Judge Brobst – A Remembrance

Imagine walking into the dank, faded yellow old District Court rooms on Allegheny Avenue some 30 years ago.  No security, no computers and no cell phones.  When you open the door to Court Room 1, you see an attractive strawberry blond in a LBD with heels, bright red lipstick and a single strand of pearls.  You are immediately intimidated.  How can she be this put together when I have no idea what I am doing, and I am very worried about what is going to happen to my client?  She looks like she just stepped out of a limousine after a fancy fundraiser.  How does she do it?  So many of us had this first impression of Shirley Ann Brobst, a tireless and fierce advocate for justice who was always scrupulously honest and fair.  A woman who rose to the top of the good old boy network with old fashioned hard work.

My primal fear of Judge Brobst over the years changed into respect for her forthrightness coupled with the knowledge that when I had a case against her, I had to be prepared fully.  Her encyclopedic knowledge of the law and the facts of each case became no surprise – she set the bar high.

Ten years later, when I found out I was moving to a house catty-corner across the street from her, I have to admit that I was a little worried what she would be like as a neighbor.  Would her passion for justice apply if my grass grew too high, or if my kids made too much of a ruckus?  My fears quickly dissolved as sweet little Alice, on the first day we moved in, brought a tray of homemade brownies to the house.  I got to know Ann much better as we shared a common love of dogs and gardening.  Many a day, I would come home and find Ann with fresh pulled weeds in one hand and a glass of amber liquid in the other, a wry smile and funny story to share.  Soon, my garden began to flower with shared perennials from Ann’s, and she never called the police when I permanently borrowed one of her tomatoes.  Our cul-de-sac dinners were full of laughter and joy as well as compassion for our older neighbors and those who were having tough times.  Ann was always willing to lend a helping hand or, even more importantly, a listening ear.

Ann was stubborn, but she would listen to reason – eventually.  For three years, I tried to convince her to let me walk Jackson, her exuberant Golden Retriever, in the woods on Sunday mornings.  For three years, she said no.  Finally, one weekend she relented.  She put Jackson in her car, drove him up her driveway, down the street and up my driveway.  Of course, the top was down.  Jackson began a wonderful series of weekend walks with many other dog nation friends and strangers who soon fell in love with him.  I got particular pleasure when Jackson would grab a sandwich out of a picnicker’s hand at Loch Raven reservoir and as they would yell at me to control my dog, I would simply say in my best Peter Sellers’ voice, “that’s not my dog.”  These tails (misspelling intended) made Ann scold me repeatedly  – “you didn’t!”   I shortly realized that Jackson’s favorite part of the walk was to belly flop and wallow in the muddy shores of Loch Raven, to eat the entrails of decomposing animals, throw them up and then roll in them.  My goal became to bring him back as filthy wet and dirty as possible so that I could have the joy of watching him get into Ann’s beloved convertible.  Ann knew exactly what I was doing and never got mad.  She just gave me that famous smile.

I remember exactly where I was when Ann called me to tell me she had pancreatic cancer.  Her stoicism helped me and so many of her other friends cope with the insidious and cruel impact this disease had on her body.  It never touched her mind or her heart.  I  believe that she made up small tasks for me and many others so that we would feel better about what was happening to her.  On the morning she went into hospice, she called to thank me.  I could not form words to respond to her.  The enormity of her reaching out to a neighbor in her time of peril will never be forgotten.

Ann’s funeral at the Church of the Redeemer was attended by hundreds of her family, friends and those whose lives she had touched.  Her daughter Alice spoke beautifully.  Alice said that the book of Ann included the following rules:

1.  Never put anything in writing you don’t want the whole world to see;

2.  Don’t curse, but sometimes a well placed F-bomb is necessary;

3.  Always keep your convertible top down until it goes below 50 and;

4.  No matter what, put on some lipstick and move forward.

Alice described how she and her mom had serious talks about the complexities of marriage, and the need to maintain good relationships with your siblings.  Rick, too, spoke from the heart.  He talked about his mom’s faith and the importance she placed on loving family.  He also spoke movingly about Ann’s view that you had to love your neighbor as yourself, and that everyone you came in contact with was your neighbor.  Ann succeeded in helping create two great people in Rick and Alice.  Alice has her mom’s stoicism and ability to face any situation.  Rick has his mom’s compassion – when my old dog collapsed on a walk and could go no further, Rick is the one who pulled up in his spanking clean Jeep, picked the dog up and put her in his front seat with no concern about getting his car dirty.  He probably doesn’t even remember doing that.

The service concluded with a homily by Joe Ehrman.  Joe described how Ann was going from the land of the dying into the land of eternal life.  He urged everyone in attendance to do the right thing, to follow the golden rule, and to aspire to live the way Ann did.

My life is richer for having known Ann Brobst.  I’ll never be able to thank her for that gift.