Everything and Nothing: The thing he carries

Aïda Rogers

Posted December 13, 2022

By Aïda Rogers

The thing my father carries isn’t as old as he is, but it looks it. His briefcase can only be described with hyphens: banged-up, beat-up, worn-out. But those are my words. I don’t think he would use them. For him, a “Depression Baby” and “country lawyer,” anything old but still usable isn’t something to be thrown away. It still has service. Just as he does, 92 and still at work.

Work for him and others like him is a way of life. You get up every morning and do it. And you do it seven days a week, because you’re self-employed and there’s a family to support and overhead – an office to rent, equipment to keep running, an assistant to pay to help get the work done. Some might say Daddy and other practitioners who work at desks and in conference rooms and courthouses have soft hands, but I’d say they have soft hearts judging by some of the clients I’ve seen, people with serious problems who need help, people whose lives have been permanently made worse because of someone else’s mistake. Lawyers work with misfortune. It’s just the way it is.

“Who can I help today” is my father’s motto, something I wouldn’t have known if a former boss didn’t ask me to interview him. 

Last spring Daddy invited me to the annual “Memory Hold the Door” program at the University of South Carolina School of Law. Dating to 1958, the event memorializes outstanding lawyers of integrity from throughout the state who died the previous year. Their families are invited, and one lawyer who knew the departed talks about their now-passed friend, colleague or mentor as a photo of the honoree is shown on a large screen. It’s a solemn but celebratory event, punctuated by laughter about lawyers holding their remarks to the requested five minutes.

On this day, 12 lawyers were inducted. My father was to talk about his lifelong friend, Bill Gibbes. I sat with the Gibbes family in the Karen Johnson Williams auditorium while Daddy and other lawyers spoke at the podium. We heard story after story of poverty, frugality and heroism – lawyers who took shellfish and chickens for payment, lawyers who toiled tirelessly for justice. “He was a true southern gentleman” was said more than once. As my father pointed out, Mr. Gibbes, from Hartsville, and he, from Lexington, grew up on farms governed by four words: “There was no money.” Those four words pushed them to succeed, largely doing things many of us don’t want to – reading fine print, researching deeds, learning anatomy, listening to people’s problems, trying to find the better of bad options. Their calluses are internal.

I think about that, the high rate of suicide among certain professions, and how, at this Memory Hold the Door ceremony the best word I could conjure to describe the people there was “courtly.” With the exception of the indomitable Sarah Leverette, the only woman inductee, these were gentlemen in the real sense of the word. “Work with people even if you don’t like them” was one piece of advice a lawyer recalled and holds dear. They were civility embodied.

Is this breed of lawyer lost forever? The Memory Hold the Door program was April 8, the very day several senators, many of them lawyers, walked out of Congress when Ketanji Brown Jackson was voted to join the Supreme Court. “Courtly” would not be a word I’d choose to describe them, or at least their actions that day.

Nevertheless, we all have, thankfully in America, the right to express our opinions. And maybe it’s gotten too hard to work with people we don’t like. But “we’re all in this world together,” my father told me once about his work building housing for the elderly poor. And with the exception of a few presidents, I can’t remember him saying a bad word about anyone.

Though he still drives, my father had been driven to the law school by Walton McLeod, the now-retired, long-serving state representative. That 85-year-old whippersnapper traveled from his home in Newberry County for a fast-food lunch with my parents in Lexington before coming to Columbia. I sent Mr. McLeod a thank-you note and a copy of a book I’d edited, knowing full well a thank-you note would be coming my way. And it did – two pages, single-spaced, handwritten.   

The printed program for the 2022 Memory Hold the Door ceremony included biographies of the inductees. When I read them, I found two similarities. All were church members, some even Sunday school teachers and deacons. And they all served their country – including Lt. Col. Sarah Leverette, the only woman to enlist in the South Carolina Wing of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II.

And so it is with my father. He does his work quietly, with no fanfare or expectations other than to complete the job and help his clients, some of whom he’s served for decades. Hugh Rogers gets up every day and goes to his office, driving through a town that’s changed dramatically in his lifetime, one to which he’s given a good bit of his heart – helping build libraries, a museum, a chamber of commerce, and no doubt things about which I know nothing.

So yeah, maybe his hands don’t show all that work. But you should see the handles of his briefcase. They are worn to white.

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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