I will try to keep this post short but it might be hard. When I first started practicing law, I represented a woman who had been served with a complaint the size of the New Testament containing more Latin phrases than I knew existed. The attorney on the other side battered me both inside and outside the courtroom to the point I could barely see straight. My father laughed at my plight and said, “That’s Robert.”
To know Robert Johnston was to love him. His stories were legendary and it was almost a rite of passage for young lawyers in Cleveland to spend a Friday afternoon in his office letting him tell legal war stories while trying to pour whiskey down your throat. (Nasty whiskey, I might add. He stopped drinking himself a long time ago.) He had nicknames for everyone, and I was “John Pops” because I would walk around the corner to his office and grab a soft drink from his office refrigerator whenever I was thirsty. That nickname stuck even after I put my own fridge in our office over ten years ago. Robert enjoyed people coming to him for help, advice, or a drink. I called him “Roberto” and I think he loved me giving him a nickname of his own more than anything.
For time eternal, Robert has been our Municipal Court Prosecutor. When I was first appointed to the bench 17 years ago, I was a bit nervous. To my relief, Robert was always prepared and did not hesitate to lend his opinion to the situation at hand, albeit with his requisite deference to the Court’s authority. He prosecuted every person the same, and I often kidded him outside of court that he pursued people with traffic tickets as if Charles Manson had been caught speeding in our fair city. He didn’t know any other way, and we were better because of his work. I am sure I infuriated him over the years with my rulings, but he very rarely ever spoke about the cases once they were complete. I have enough stories about City Court to fill two volumes, and you better believe Robert would be the main character. He and I would often speak of the cast of characters in City Court as if they were our family. It was a dysfunctional family, I would remind him, but they were our family. He would greet me with “And a good afternoon to Your Honor” at the beginning of court every week and wouldn’t leave without asking whether “he could be excused.” (I told him “No” one time and he looked at me a bit dumbfounded.) That small courtroom won’t be the same without him.
It’s the little things you really remember about someone when they’re gone. I will miss passing Robert on his way to work every morning during my early morning walk, and I will miss him throwing his hand up as he sped past me. I will miss that conspiratorial smirk when he was talking about someone, and the way he would mutter out of the side of his mouth, “Well, the Lord loves him.” I will miss his endless stories, most of them having little to do with anything relevant, but stories he delighted in telling me anyway. “John, sit and hear an old lawyer talk” is how those stories would always begin. I will miss Robert asking whether I had talked to his “poor, pitiful son Arthur” lately, and I will miss Robert asking whether I’m “getting enough to eat and drink these days.” I will miss Robert’s combative style in the courtroom, and how red his face would get when he would try a case. The last case we ever tried opposite each other was originally Ashley’s case, and Robert ran her through the ringer just as he did me in my first case with him. When I entered the case due to Ashley being out on maternity leave, Robert asked if I wanted to continue the trial date “so Mrs. Cox could return.” I laughed, told him I would be ready for trial, and it was time “he came to eat at the big kids’ table” on this one. He smirked that familiar Robert smirk that always came out when someone challenged him. I will miss Robert’s inimitable ability to say 10,000 words when 10 would do, and his genuine love of the practice of law. He worked like no other, always wearing a suit and tie to labor in his office 11 hours a day every day of the year except Christmas and Memorial Day. Robert was the only one of us who actually wanted to be a lawyer when he got to heaven. I will miss Robert telling me Navy stories or stories about Vanderbilt Law School. (“MO-Head, it ain’t,” he would always say.) I will miss Robert asking me what’s on my mind but _____. (If you knew Robert, then you know how to fill in the blank at the end of that last sentence.) I will miss Robert describing someone as “high type,” or a “fine young lawyer.” I will miss the inane arguments even Robert knew were bullshit but he knew his job required him to argue something. I will just miss Robert.
Years ago, Robert rounded the corner toward my office with a noticeable bulk in his overcoat. I was walking in myself, so I saw him coming in my direction so quickly it was as if he had just robbed a bank. Robert waved me toward the office and opened his coat once we were both safely inside. He had brought me a bottle of Scotch from the Army/Navy store in Memphis, and although we were eightysomething years past Prohibition, Robert enjoyed feeling like he was sneaking something down the street. Only Robert.
When my father died a couple years ago, Robert was his usual formal self and expressed the appropriate sympathy at both the visitation and funeral mass. Then, a day or so after we buried Dad, Robert called late in the afternoon to ask if he could come around “to my cubby.” He sat across from me for about 15 minutes, and told me a story or two about my dad over the years. Of course, he told the stories in his own self-deprecating way. Robert didn’t really need anything, but you could tell he wanted to share those stories with me simply to make me smile. As he was leaving, he stopped. “John, Ancil was a fine, fine man, and a credit to our bar association. He was really high type. He was always damn proud of you. And he should be. Now let me go.” Just like that- Robert was gone. I will never forget that moment.
Godspeed, Roberto. In a profession that can breed dullness, you were anything but. For all of our sanity’s sake, there will never be another like you. Lord knows I will miss you, and our good natured give and take with each other. You taught me more than I ever told you, and you did it with a style than could never be replicated. I have absolutely no doubt you greeted St. Peter at Heaven’s door two days ago with one question– “Peter, what’s on your mind but ____?”