By Jane Rice Williams
For eight years, it has been a pleasure and a profound honor to serve as and administrative law judge (ALJ) for the Kentucky Department of Workers Claims. Although deeply disappointed to be leaving a position that has been enormously fulfilling, I knew God had a different plan for me. My first thought was that I might stop working and take care of my father, a 91 year old, recently-retired attorney (with years of practice in workers’ compensation law, one who helped shape black lung law in the early years) who had suffered a stroke a couple of weeks earlier. Two weeks later, Dad passed.
Now, faced with the opportunity to share my thoughts with you, I want to start with telling you of my father, William A. Rice. You see, as ALJ’s, we are servants to the system, to the people who come before us including claimants and attorneys, and to our state. Studying and having great knowledge of the law, while necessary, is only the tip of the iceberg. The most important factors come from deep within your heart and soul. For that reason, it makes sense to share part of my father with you.
While contemplating what to say at his memorial service, I was flooded with comments from friends, loved ones and our colleagues in the legal community that perfectly describe Dad:
A giant of a man;
What an incredible life he lived;
He had a unique way of touching others; he lived each day in a way that pleased the Lord;
I am richer because of his testimony;
He changed my life and made a difference in the lives of so many others;
There will be so many he meets in heaven who are there because of him;
An outstanding practitioner who always practiced claims with the utmost integrity and class;
He was a great man, much loved and will be sorely missed; and,
You were blessed to have him as a father.
A giant of a man. What I find most amazing is to consider and compare these wonderful, giant qualities and how hard he worked every day of his life with the man we saw. He was competitive with himself to be the very best he could be. He was never without a long list of important things to do and to accomplish, and he worked diligently from before sunup, until sundown. Still, when he was with you, you were the only one that mattered. He so simply appreciated every little thing. If you cooked for him, he’d come away saying “that was the best meal I ever had” or “that’s the best day we ever had,” and my personal favorite, “we have the best family ever.” And he meant it because he had that capacity to love unlike anyone else.
I cannot imagine how hard Dad worked to build the successful law practice he had. A young father with 3 small children, then 4 then 5, and doing what he did so well – everything he wrote was thorough and excellent. His arguments were spot on. What concentration and focus it takes to work through and analyze legal issues. But I remember as a little girl in our small rural town of Harlan, Kentucky, walking after school with my brothers to Dad’s office. I’d walk into that building – the Bailey Building – and back to his office where he would put down his pencil and make me feel like I was all that mattered in the world. And I was at that moment. I had no idea he was a busy man. He made me feel like he’d waited all day for that moment. There was never one time in my whole life that he acted rushed or too busy to talk to me. As an adult I learned that everyone he encountered had the same experience. How Christlike this ability to humble himself such that your need was far more important than his. It could have been a brief for the Supreme Court, but that little girl’s need to see her father far outweighed the importance of whatever he worked on at the moment.
Less than 4 weeks after we laid Dad to rest, death presented itself again. Our 41 year-old larger than life son died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. Tyler Mac was a risk taker, an accomplished white-water kayaker who many describe him as the most skilled white-water kayaker at least in the eastern United States. I was never able to visualize him as an old man, though. We’ve always expected the phone call of a tragedy: that he was buried under some rock on some creek; that his rope broke while climbing some rock face; or, even that he was involved in some horrific fiery vehicle accident. Not in a million years would I have guessed this end to his life on earth. Even though untimely, it just seemed such an ordinary finality, though “ordinary” he was not.
Larger than life was the description of so many who visited us when Tyler Mac died. The Cambridge dictionary says If someone is larger than life, that person attracts a lot of attention because they are more exciting or interesting than most people. Through the years, there have been many stories – taking his kayak over Cumberland Falls being the most spectacular – where people thought what they heard about Tyler Mac was urban legend.
It was never enough for Tyler Mac to do anything like a normal person – larger than life pushed him constantly. Yet his favorite scripture, even as a child, was from the book of Isaiah chapter 53, “…a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Even in his constant drive of “larger than life” he so valued the plain, unattractive, unpopular, unimpressive people with whom he came into contact. He saw first the heart and soul of the person rather than the outer appearance, presentation or vocation. Wherever he was he worked hard to make the rounds and speak to everyone because each person was so special to him.
We laid Tyler Mac to rest where he had requested, in a family cemetery in the woods on a mountain in Harlan next to the fresh grave of his Grandad, next to my mother and two of my brothers.
What is the parting message in all this in the ALJ context? Humility, hard work, excellence, diligence and compassion, to name a few. Every claimant, every attorney is special. Give each of them your undivided attention. Put the needs of all of them above your own. Focus as if their case is the only one when it is before you. Appreciate your staff and treat each of them with the utmost respect and courtesy. Don’t look down on anyone. Always work your hardest to be prepared.
Now that you have read this article and know my message to you as an ALJ, I suggest you read it again and make a list of areas where you should improve, where change will allow you to make a difference in the lives of others. Let this be your legacy.
Finally, my friends, in honor of Tyler Mac, love life and by all means, live if to the fullest.
Feel free to contact me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you. Also, you may find several of the Cumberland Falls videos on Facebook.