vote on November 7.

 

 

 

Pottsgove HS Reuniting for a Night.

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What caught my attention most about the 2017 reunion of the Pottsgrove High School classes of 1969, 1970 and 1971 was what people wore.

Most wore smiles as they engaged classmates from two score plus years ago.

Many wore the wrinkles earned by sixty somethings, while some wore only a few lines hiding their age well.

World travelers had feet well-worn from thousands of miles.

Retirement fit some like well-worn shoes while others weren’t buying and a few had tried it on and returned it.

We wore glasses for well-worn eyes which have seen beauty and ugliness in the world.

Some bore physical scars from sports, mishaps, surgeries and others invisible scars because people can be cruel.

Hair was worn by all, just not the same way as 45+ years ago.

I envisioned hands bearing callouses but saw no evidence of calloused hearts from those who had spent a life of serving and caring for others.

Grandparents displayed joy and some a little wear and tear.

Serious disease, for some, had been stripped off and tossed into the corner baring a passion for life others did not yet know.

Memories of the best of times seemed none the worse for wear and old wounds were well wrapped for the night.

Those I had a chance to see wore their lives well.

Sadly, there was not time enough to learn what everyone wore.

I hope the next time we meet others I have not seen since the days of maroon and white can come. The old PHS dress code does not apply.

 

What Was Your Vietnam War Experience?

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The encounter took place in the fall of 1970. I was a freshman at Villanova University. Back then VU mainly attracted students from the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. Many students lived locally and commuted. There was a small population of students from other states and countries. VU was and is a Catholic university.  Most of us were from white, middle class, suburban families.

On the other side of the world, the Vietnam War was still raging. The majority of public sentiment had shifted against continuing the war but there were very strong, different opinions about how and when to end the U.S involvement.

Students had been actively, sometimes violently, protesting at many colleges.  At times the protestors were violently disbursed.  On May 4, 1970, four student protesters were shot and killed at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen. The vast majority of Villanova students were not actively protesting the war in the fall of 1970.

One night I was sitting with some new friends in the dorm having a wide-ranging conversation when someone expressed an opinion that the war never had a justifiable purpose.  A friend I will call Paul took serious issue with this and dropped a verbal bombshell.  His older brother had been a soldier who was killed in Vietnam.  Like most, his brother was a very young man when he died. Just like a bomb explosion, Paul’s words created both a blast wave hitting us with force and a blast wind sucking the air out of the room.

Based on the news I heard and read I thought the war was wrong.  Paul, who shared many of my views, had a very different opinion about the Vietnam War. The big difference between us on this issue was his personal experience – the loss of his brother. All I could think to offer was a sincere, I’m sorry.

The deaths, injuries and psychological trauma from the war which I read about and saw on the news were jarring. By the end of the war in 1975 over 50,000 U.S. soldiers and advisors had been killed and hundreds of thousands physically wounded or psychologically damaged.  It is estimated that between two and three million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians had been killed.  Layered on top was the civil unrest and societal fissures that split our country. The era of absolute trust in the government had come to an end as the American people learned that our government had been lying and hiding information about the war for years beginning in the Kennedy administration.

I am fortunate that I did not have any first-hand experience with the Vietnam War.  My second-hand experiences made me more sceptical of people in power, both civilian and military. I learned that those of us who did not serve in the war were in no position to judge those who did. I do believe the Vietnam War affected every American in some way. What was your experience?

The Birth of a Legal Career

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Orangeburg Massacre

I was a sophomore in high school in 1967-68. My academic credentials were good, not great. My girlfriend and sports were my top priorities.  I disrupted classes (too often) with attempts at humor.  Some of my teachers were good and some average.  The good teachers struggled to inspire 15 year old students like me to think about more than our social lives, hobbies and those taboo things that our parents fretted about.

There was one teacher who, for me, stood out that year. She was less than eight years older than us which made her perhaps the youngest teacher in school. Her name was Mary and she taught World Cultures. Mary cared deeply about social issues and she would often weave current events into her lectures trying to awaken our complacent minds to the reality of the turmoil in our country and the world at that time.

The summer before, July 1967, Newark, NJ erupted in a massive riot after the news spread that a black man had been beaten to death by police. Twenty-six people died and over 700 were injured.  Detroit was next to explode.  That school year the Vietnam War was escalating and the death toll was mounting. In response the protest movement was growing. The civil rights movement, having won legal protections a few years earlier, was still fighting for acceptance in many parts of America. There was a groundswell movement of college students pushing hard for change in social policies and laws. Clashes between students and police turned deadly. In Mary’s class we heard a message that upended the conservative, middle-class perspective in our school. Throughout that school year I grew more interested each time she challenged us with the turmoil of current events.

At our school, where history lessons never reached the Twentieth Century, our World Cultures class was hearing a young teacher’s liberal perspective of current events.  On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. On June 4, Robert Kennedy, who had won the hearts of idealistic people looking for change, won the Democratic Presidential primary in California. In the early morning of June 5, he was murdered.

The day of Kennedy’s assassination, Mary stood before our class and in a broken voice said they keep killing our best leaders. She then walked out of the room and I think I saw tears in her eyes.  I had never seen such passion from a teacher before. The civil rights, anti-war and anti-poverty movements that King and Kennedy led did not die with them. A sense of purpose began to grow in me that year. Beneath my carefree exterior were questions about how activism, politics and law impacted lives.

Later in June my girlfriend, Sharon, and I talked about the future. I told her that I wanted to pursue a law degree and maybe run for political office someday. The world around us had become a volatile and uncertain place and I think we were both a little frightened about the future. She told me she would support whatever I wanted to do.

We remained together for the next 6 years and then married. She supported us while I went to law school. It is now 49 years after that June night that we talked and she  has supported and nurtured me so I could pursue my dreams and goals ever since.  A teacher sparked my yearning to know the law. My wife and best friend has tended the flame for a lifetime. As for me, I still have more questions than answers.

When Lawyers Are Bullies.

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I dislike it when a lawyer grandstands or tries to bully others for his clients.

Tim and Kathy Deere nervously sat in my office. They told me they had just received a letter from Gary Berger, a lawyer, who represented John Wolf, the man who had just purchased their home. Mr. Wolf was demanding over $100,000 because he claimed he developed a respiratory illness from mold found in duct work of the house. The claim was for removal of the mold, medical bills, loss of income, pain, suffering and punitive damages. He alleged that the Deere’s had committed fraud.  We discussed all of the facts and circumstances of the sale. The Deere’s not only did not know of any mold, nothing about mold was reported in the home inspection Mr. Wolf had done before he bought the house. Neither of them had ever been diagnosed with any medical problem from mold. Nothing they told me indicated any liability on their part and certainly no fraud.

I sent a letter to Attorney Berger explaining my clients’ lack of knowledge and refusal to pay any money to Mr. Wolf. In few days a phone call came.  I picked up the phone and the troubling conversation went something like this:

Kurt: Hello.

Berger: Hello. This is Gary Berger. I represent John Wolf. You represent the people  who fraudulently withheld information about mold in the house sold to my client. Your clients are lying about the mold. We will prove it and if we have to go to court we are increasing our demand to $500,000. Your clients will lose and then you will have egg on your face for not recommending that they settle this case.

Kurt: Gary, is your client in your office with you?

Berger: Yes, he is right here.

Kurt; I am not interested in discussing this with you while you are grandstanding for your client. If you have a reply to my letter, send it to me in writing. Good-bye Gary.

I hung up the phone.

What I really wanted to say was, Gary stop being a jerk!  Gary Berger was putting on a show for his client. His aggression was also intended to intimidate my client and me.

I have run into several lawyers like Gary Berger in my career. They like to bluster, posture and bully. I have never been impressed. I quickly learned not to take Berger’s phone calls and told him that all communications must be in writing. That took away his performance stage.

Lawyers who approach a controversy by bullying tactics are not interested in reaching an equitable result for the parties. They are interested in building their reputations as lawyers to be feared. They believe this is the way to achieve success. The lawyers I have most respected and tried to emulate take an approach that, instead, relies on preparation and fair resolution. We know that success is measured by more than just financial gain.

Mahatma Gandhi said: I realized the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby — not even money, certainly not my soul.

*This story combined elements from several experiences with certain lawyers over the years.