The Eulogy of Justice Thomas A. Dickerson

In the latter half of my life thus far, I’ve become somewhat of an expert at writing eulogies. While part of me would like to boast that I’ve become quite good at it, I wish the opportunities to practice such a skill were fewer and farther between.

Over the years, I had thought numerous times about having to write the eulogy for my father one day. And those thoughts always ended with another: I can’t possibly write the eulogy for him, and if my Mom asked me to—which I knew she would—I would have to decline. How could I write a remembrance for someone who was so larger than life, so admired, and such a brilliant thinker and writer himself—how could I possibly live up to this task? How can any son do the life of his father justice? Of course, I thought I had more time before my Mom would pose such a question to me, and one of the last things my father said to me was: “Always keep writing.” I never expected that the subject of my next assignment would be him.

Thomas Arthur Dickerson was born in Niagara Falls, New York; his mother an elementary school teacher of gifted children, his father a Major in the U.S. Army Military Police. He grew up with his two sisters, Sandy and Jeanette, and lived on books and rock and roll. Freedom, as both an ideology and pursuit, was instilled in him at an early age through the words of Tolkien, Hemingway and Leon Uris and the sounds of Elvis Presley. America was synonymous with freedom, it was that shining city on a hill, a place through hard work and perseverance, any man, from any walk of life, could climb to the top and achieve his dreams.

My father not only believed in this idea, he lived it.

Thomas served his country as a Green Beret in the U.S. Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War. He didn’t wait to be drafted; he dropped out of college and volunteered at the beginning of 1964. Upon arriving to the battlefield, he was assigned to clerical duties, a position in which he felt, to put it mildly, underutilized. When his commanding officer refused to honor his request to be dispatched to fight as a combat soldier, he wrote his senator a letter—his senator at the time was Robert F. Kennedy of New York, brother of the recently slain President John F. Kennedy. My father explained that it was the President, his brother, who had instilled in him the confidence, courage and pride to join the Military and fight the Communists. He inferred that his talent and commitment to Democracy was being wasted sitting on his hands. It is within this context that I present the following excerpts from his letter dated August 14th, 1965:

“Dear Senator Kennedy,

This marks the third letter that I have written to you in the past 6 months. If you were to give the close attention to each letter that everyone expects of you, you would quickly find your primary function not unlike mine at this moment, a mail clerk.

My role as a mail clerk is a rather degrading position, but totally essential to the war effort, as my superiors profess. I have performed my duty as Mail Clerk with the attitude of acceptance, but it’s as though I have the knowledge of a surgeon working on a tank. [My Superiors] will not listen. So I write to a man who has displayed his intelligence and has the power to help someone as myself.

I look forward to experiencing the only experience that I joined the Army for: that of facing an unknown death, unknown in the respect of reason and intensity. I ask, as one rather young and inexperienced intelligent man to another greater intelligent being to give this experience to me. And for this, I will remember.

Signed: Thomas A. Dickerson, SP/4”

Much to his commander’s chagrin, there was no doubt his letter had been read because within a week, my father received a response from Senator Kennedy in the form of a letter:

“Dear Specialist Dickerson,

Thank you for your letter of August 14.

I have been assured that you will be assigned to demolitions duties as soon as possible. I am making further inquiry in your behalf and will keep you advised.

Signed: Robert F. Kennedy”

My father was immediately transferred to the front lines.

Fortunately for his well-being, he was in the war early, when the fighting wasn’t nearly as fierce. He served his country and returned to America in 1967.

Before heading to Vietnam, my father had wanted to be a photographer. When I was younger, I used to look at albums he had compiled of photographs he took during the war. My favorite shot of his was a close-up of an exhausted elephant resting its massive head on a brick wall covered in spikes. The spikes were deliberately placed to deter animals from breaching the barrier into the unit’s encampment. Clearly, the spikes did not deter this particular elephant. What my father was able to capture, aside from simply an animal resting in the wrong place at the wrong time, was the orange sunset illuminating the sky around it, blazing through the trees, as though the branches and their leaves were incinerated by the light. He managed to capture the essence of light amidst the darkness of war, illustrating the fact that beauty can exist within suffering, that the sacrifice of our physical life for a higher cause, a belief in something greater than ourselves, is a mission of the highest order.

When my father returned to the States, he continued his schooling, graduating from Colgate University, and then later from Cornell Law School. He began practicing law in Manhattan and became an associate attorney at Shea, Gould, Climenko and Casey, where his most successful achievement was meeting my mother, Patricia, who was a legal assistant. The moment my father set eyes on her while riding a crowded elevator together, he knew there was a connection. It’s cliché to say this, but I’ll just say it anyway: he had fallen in love. He followed her out of the elevator, no doubt using the skills he acquired in Vietnam to track her back to her desk, introduced himself and asked her out. I’m not quite sure how human resources would have felt about such a proposition in this day and age, but Patricia relented and agreed to meet him for lunch—I have to think her acquiescence was largely due to getting this man out of her office as quickly as possible. While that may or may not have been the case, not long after this event, my mother, too, had fallen in love.

My father went on to begin an illustrious career in the law, leaving Shea & Gould and venturing out into solo practice, which was quite a risk at a time when he was just starting a family. He decided to focus on the relatively unknown field of consumer class actions and travel law. In an interview with the New York Law Journal in 1978, my father said, “I’m out here on my own, investing my money and time in what were, until very recently, hopeless causes. For someone like me to do this, I have to have a lot of courage.” At the time, he admitted, that the only assistance he got was from his wife and his father-in-law, Thomas F. Reddy, a patent attorney, who was among those highly skeptical of his endeavors and prone to describe them as “crazy.” But my father’s risk paid off, becoming one of the world’s foremost experts in class actions and travel law, and writing two books on the subjects, books that continue to be read and revered by legal scholars today. Throughout the years, he sued the NFL, Burger King, and even the tour operators who planned his honeymoon in Jamaica. And it was his expertise in these fields that lead him, fatefully, into Yonkers politics.

In the late 1980’s, four Yonkers City Councilmen refused to comply with the federal government’s mandate to build 200 units of public housing east of the Saw Mill River Parkway, and as a result, prompted the City of Yonkers to be held in contempt, fined millions of dollarsand attracted the spotlight of the national news. This event was also the basis for the recent HBO Miniseries “Show Me A Hero.” My father helped lead the charge, on behalf of a group of citizens, to get the Councilmen to comply with Judge Sand’s order to build the housing. The group filed a class action lawsuit holding the Councilmen personally liable for the damage they caused. This lawsuit, and the efforts of his group, directly contributed to the Councilmen finally agreeing to comply.

But that wasn’t enough for my father. He also decided to enter the political arena himself and run against four-term incumbent Nick Longo, one of the four City Councilmen in question. Despite the fact that Councilman Longo had placed an Italian curse, the Malocchio, on my family during a local radio broadcast, my father beat him by seven votes in the primary and ousted him from office. That was the beginning of his long and highly accomplished life in public service. He later ran for a position on the bench as a Yonkers City Court Judge, and rose through the ranks, serving as a Westchester County Court Judge, a State Supreme Court Justice, and the job he was most proud of in his career: Associate Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department.

Throughout his career, I was lucky to have been part of it, to absorb as much knowledge from my father as I could, as both a bystander, a witness, to his actions, and as a driving force for his actions.

He once told me what life’s purpose was. A human being must do two things: 1. Procreate; and 2. Leave something behind. It was that simple. Number one is obvious, and number two, for my father, it’s his writing—his treatises, books, articles and judicial opinions, of which he wrote over 200 in 23 years. He was a pragmatist, and while at times I may have yearned for more complex answers to life’s riddles, I know that I will appreciate his pragmatism more and more, each day, as I grow older. He instilled in me the value of hard work and the importance of learning—he was a voracious learner who absorbed the wonders of the world and the lessons of history each day of his life, up until the day he died.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that my family has had it rough the past few years. We endured the loss of my sister, Briana, just four years ago this month. It was a tragedy that we continue to struggle with, a tragedy that affected my father deeply, and a tragedy that is now compounded by yet another tragedy, a tragedy that my father did not know was coming; but that I can assure you, he was prepared for. Tom Dickerson was a force of nature—he was the strongest, most intelligent, honorable and generous man I’ve ever had the privilege to know—he’s the kind of man that seemed immune to a tragedy like this. With respect to the odds, the heart-related death my father succumbed to was akin to being struck by lightning.

Perhaps it is fitting that only such an anomalous, freak occurrence could take down this giant of a man—though all fathers tend to accrue mythical significance in the eyes of their sons.

As driven as my father was in his career, he was perhaps even more driven with respect to his family. He cherished us and would do anything for us. He just celebrated 40 years of marriage with his wife, my mother, and they were very much in love until his final hours, as he reached over and took my Mom’s hand before going to sleep for the last time and whispered that he loved her.

In addition to unconditional love, his mission in life as a father was to provide as many opportunities as possible for his children, without discounting the importance of us making those opportunities happen for ourselves. This I have always taken to heart. My father and I shared so many wonderful moments that I will never forget; but there were also times we did not get along. And there’s a very simple reason for that: we are very much the same. Those of you who knew him may understand why that would give rise to some conflict. That, and the fact that he wanted me to become a lawyer and I decided to move to Hollywood and become a filmmaker.

Some of the best memories I have with my father are quite recent: I made one of his dreams come true, and that was to watch me work—to watch me make a movie. As some of you know, I recently made a movie in Yonkers, where I grew up, that is loosely inspired by my sister and, of course, my family. My father had always wanted to see “how” I did what I did, as filmmaking can be a nebulous thing to those unfamiliar with the process. For me, I was happy to have an opportunity to prove to him that yes, indeed, it is a real job, and one that requires an immense amount of work. I think, after witnessing the process in person, I finally convinced him. While the movie is inspired by my family and friends, I had to keep reminding him that these are just characters, they are not literally you, Mom and Briana—there’s a lot of fiction in there, otherwise the film would be pretty boring to watch. Despite my disclaimers of dramatic license, I overhead him several times on the phone with his friends saying: “My son’s making a movie and Harry Hamlin is playing me.”

I’m grateful for many things. I’m grateful that my father had a chance to meet his grandson, Wyatt—his office wall is filled with photographs of him and he reveled at looking at them every day. I’m also grateful to have spoken to my father for the last time the night before he died, and his very last words to me were: “I love you, William; I’m so proud of you.” Those words are the greatest gift he could have ever given me. I may not have said it much, as your accomplishments speak for themselves, but I am proud of you, too, Dad. I love you, and may you be reunited with Briana and once again look after her the way you’ve looked after everybody else. She needs you now, and we’ll need you, too, again someday.

As I review my father’s life in these emotionally trying days, both the private and public parts of it, I’m reminded of his correspondence with Senator Kennedy—we would often talk about it together—precisely because it’s an example of the power of writing and the importance of the written word.

I hope you’re able to read this, Dad, and I hope I’ve made you proud with these words—because making you proud is what I’ve tried to do every day of my life.

Rest in peace.

What are your thoughts?