Lawyer got an early education in 1953

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

Harvard, the nation’s oldest university, has always possessed a certain magic about it, perhaps never more so than 11 years ago  when the Ivy League school conferred degrees on members of the Class of 2008.

Best-selling author J.K. Rowling, of “Harry Potter” fame, served as the commencement speaker, earning a ceremonial tribute beforehand when former Harvard students carried brooms during an alumni procession, paying special homage to her wizardry with words.

Also on the stage that day was a real-life legal wizard, a man who had blazed a judicial trail over the course of six decades, carving a legacy that had been recognized by more than 40 colleges and universities with honorary degrees.

That man, of course, was Detroit native Damon J. Keith, a United States Court of Appeals judge from 1977 until his passing in April. Judge Keith became a “Harvard man” that day, receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from the prestigious institution in Cambridge, Mass. For Judge Keith, it was an honor that stirred his emotions.

“I’ve received a number of honorary degrees over the years – from Yale, the University of Michigan, and many other outstanding colleges – but this one was special,” Keith told me shortly after earning the honor. “There is so much history, so much tradition connected with Harvard that I was deeply moved. It brought tears to my eyes.”

And others.

Lani Guinier, the first black female tenured professor at Harvard Law School and a former law clerk for Keith, served as his escort during the graduation festivities that spanned two days. A noted author and civil rights scholar, Guinier was similarly moved by the occasion.

“When Lani saw me with tears in my eyes, she proceeded to shed tears as well,” Keith said. “We couldn’t hold back our emotions. I was so glad that she was there to share that moment with me and my children and grandchildren.”

The night before the commencement exercises, Keith and nine other honorary degree recipients were saluted at a black-tie dinner held at a hallowed Harvard site.

“If you’ve seen the movie, ‘The Great Debaters’ with Denzel Washington, the dinner was held in the hall where the final debate took place,” Keith said. “It was a magnificent setting and it was an honor to be in the company of so many distinguished scholars.”

In the citation presented to Keith, he was praised as a “champion of equal justice under law, a just and humane jurist who has shared and shaped the action and passion of his time.” He was lauded as an “illustrious figure in American law and public service” and “one of the nation’s most admired federal judges.”

That he was, just as he never allowed his stature and judicial success to “make me someone other than who I am,” he confided to me during an interview several years ago. That admission came during the viewing of one of his favorite home movies – of his wedding day in October 1953.

His bride that fall day was Rachel Boone, a young doctor born of missionary parents. She graduated from Boston University School of Medicine in 1949 and later would be enshrined in the school’s Hall of Fame.

The couple was married for 53 years and “Rachel was the love of my life,” said Keith, whose wife died of a heart attack in 2007. She had practiced medicine in Detroit for more than 40 years and was widely admired for her community work.

The couple became life partners thanks to a mutual friend.

“My friend said he would introduce me to her as long as I didn’t have a complex about well-educated black women,” Keith said with a smile while we viewed the home movie. “I assured him that I did not.”

After a relatively short courtship, Keith and Boone became engaged on Memorial Day 1953, setting the stage for what the young lawyer thought would be a “long engagement.”

A few days later, Keith found out otherwise, receiving an “early education” on the nuances of marital relationships.

“She told me, in her very sweet and soft voice, that the “wedding is scheduled for October 18th in Richmond, Virginia,’” Keith related.

“Frankly, I couldn’t believe it,” Keith said of the five-month timetable. “I told her something to the effect that ‘I thought you understood that I believe in long engagements.’”

Her response was even more telling:

“Yes, you did darling,” Boone replied to her future husband. “And that is long enough.”

 

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