Gravel roads and flyover country

I once sat with a well-known law professor and three other federal trial judges in a fancy New York restaurant discussing important stuff after we had put on a panel discussion at a well-regarded New York law school.  I was the only judge from “flyover” country, and it was clear that the law school audience and my fellow judges viewed me as a curiosity. Later, at the dinner, one of the judges asked me how many miles I had to travel on gravel roads to get to work. It was apparent that the judge was not enamored with a jab I had thrown his way during the panel discussion–the punch drew laughs from the audience. Explaining that all roads are gravel in Nebraska, I let the remark pass.


Why do I tell this story? Our country, despite the absence of a monarchy, is status conscious. Oddly, we sometimes derive status (and infer ability), or the lack of it, from where people live. The federal judiciary suffers from this malady big-time. I can’t stress that point too much. By now, I really don’t care. Indeed, I find it amusing, and do my best to play the hick when it suits me. It can be a lot of fun.

But once in a while it is worth pointing out how stupid it is to derive conclusions about ability from a map. An example: There is now a third Ebola patient in America. His name is Rick Sacra, 51. He is medical doctor who has treated the ravaged people of Africa. He is not being treated at Emory. The federal government selected somewhere else. He is not being treated in LA, or Boston (his hometown) or Chicago or New York. He is being cared for in Omaha at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. See here.

Dr. Sacra arrived by plane at the sprawling Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. He did not flyover. He was transported to UNMC on a paved road rather than a gravel one. His life depends upon the skill of the UNMC docs, and that is especially true since the miracle drug that Emory used is all gone. I bet this good man doesn’t care that he is being treated in a state with less than two million people but over six million cattle.

Update and Admission:  I have a bias for UNMC.  I should have disclosed it earlier.

My first father-in-law, the beloved Bill Blank, a highly regarded surgeon in Ohio who grew up south central Nebraska, was trained at UNMC.  Jim Armitage, my former neighbor in Omaha, who grew up in Kearney, Nebraska (out where there are miles and miles of gravel roads), advised me on my cancer treatment. Jim is probably the world’s leading expert on lymphomas, and you will find no kinder doctor anywhere. Mark Mailliard, my hysterically funny and brilliant brother-in-law, leads the Gastroenterology department at UNMC where he specializes in the treatment of Hepatitis C. Mary, Mark’s wife and Joan’s sister, is an oncology nurse at UNMC supervising clinical trials for breast cancer patients. She is probably the best human being I have ever encountered. Nurses are like that. Jim Eske is one of my fantastic career law clerks. His wife, Deb Thomas, is Associate Vice Chancellor at UNMC.  I have known Deb for over 30 years, and our relationship started back when she was a political wunderkind and I served as counsel for the Nebraska legislature regarding the impeachment of Nebraska’s Attorney General. Bar none, she is the smartest person I have ever known, and one of the toughest but nicest too.

So, take what I say about UNMC with a grain of salt, and then believe every damn word.



18 responses

  1. Judge,
    I jumped your case when you posted STFU. I didn’t think it was appropriate. But that discussion was then, and I have enjoyed your posts since.

    By comparison to many, I have a small practice in Nashville. But I was raised in a small farming community of 400 residents in southern Illinois between Evansville and St. Louis. I know about gravel and dirt roads. And I know they can lead to whatever degree of success we choose.

    I loved your post this morning. It is impossible to come from an environment of gravel roads and “get too big for your britches”, because there are folks back home who pulled you out of the ditch both figuratively and literally and know you simply as “Bob and Frieda’s boy”. And that’s why I am content in always unashamedly declaring my political and lawyerly hero — Abraham Lincoln.

    P.S. This no-socks business is way behind in the world of fashion. Between 1964 and 1970 I wore socks about 5 times — because Frieda said, “Boy, I’m not telling you again. Put your socks on!”

  2. One of the good things about being from a “rural” place like Nebraska or Iowa is that you can be smart and effective, and the outlanders who don’t know it get surprised when they encounter you and see your abilities and legal skills. Their bias makes it easy to sneak up on them. I find it works in the reverse as well. Over the years I have encountered as opposing counsel or as lead counsel where I was local counsel, big city lawyers with big reputations or from big law firms. With notable exceptions I have been surprised at how ordinary they often are in their skills or abilities, and how much in the end they typically come to realize that at least here in Iowa with me the “secret” of their mediocrity is out.

    I think Judge Mark Bennett who has spent his career trying to raise the bar in Sioux City, Iowa and who avails himself of intellectual stimulation via national travels and exhaustively analytical opinion writing, loves having big city lawyers grace his courtroom with their presence. Periodically, it gives him the opportunity to school them on some topic such as how big city lawyers should not make boilerplate objections to discoveryor how they should not coach deposition witnesses or make form objections for no purpose.

    In the reverse, I believe now senior Judge Charles Wolle had for many years gone to sit in Brooklyn, NY where he helped clean up their civil docket backlog by putting on his own rocket docket show in a display of midwestern sensibility and good judgment. I am sure those lawyers thought they were encountering an alien from another planet, but it was just the same Judge Wolle we in Iowa knew to be a frequent shopper at the Goodwill store near the United States Courthouse in Des Moines.

    All should be reminded of the truism, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

  3. Rob, I spent 13 years traveling gravel (and more than few dirt) roads. It is true that those roads will school you fast about big britches. Indeed, and while I am not an Indy driver, it takes skill to go 90 mph down a gravel road to make it to Stockville for a docket call.

    Two pointers: (1) let the car drift and slid into the turns, don’t jab at the wheel when the fear strikes; (2) stay out of the gravel mounds on the side of the road, or you will end up ass over end and miss your docket call while the cows on the side of the road go about their business uninterested in the smoking remnants of your fancy lawyer’s car.

    All the best.


  4. Dean,

    Nicely put. By now, the secret is out on Mark. That’s a good thing for the big boys and everybody else, but it diminishes the quotient of fun he is able to extract from the slickers.

    All the best.


  5. As a New Yorker, I’m constrained to ask for the name of the fancy restaurant? It matters in order to assess the credibility of the remainder of the post.

    And did it serve pig or hog? No one here would know the difference.

  6. SHG,

    I honestly don’t remember. I think it was pretty close to Fordham School of Law but that’s a guess. By the way, you know I can’t assess credibility, so I wonder why you think you have the magic gene.

    As for pig or hog, I know I did not order either. I probably picked New York fru fru of some sort to make up for chewing on a wood tooth pick during the dinner and ensuing discussion.

    All the best.


  7. Judge:
    As a New Yorker, the same idea extends to the perception of those lawyers outside of Manhattan. I guess you could say that, in New York City, our “gravel roads” are those in the outer boroughs. As for Mr. Sacra, he sounds as if he’s in very good hands. And, if that’s true, the “gravel roads” to UNMC will likely lead to a medical miracle…and that’s all that matters.

  8. I’ve been blessed by having the good fortune of starting my practice in Lubbock in 1982 before moving to The Nation’s Fourth Largest City in 1996. In Lubbock, I knew every Judge and Justice of the Peace, including our federal District Judge and Magistrate, and they knew me. My work – my “reputation” – preceded me everywhere I turned. I knew that playing slick or failing to honor my word would be noted. I learned to not only “act” professionally, but to be a professional. The men and women of the Bar policed their members, and we needed no rules of civility to understand our duties to each other and to our clients.

    While I have grown to love Houston, it cannot be the same. There are loose communities of lawyers in some practice areas that approximate the experience of the smaller town, but the raw numbers still allow too much anonymity and, consequently, you get a number of practitioners who think civility and professionalism are signs of weakness.

    I envy my colleagues who were able to stay in Lubbock. (Next time, I won’t put all my eggs in Phil Gramm’s deregulated savings and loan basket.). But, until then, I will try to proudly bear the banner of “small town lawyer” in the Big City.

  9. Shush!

    There will never be enough to go around.

    Perhaps naïve is the convenience of a paved roads?

    When is the last time you have been “lost” down a dirt road?

    Carry on, illusions need not float reality.

  10. Charles,

    For what is worth, I bet that practicing as a “‘small town lawyer’ in the Big City” will pay off in the end. Even if it does not, that banner is worth the price you will pay for it.

    All the best.


  11. Ah New York, New York. Today is my last day before I have to be a big kid in big law, and I am sitting in my one bedroom that is cheap and nice by NY standards but made my mom say, “Well. I guess I just don’t understand.” I’d be lying if I said I was adjusting to this city. A city where everyone is in a hurry but one errand takes three hours to accomplish. Grocery shopping–dreadful. IKEA–don’t even get me started. I miss home. Still, this flyover kid is excited to show New York what Nebraska has to offer. Thanks for everything, Judge.

  12. My Dear Friend,

    No need to thank me. You have earned every bit of what you have achieved.

    You will adjust to New York City. Trust me.

    Be happy. Write your mom (and me).


  13. Judge:

    One of my favorite observations about my town, and many others in Nebraska, is that it contains many people who have the intellect, skills and talents that would allow them to be successful anywhere else in the world. They choose, however, to be here and that says a great deal about the quality of life that we enjoy.

  14. Dan,

    My friend, I believe you are describing yourself, although I know that wasn’t your intention. Take care, and my best to all.

    All the best.


  15. Pingback: Reverse trigger warning: I don’t have Ebola « Hercules and the umpire.

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