May 2019 - Steven Louis Perk (1952-2019)

I played my last round of golf with Steve Perk in October. He shot a 37 front. We buried him in January.

Those of you who knew Steve as a successful lawyer, or a masterful judge, or a talented mediator may not know he was a spectacular athlete. He was a small-college quarterback, the best softball shortstop I ever saw, could drain jump shots from 25 feet with aplomb, and maintained a low single-digit golf handicap.

Only 5 out of 100 golfers can shoot a 37. You can do your own math on how many golfers can do it nearing the end of a 5-year battle with pancreatic cancer and unable to play more than once or twice a month because they’re still taking chemo.

But I first met him, 35 years ago, on a day when he was not performing at his best. Thirty-five years ago, I was part of the interview panel in the DA’s Office when he applied for a job as a prosecutor. Worst interview I ever saw.

Folks, I have done hundreds—literally hundreds—of job interviews in my life, and this was the worst. The other interviewers and I just sat there afterwards and shook our heads.

But we gave him a job. We gave him a job because as bad as the interview went, his basic decency shined through. Being a prosecutor isn’t all about being a fighter-pilot litigator. Hell, that’s the easy part.

The hard part is making judgments about people’s lives. The hard part is deciding who deserves a break and who doesn’t. The hard part is wielding the tremendous power of the government in a fair and compassionate manner. We knew after 20 minutes with this guy that he was a good and decent and honorable man.

Those are not easy to find. We needed as many as we could get.

Smart people come fifteen to the hundred weight. You can’t swing a dead cat around a law school lobby without hitting three smart people.

Good and decent and honorable people? Not so easy to find.

And it isn’t just DA’s offices who scoop them up. If you’re looking for partner material—and have half a brain—those are the people you want to spend the next 30 years with. Our profession desperately needs them, and recruitment officers are starting to tumble to the fact their firms need them.

So we hired the guy for whom the interview panel summaries included references to “a one-man Charge of the Light Brigade” and “a brutal interview, but . . . .” We hired the guy we trusted. And the entire legal community ended up trusting him for over three decades.

We became friends in the DA’s Office. Stevie was the shortstop and cleanup hitter on our softball team. I played third base. My job was to holler Steve’s name on almost any ball hit. Anything from the foul territory behind third to the power alley in right-center was Steve’s. No matter where the ball was hit, I’d yell “Steve!” and everybody else would get out of the way. We won a lot of championships riding on Stevie’s back.

The team morphed from a bunch of prosecutors to a bunch of ex-prosecutors. We added fishing trips to the eastern Sierra to our repertoire. We called our softball team the Ugly Trout, on the theory it would be tough for opponents to get “up” for a game against a team with that name. We’d pack off to the back side of Yosemite every spring to hike and fish and tell lies.

Steve taught me to fish. Every year. As readers of my opinions will attest, I’m a bit of a slow learner. And Steve had the patience of Job. That was a great part of his charm. He didn’t cut himself any slack, but he had an almost-limitless capacity for accepting the shortcomings of others.

Which always amazed me. I’ve never figured out how you could look like Steve Perk, how you could have those movie-star good looks, be the best athlete in whatever group you chose, be a great father (and if you know his children, a law student and an oncology nurse, you know he was a great raiser of children), be a big-time trial lawyer in a county that has 10,000 lawyers, spend 10 years as an admired and respected judge . . . and not have it go to your head.

But it never went to Steve’s. He was as kind and as generous and as modest that day he shot the 37 front as he was the day I met him. The only difference was that now I knew I was right about him. Now I knew he was one of the finest men I had ever met. I wasn’t predicting how Steve would turn out. I knew.

I knew that as surely as he knew he was dying. He’d fought a holding action against pancreatic cancer for almost five years. Holding actions do not end in victory.

Near the end of that round, I asked him:

Steve, if the archangel Gabriel had appeared to you when you were 22 and said to you, “Here’s the deal. You will be a successful attorney, an admired and respected judge. You will have a single-digit handicap, you’ll fish the Sierras and play golf in Scotland. You’ll have a beautiful wife who loves you with all her heart and two kids who make you proud every day. But you’ll only get 67 years,” would you have taken that deal?

Steve grinned sideways at me and said, “That’d be a tough deal to turn down.”

And then he burst into one of those thousand-watt smiles we all loved so much, and he laughed out loud and he said, “Billy, I woulda taken that deal. And you know what else? I woulda shook my lawyer’s hand for getting it for me. I woulda shook his hand and said thank you.”

Steve got a good deal. And he knew he got a good deal. The rest of us were short-changed. The rest of us might want to call upstairs and complain . . . but not Steve.

Steve wasn’t much for complaining. He’d known all along he was just passing through.

When they told him he had six months, he told them, “No, I need nine. My retirement doesn’t vest for nine months and my family needs that. I don’t care what you have to do to me, I don’t care how painful it is or what it costs, you gotta get me nine months.”

They got him his nine months. I’ve never been to a birthday party happier than Steve Perk’s 65th. But his 66th and 67th were pretty good, too. I’ll remember them when they tell me how much time I have left.

That a man as good and decent and honorable and kind as Steve Perk doesn’t get the biblical three-score-and-ten always plays havoc with my faith. But it had no effect on his. Steve’s faith was the rock he built his life on, and he never questioned the fairness of God’s plan for him.

He was a class act to the end. He went out with the same decency and dignity he showed in that interview 35 years ago.

There’s an old story about two baseball fans approaching the end of their lives, who make a pact. Whichever one goes first will come back and tell the other what’s in the afterlife. One of them dies and sure enough, two weeks later he appears to the other and says, “I’m back; I’m here to tell you about the afterlife.”

“Wonderful!” says the survivor, “what’s it like?”

And the answer is, “Aw man, it’s great! Heaven is spectacular. The food is great, the women are beautiful, you get anything you want . . . man it’s just great. They have everything we love.”

And the survivor says, “What about baseball? Is there baseball in heaven?”

And the other guy says, “Is there? Man, baseball here is unbelievable! Our team is so good Mantle is playing left because he’s the third-best outfielder. We’re terrific.”

And the survivor says, “Wow, that’s great.”

And the other guy says, “Yeah, but there is some bad news.”

And the survivor says, “Yeah, what’s that?”

And the answer is, “You’re starting at short tomorrow.”

Folks, I don’t know much about God or theology or the afterlife. But I know who’s been starting at shortstop since January. And I know, if I live my life with the grace and decency he did, I have a chance to someday once again see Steve Perk go deep in the hole, load up that howitzer that was attached to his right shoulder, and throw somebody out.

And if I get that, I will smile and shake my lawyer’s hand.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.