Cancer and Mentors

Holding HandsIt was ten years ago to this very day, at the age of 28, that I heard the words from my doctor that I’ll never forget: “You have cancer.” It’s news that shakes you to your core, even if you were expecting the diagnosis. While I had a very treatable form of cancer — testicular cancer — I couldn’t help but face my mortality head-on. In the hours after my diagnosis, I remember thinking about all of the things I still wanted to do in my life: get married and have kids; pursue a career as a law professor; celebrate more Lakers and Dodgers championships; etc.

Fortunately, I am ten years in remission, and statistically, the chances of the cancer recurring are extremely low — less than one percent.  I look back at how many of the reasons for which I wanted to live have come to pass: I am blessed with a wonderful wife and two great daughters; I am incredibly fortunate to have a job that I love so much; the Lakers hung two more championship banners since then (and being at the game 7 win in 2010 against those wretched Boston Celtics was one of the more euphoric moments of my life (sorry Professor Rofes)); and as for the Dodgers, well, there’s still lots to live for. <grin>

I look back ten years later with incredible gratitude for all of the people who helped support me through my battle with cancer.  But I also look back a bit wistfully, as I have lost two mentors since that time, and I miss them both very much.  I have been meaning to write about both of them for the last two years, but to be honest, it has just been too painful.  Their passings were great losses for me and for so many others who knew them.

Judge RymerThe first was the judge for whom I clerked, the Honorable Pamela Ann Rymer of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  I honestly don’t know where to start in describing the judge.  I admire her so much that her picture hangs on my office wall along with other heroes of mine like Saint Thomas More, Cesar Chavez, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  My judge was incredible.  She had a fierce intellect — truly, she was one of the smartest people I have ever known.  But she was also the hardest worker I have ever known.  To cite an example, it is customary at the 9th Circuit for the Clerk of the Court to circulate a memo detailing all of the cases for which a judicial opinion or a memorandum of disposition was still outstanding.  It was quite common each month for all judges to have one or more cases – and sometimes many cases — that were pending for 30 days or longer.  Well, except one judge: Judge Rymer.  She always made sure that we, as clerks, got the drafts of opinions done the month that the case was heard and that she had them finalized before that 30-day window.  Judge Rymer taught me so much about being a professional — she led by example with her extraordinary work ethic.

But Judge Rymer was also an incredibly warm and supportive person.  I battled cancer during my clerkship, and she could not have been more wonderful in helping me through my surgery and treatment.  To this day, her kindness during that trying time is something I carry with me.  Beyond that year, we stayed very close — even when I moved to Milwaukee — and she was a constant source of advice, guidance, and support.  Judge Rymer took great delight in my successes and was always happy to talk about various challenges, decisions, etc., and help me think through how I wanted to approach them.  She was an amazing mentor, as so many of her former clerks would attest.

Mary Katherine DarmerThe second was Professor Katherine Baird Darmer, a colleague of mine from Chapman University School of Law, where I previously taught.  Katherine and I met taking the bar exam in California.  She had moved to California — after a distinguished career practicing in New York at a big firm and then as an Assistant U.S. Attorney — to teach at Chapman.  We happened to be sitting next to each other for the bar exam, struck up a conversation, and a friendship was born.  We stayed in touch, and as I practiced law and started to think about my career goals, she not only encouraged me, but mentored me, in pursuing a career as a law professor.  In fact, she recruited me to teach at Chapman early in my teaching career.  Katherine took a particular interest in me in a way that helped me thrive at Chapman.  She gave me advice about teaching and scholarship and encouraged me to take leadership positions at Chapman, even as a junior faculty member.  Our offices were next to one another, and it was rare that a day went by that I was not in her office, or she in mine, to talk about various aspects of our job or the law school.  As I look back, I marvel at what an influence Katherine had on my career as a law professor.

I was not the only one fortunate enough to receive Katherine’s mentoring.  Students adored Katherine, and she invested an extraordinary amount of time and care into helping students — with their struggles both within law school and outside of it.  It is thus appropriate that the students at Chapman renamed the Professor of the Year award in her honor after her passing.  In addition, Katherine was a leader in the Orange County community for various social justice issues.  Here, too, her impact and legacy live on through community scholarships set up in her honor to support students in Southern California.

When both passed away, in late 2011 and early 2012 respectively, I felt incredible loss.  While I am extremely fortunate to have many mentors still in my life — some from as early in my life as elementary school — there is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss the two of them.  They had an extraordinary influence on my life, and the lessons they taught me — and the care and support they gave me — inspire me and help inform how I approach my position at the Law School.  So during this period of reflection, I am grateful for the numerous blessings that the last ten years have brought me, including being a part of Marquette Law School.  And I also pause to remember these two amazing women and the power of mentoring.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jemma Eriksen

    What a beautiful message. Looks like you learned from the best. I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say that you have been and always will be, one of the most influential mentors in our lives. For that, we are truly grateful.

  2. Diana

    Thank you for sharing this personal and special view into your life! Personally, I feel very fortunate to get to see how one of my own mentors was influenced. These were two wonderful women who we can all learn a lot from.


    Dear Matthew, Your beautifully written remembrance of your 2 mentors was sent to me by one of Pam and my tennis buddies, Olivia Burges (also a lawyer). When I began to read your words about Pam and saw that picture again, tears filled my eyes. She was one of my dearest friends and my doubles partner for many years. My daughter worked for her the last months of her illness, taking her everywhere. I was away when she died, but flew home to be with Nancy Smith and I sold her condo for the estate. I organized a memorial at the tennis club for her many many pals from there. I’m sure you went to all her 4th of July parties. Thanks so much for reminding us how amazing she was. Fondly, Linda (Morrow) Hadley.

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