The name Sid Lezak may not mean much to those of you younger than 35.
But for many of us who knew and loved Sid over the years, time stopped for a painful moment last Monday, when he died at 81 after a short illness.
Here's why Sid mattered: He was a true public servant who made a lasting mark in this community with intelligence, charm and a magnetism that drew him to a long list of leadership positions, including service from 1961 to 1982 as Oregon's chief federal law-enforcement officer. That's the longest term ever of any U.S. Attorney.
He ran his office modestly and professionally. Unlike many of his peers, he held no grandstanding press conferences and refused to use his office for personal or political gain.
At the same time, he showed remarkable compassion. While prosecuting draft evaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, Sid did everything a law-enforcement official could to help Vietnam War opponents, going so far as to help one convicted war resister gain admission to the Oregon State Bar.
He was a master at defusing confrontations, but never hesitated to prosecute public figures—like a popular Portland State University professor or leaders of the American Indian Movement—when he felt criminal charges were warranted. He wouldn't have thought to shut the media out of his office despite occasional flogging from papers like this one.
With the election of Ronald Reagan as president, Sid's offer to resign was accepted. For a while, he seemed lost. But he soon found a new calling—as one of the true pioneers in Oregon of alternative dispute resolution, which allows both sides in a conflict to resolve their issues without big, unpleasant, costly trials. It was a role perfectly suited to his innate sense of justice.
In addition to his work as U.S. Attorney and mediator, Sid served on all manner of important local boards and commissions, and happily attached his name—and his considerable energy and acumen—to many vital causes. He even acted in a musical-theater "troupe" of lawyers and judges to raise money for legal services to the poor. In short, he came close to achieving the Platonic ideal of public service.
But Sid had one special quality above the others —the joy he took in mentoring younger people. He possessed such an infectious combination of curiosity, playfulness and optimism that it came naturally to him to fill his office with young law clerks and lawyers and to entrust them with genuine responsibilities. As their lives progressed, he kept in touch and did what he could—which was a lot—to help their careers.
My wife, now a judge, has been one of many lucky beneficiaries of his support. Sid hired her to the Eugene office of the U.S. Attorney and later arranged for her to transfer to the Portland office so our courtship could be, as he liked to say, "more convenient."
Socially, he and his wife, Muriel, welcomed people of all ages and interests into their home, where, late at night, if you were lucky, Sid might undo his trademark bowtie to belt out a bluesy ballad in a deep, soulful voice.
Tales of Sid's achievements and endearing personality are sure to be many and touching—and wholly deserved—at this week's memorial at the Hilton Hotel. There are simply too few Sid Lezaks these days.