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My most important decision.

Something funny happened on my way to becoming the world's most talented actor.

A judge is first and foremost a human being. He succeeds or fails in his work to the extent that he can feel for the men and women before him and then integrate those feelings into the context of the legal system. A judge is a man (or a woman, of course) when he is hearing evidence, studying precedents, examining documents, or hearing oral arguments. His humanity is at issue in every act from the bench.

A judge is also a man when he is writing a book. There are bills to be paid, clothes to be cleaned, new people to meet, old friends to take to dinner. These present facts of life throw into relief and illustrate to me what is important about the past. That is, what is happening to me today, as I write this, tells me a great deal about what counts and what does not in the past. The events of this morning or this afternoon shape my understanding of where the human connection was in all of the cases of my past.

I am now going to take you behind the scenes of this particular judge's life, so to speak, and share with you the most wonderful possible experience of the present that could touch a judge's life or a writer's life. Just as I started writing this chapter, my son David and his wife, Edna, had a baby son, Ariel. They already have a wonderful son, Gabriel, so Ariel is the second grandchild for my wife, Mickey, and me.

As I looked at Ariel in his crib and in his mother's and father's arms, I thought about the beginning of life and where life leads. Like any grandfather, I thought about how far I have come from when I was a baby and my grandparents were looking at me. The trip has taken 68 years so far and it is still exciting every single day. But I think that in order for you to understand why some things mean so much to me, it might help to understand a few facts of the early part of that voyage. They help me, at any rate, to understand the landmarks along the way. They help me understand who I am, not just as a judge but as the human being inside the robes.

I was born in Los Angeles in the year after the end of World War 1. It was then a metropolitan area of fewer than one million souls, contrasted with its present population of more than 12 million. My father was a lawyer. He had originally planned to be a doctor but could not afford to study medicine full-time, which was the only way it was offered then and now. Law school, however, was offered at night. He could therefore work during the day to support himself while he studied. He was the kind of lawyer whom you used to see on TV shows; he worked out of a small office downtown. He was not part of a huge law department of a mammoth corporation or part of a multicity law firm as many lawyers are today. He worked by himself and was the researcher, investigator, and attorney on every one of his cases, and he worked tirelessly, even when he was exhausted.

I grew up in middle-class circumstances in what is now almost downtown Los Angeles. My parents lived in a duplex with my grandparents. Every day when I came home from school, I would run up the stairs to my grandparents' home and talk with them and my aunt for hours. From my earliest recollections, they took me seriously and listened-and talked-to me as if I were an adult. That means a great deal to the self-esteem of a child.

If I have grown to be a man with a concern for other people, as a judge must be, much of it was learned from my grandparents and my aunt. My grandmother was deeply concerned with helping those in dire straits. Through most of my childhood, she headed a local Ladies Aid society. If I have a sense of humor, which a judge must have if he is to survive, I learned it largely from my grandfather, a man of wit on every subject. My connectedness with the larger world came largely from my aunt Esther. From her (she was only 12 years older than I was) I learned how to dance, how to drive a car, and even how to pick out clothes that looked decent on me. Today's young people often live hundreds and even thousands of miles from grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Perhaps they believe they are well-off, liberated in some way because of that distance. Maybe they are. For me, having an extended family was a rich gift every day. That gift has shaped me in ways that today's children may never even know. It has been 50 or more years since I used to burst into their home and start talking about what had happened that day, and I still miss my grandparents keenly.

My father worked extremely hard, as I said. He would come home at the end of the day drained from struggling in court and in the library for his clients. I recall night after night when he would give us a slightly delayed replay of his fights in court on behalf of the little guy-always the little guy-who was being done out of an insurance settlement by a big company, or who had his utilities unjustly shut off, or who had not been paid for goods delivered to a huge chain of dry-goods stores.

To my childish eyes, it seemed as if my father were fighting against giants every hour of every day, and always giving as good as he got. I sometimes went to see him in court. He could give a stemwinder of a jury summation that would make even the bailiffs cry.

His passion, his strength, his whole life seemed to me to be bent on preserving the rights and the livelihood of small people caught in a huge impersonal system they barely understood. He did not always win by any means. But he never quit.

When I went from junior high school to high school, I wanted to be an actor. Through a friend of my father's , I was allowed to transfer from my neighborhood high school to the famed Hollywood High School. Hollywood High had a reputation of having the best drama program in town. Even then, child stars, including Marge Champion, Nanette Fabray, and others, were pouring out of it.

In my senior year, after dozens of unsuccessful tryouts, I finally got a part in the senior class play. By some coincidence-at the time I thought it was a prophetic coincidence-I was to play a man called Tallant in a play entitled The Late Christopher Bean. I rehearsed and practiced and read my lines in front of the mirror. Little by little, I convinced myself that I must be pretty darned good at it. In fact, I thought I must be a pretty hot item altogether.

One day, as I walked down the hall at Hollywood High with a friend , I saw an amazingly beautiful auburn-haired girl talking to virtually the whole football team. She was certainly the most attractive girl I had ever seen at Hollywood High or anywhere else until that time. My friend said that he could introduce me, and he did. I made small talk with her and then asked her if she would go for a soda after school. To my amazement, she said she would.

We went to a nearby drugstore and had Cokes. After we drank them, I realized I had no money at all with me, not even enough to buy a Coke. Judy Turner gracefully paid for them. She was so graceful and cheerful that I invited her to a Saturday-night dance at Hollywood High. Again, to my delight, she agreed to go.

Judy Turner looked ravishing at the dance in a black velvet dress. I still recall picking her up at her mother's house north of Hollywood Boulevard near the Hollywood Bowl. I remember my pride that I-soon to be a major star, surely-walked into the dance with the prettiest girl in the room on my arm.

Alas, at the dance Judy Turner had other interests besides me. We did the fox trot, and at every step I could sense her looking over my shoulder to see who was more important or richer or better-looking. Judy Turner was gorgeous, but she was also a bit more of a politician than I was used to.

Still, I took her home and kissed her good night and anticipated a bright future with her once I had taught her that I was the only young man worth looking at.

The very next day, when I was rehearsing in a special session as Mr. Tallant, the drama coach, Mr. Kachel, took me aside. In a direct way, he told me that I was simply not talented enough to play Mr. Tallant. I was out of the senior class play on my ear.

Not only that, but the next time I asked out Judy Turner, I was turned down flat. And the time after that. I was out of the running for stardom and out of the running for Judy Turner in one week.

Like everyone else in my family, I was competitive indeed and no quitter. Despite Mr. Kachel's obviously confused view of my abilities onstage, I decided that after high school I would go to Los Angeles City College. LACC was reputed to have the best drama classes in town at the college level. Moreover, it would allow me the scheduling leeway to actually work as an actor while I took my drama classes. As far as I could see, it was still ordained-Mr. Kachel or not-that I was to be the next Tyrone Power.

My strong-willed father had other ideas. He "urged" me strongly to go to the University of Southern California instead of studying acting. After much earnest debate, and only to humor him-because I had by then actually been told that I looked like Tyrone Power-I enrolled at USC. My erstwhile date and girlfriend Judy Turner was more determined about her acting. She continued to study drama, dyed her hair blonde, changed her name to Lana, and did well for a long time. I still remember that black velvet dress ever time I see her in a movie.

I had hardly received my USC diploma when I went into the army. Frankly, when I got back from Cebu, I was all too ready to settle down for the life of the law student.

Hardly had I started studying civil procedure and torts when I was fixed up on a blind date with a lovely young woman from Mercedes, Texas, who had just that day landed a job at the Pasadena Star-News. We went to a dinner dance at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, talked until late at night, and were married eight weeks later. She never started her job at the newspaper.

It would be impossible for me to adequately describe how important, how crucial, Mickey has been in my life. Her belief in me, her offering her strength and determination to me, made it possible for me to do every good thing that has ever happened to me. I still remember perfectly when I was a third-year law student about to take exams and came down with a severe flu. Mickey sat next to me in bed and read the course summaries to me in her soft, perfectly enunciated Southern accent. It was her determination that I could make a law career by myself that made me strike out on my own to start my own small firm and become poised for the bench. I cannot imagine how or what my life would have been without Mickey to sometimes support me, sometimes lead me, always be my partner.
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Title Annotation:Judge Joseph A. Wapner's decision to become a lawyer
Author:Wapner, Joseph A.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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