How Willy Loman met the Goodfellas

Scott Greenfield wrote a post recently describing his experiences as a young lawyer. Perhaps I read too much into it, but it is pretty clear that some of his clients were, as they say, “connected.”  Scott wrote in response to my query about whether I should stick my nose into situations where a third-party was paying the defendant’s fee in a criminal case. Scott thought that I should keep my nose out, unless there was a damn good reason to think the defendant’s rights were being harmed.

Scott described the situation he saw as a young lawyer this way:

[A] great deal of my work came from representing the nice folks who worked for some wonderful people who, as a benefit of employment, provided legal representation should they get arrested. And they got arrested a lot. They were generous with their employees, and never leaned on me to do anything other than my best work for my client. My client was never the payor, but the defendant. It was great work.

This was before the Sentencing Guidelines existed. Back then, the concern was that the employees knew that the boss would take care of them, and their families if they went down. In return, they were loyal to the boss. The defendant never sought to snitch, not because there was pressure not to, but because it wasn’t yet the way of the world and because mutual loyalty prevailed.

SCOTT H. GREENFIELD, Need To Know Basis Only, Simple Justice (April 4, 2014) (emphasis added by Kopf).

Scott’s words bring to mind my Dad. Stay with me. I hope you see why I say so.

Dad came back from World War II after serving as a sergeant. He ran a pool of trucks and did shipping in North Africa for the Army.  He received a purple heart after recuperating in a hospital in France for a fairly long time, but he never bragged about it. He was wounded in a accident, not an act of war. He didn’t think he deserved the purple heart so I got to play with it at my grandmother’s house. His older brother, George, returned from the Pacific after serving as a naval officer on a destroyer escort.

The two men took over Kopf Motor Sales in Toledo. They sold Chevy cars and trucks following in the steps of their father, my grandfather. Their dad, my grandfather, was the son of a German wagon maker, and he turned his car business into a big success in the roaring twenties. So I am told, my grandfather was highly regarded in local business circles for his sterling character and loyalty to his employees. He died shortly after the war with my beloved grandmother* remarking that he had worn out his heart worrying whether his boys would survive.

In the fifties, after the war, having a dealership from General Motors was like having a license to print money. The pent-up demand of the war years ignited a financial expansion that was the envy of the world. And Kopf Motor Sales flourished. It flourished that is until General Motors decided that the boys should spend a lot of money, build a new shiny building and move to what we now know of as the suburbs.

Of course, the GM dictated move made complete sense. Besides, back then, GM was God. But Dad and Uncle George told God to pound sand believing I suppose that General Motors would shut up and leave them alone because of their father’s reputation. After the boys turned down one last command from on high to move, General Motors did the unthinkable and jerked the franchise. And this is where the story begins to converge with Scott’s post.

After everything was sold off, Dad had a nice pile of money and went looking for work. So did my Uncle George. George took a low paying job with a Fortune 500 company handling transportation. Being who he was, my uncle turned that dinky little job into a very good one. He ultimately moved to California living a long and productive life and solidifying himself as one of my favorite people of all time. I admired George. Into his 80s, he wore cordovan Bass Weejuns without socks and spoke knowledgeably about books, travel, international affairs, politics, economics and just about anything else. Best of all, I first learned the word “mordant” from George.

Dad, on the other hand, took a different path. We moved to Florida, Dad built houses, and after the recession of 1957, was flat broke. In the early ’60s, we moved back to Toledo, and Dad began his Willy Loman phase, schlepping cars for anyone who would hire him. That’s how I got to Nebraska. Dad moved alone to Grand Island, leaving the family behind, to reorganize a car dealership, and I ended up at Kearney State College (on academic probation) one fall afternoon after never having seen the place before. Ultimately, Dad “retired” to Florida and died in a dismal little place in Tampa.

For my Dad, things could have been different if a tale he told me was true. I should stress that I don’t know whether it is true or whether I remember the story accurately. It begins with a joke.

People who sell cars are generally thought to be untrustworthy. My dad joked that when a boy got into the car business a good son would lie to his mother and assure her that he was still playing piano in a whore house.

Dad was a lot of things, but he was regarded by everyone I ever knew as an honest and loyal man. Perhaps my grandfather’s similar reputation burnished my Dad’s. So, when Kopf Motor Sales was sold off, and Dick, my dad, was looking for work, several businessmen came calling. One of those contacts was through a well-regarded lawyer. He had an interesting proposition.

The lawyer represented some “investors” in Cleveland who owned and operated garbage businesses in Ohio. These men were interested in knowing whether my Dad would bring his skills, and particularly his reputation for honesty and loyalty, to the garbage business in Toledo. He would have free reign.

Dad knew, as everyone else did, that these garbage businesses were somehow controlled by “the mob.” The lawyer, while tacitly acknowledging that truth, stressed that the offer was entirely legit, that it held out the promise of a very good life providing a needed service to the public, that the business provided good union wages to the hard-working men manning the trucks, and that Dad could always count on complete fidelity from the people in Cleveland if Dad would hook his wagon to their star. Dad spurned the offer. I have always wondered whether that was the single worst decision of his life. I think he wondered the same thing.

Anyway, that’s how Willy Loman came to meet the Goodfellas.

Thanks for the memory Scott.


*My grandmother was a wise and fascinating woman as Cousin George describes in his wonderful book, Looking for Almeda.



9 responses

  1. When I decided to forego a position with a well-known law firm doing labor law and take up criminal defense instead, I told my mother that I was playing piano in a whorehouse as well. She knew I was lying, though, as I didn’t know how to play piano.

  2. Nice story. Sorry to hear you’re from Ohio, however. (Go Blue!) Of course, if Toledo didn’t end up in Ohio, Michigan might not have its wonderful Upper Peninsula.

  3. I love da UP. The first time I went through it, I was riding to a dig in SE Montana with some eastern Canadian friends, I kept seeing signs for pasties and was puzzled because I’d always thought Midwesterners were pretty straight-laced. When I was at UMich, I loved to go up to the UP for caving trips and that fantastic bridge. My favorite part of MI.

  4. Did you mention Maumee in a prior post? More obscure history: site of large proglacial Lake Maumee. Way, way before you were born. 😉

  5. Jill,

    You are creeping me out. I grew up at 224 East Harrison in Maumee. An old salt box house that’s patent dated to around 1824. It overlooked the tow path for part of the Erie Canal. We could see Ft. Meigs across the Maumee river. I graduated from Maumee High School (the Panthers).

    All the best.


  6. Hmmm. “Sick puppy” and “creeping me out.” Flattery will get you nowhere. 🙂 Hope treatment is going well. Remember to pace yourself.

  7. Judge:
    Of course, I didn’t know your Pop but from your story, he sounds like a completely honorable guy. In what may have been the biggest decision of his life he did the right thing. Such a decision could not have been lost on you.

  8. Thank you for very nice note. You’re right. My dad was a stand-up guy. At least that’s how I remember him.

    All the best.


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