Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Promise Fulfilled

(Note: This was originally posted in June of 2007 at the time of the event. That post was spammed with 84 comments in Japanese promoting a product, so I'm deleting it and re-posting the article now.)

Philip S. Gutierrez was formally inducted as a trial judge on the federal bench for the Central District of California on June 13, 2007. A graduate of Cantwell High School in Montebello, California in 1977, the University of Notre Dame in 1981, and UCLA Law School in 1984, Judge Gutierrez invited several members of the judiciary and the bar to speak at his induction. The only speaker who was not involved in the legal community was the author of this blog, Judge Gutierrez's teacher for all four of his high school years. Following are my remarks at the ceremony.

Induction Of The Hon. Philip Gutierrez
Judge, US Federal District Court
June 13, 2007

Honorable members of the Judiciary and the Bar, and family and friends of Phil Gutierrez -

I have known Phil Gutierrez for just under thirty four years, since he was a freshman at Cantwell High School in Montebello. It is just a few days past the thirtieth anniversary of Phil's graduation from Cantwell - June 1, 1977 - a date that I have a multitude of reasons to remember, not the least of which was the salutatorian speech that Phil delivered that beautiful late afternoon, in which he urged his classmates "never to stop living, never to get smothered into something unwanted, but most of all to live as people" - part of the definition of which, he had earlier asserted, was being "not afraid to touch, or to be touched."

I am struck, these three decades later, by how thoroughly Phil has lived out that credo himself, though as I found out in an hour's conversation last night, he has long forgotten exactly what he said that day.

It should surprise no one here, I think, that many of the qualities that characterize Phil today were in evidence in the boy I first knew in the Seventies. He had, for example, the same dogged persistence that at its best was a hall mark of his genuine scholarship but could also at times be trying and even verge on the annoying. When Phil had a point to make, he could argue it until you were tempted to give in to him out of sheer exhaustion. More commonly, when he had a question, he would pursue its implications until he had found an answer that satisfied him, typically an extended and once again frequently exhausting process.

Some of the earliest and most treasured memories of my long career as a teacher were the frequent, almost daily visits to my classroom after school by Phil and a friend or two to pursue further some issue that had arisen in class, or to render some judgment on the state of world affairs, or to vent some anger at whatever the latest outrage that had occurred at out school was. Usually, the echoes of the dismissal bell hadn't even subsided before he was in my room, standing politely for often an hour or more to the side of my desk, to badger, to listen, to argue, to persuade - to do all that was necessary to nurture a developing intellect of the range and depth that I know characterize him to this day. Phil was the first genuine student I had and remains all these years later perhaps the most complete of the nearly ten thousand I have taught.

I was delighted by Phil's continued growth in college. Many of you know that he went to Notre Dame, but I'm not sure if it is as commonly known that he turned down Stanford and Yale to do so. I was pleased by his choice, really not primarily because I went there as well, but rather more because I felt that sending this dynamo of energy and questions into the heart of a bastion of white, traditional, Middle American Catholicism would be good for both him and for the institution. For Phil, I hoped that Notre Dame would challenge him as it had challenged me to live a life of meaning and affect, to become in the oft-quoted words of Gandhi "the change you seek in the world." For our now-shared alma mater, I hoped that Phil would help to break down some of the calcified and narrow perceptions of what it meant to be scholarly, or Catholic, or American. Though I am not sure in what shape Notre Dame survived the encounter, Phil flourished there, and part of the arc of his career is, I think, attributable to a pre-existing moral centeredness that was enhanced and nurtured by his years in South Bend.

Whether or not Phil exactly intended to do so when he asked me to say a few words today, I am here as a link to that past of his that includes Notre Dame and Cantwell High School. I regard myself today as a stand-in for all of the teachers of his early life - for the late Joe Richards, social studies instructor extraordinaire and the other teachers and coaches who helped him grow through adolescence; for Father Richard McBrien, former theology department chair at Notre Dame whom Phil identified as his greatest professor in college and whose compassionate and courageous moral stances have cost him dearly throughout his career - and for all the professors at Notre Dame and UCLA who contributed to his formation as an intellect and a scholar; and even, if it is not too presumptuous so to suggest, for his first and greatest teacher, his late mother, whose dedication to his growth and education permeates this chamber as surely as if she were here in the flesh.

On that June evening thirty years ago when Phil addressed his assembled teachers and family and friends and started the journey that has taken him to this place and this day, he began to become the change that he seeks - as one of the first and surprisingly and distressingly few Latino jurists in the federal court system, as a force for what is good and just in society at large, as a role model for other young people of challenges and background similar to his own. When Phil spoke that evening of living as fully humanly as possible, he was paraphrasing, I believe, the last poem we studied in his English class, "I Think Continually" by Stephen Spender, who asserts that to be "truly great," in the words of the poem, it is necessary "never to allow gradually the traffic/To smother with noise and fog the flowering of the spirit." Spender's peroration is splendid and most apropos today - he urges us to emulate

"The names of those, who in their lives, fought for life -

Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honor."

I am confident that as he has in the past, the Honorable Philip S. Gutierrez will continue to write his name, large and with honor, across this phase of his life and career. Congratulations, Your Honor.

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