State Appeals judge led life well worth remembering

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

August 2012
It was some five years ago that my path intersected with Michael Smolenski, then a member of the Michigan Court of Appeals. It was only for a few hours, but it was a visit – and a corresponding interview – that I will always treasure.

His sister, Sara Smolenski, a district court judge in Grand Rapids, paved the way for the sit-down session, mentioning during an interview a few months earlier that her brother was doing battle with the challenge of his life, a rare neurological disease that had taken an enormous physical toll on a former marathon runner.

In 2005, Smolenski had been diagnosed with multiple system atrophy. The disease, he explained during the interview, has many similarities with the more widely known Lou Gehrig’s Disease, otherwise described as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a fatal neurodegenerative disorder that attacks the nerve cells in the brain.

Smolenski would discover that MSA was equally cruel, as victims generally suffer widespread damage to the part of the nervous system that controls heart rate, blood pressure, and sweating, while also affecting the ability to walk, eat, and even smile.

And smiling was an important part of his persona, perhaps a natural reflex to growing up in a family with nine younger sisters. Judge Smolenski and his wife, Kathy, would have seven children of their own, and he said that they enriched his life “more than words could begin to describe.”

But when the widely respected state jurist died in 2009 at age 64, less than a year after he retired from his court duties due to declining health, there was no shortage of words in honor of him.

As death approached, Judge Smolenski asked his sister Sara to “say a few words” at his funeral. It was a tough task for the acknowledged “ham in the family,” a woman who could have made a living as a stand-up comic if she hadn’t opted for a legal career instead.

“You all know what a truly wonderful person he was,” Sara said of her brother at his funeral service. “I like to think that having nine sisters is what helped mold and shape Mike into that wonderful, caring, loving, devoted family man that he was. OK, he may have had a little to do with it too. As brothers go, he was simply the best.”

Even if he had a preferred place in the family.

“Growing up Mike always had his own room,” Sara said of her beloved brother. “He never had to share. One of my sisters complained and said, ‘It’s not fair that Mike gets his own room. Even Mom and Dad have to share.’”

It was a good line and set the stage for more to come, this time from another Grand Rapids area jurist, Ed Post, chief judge of the Ottawa Circuit Court.

Post and his late friend and colleague were former neighbors in the old Garfield Park area of Grand Rapids. It was there that Post began to fully appreciate that Smolenski had a “deep reservoir of compassion, a reliable moral compass, faithful devotion to causes dear to him, respect for ritual, and deep and abiding love for his precious family.”

In eulogizing Smolenski, Post painted detailed portraits of “Mike, the Pragmatic Craftsman,” a man who could be consumed by a wooden boat refurbishing project in a dimly lit garage; of “Mike, the Anachronism,” who enjoyed a love affair with the ‘40s and ‘50s when “things were simple and mechanical,” not digital or virtual; of “Mike, the Entertainer,” whose “snippets of Steve Martin routines” and “Saturday Night Live” rehashes were “priceless and spot on.”

Then there was “Mike, the Networker,” where “even though you’d never meet all of Mike’s friends, you’d know about them,” like the gleanings from a small-town paper; of “Mike, the Family Man,” who was a “survivor of a childhood with all those sisters” and was “programmed to produce a most remarkable” family of his own; of “Mike, the Husband,” whose wife Kathy was widely regarded as the family saint, a woman with a “full measure of devotion” for the “aid and comfort” she afforded her beloved mate during his health troubles.

Of course, there also was “Mike, the Lawyer and Judge,” a man who “respected the rule of law, but understood that the administration of that law required a human and humane touch,” a role model and mentor to Judge Post among many others.

Perhaps Judge Post’s most poignant words that day in late May of 2009, as he stood at the lectern of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, were these: “No matter what precious sliver of Mike’s time you were privileged to enjoy, Mike made you feel that you were special to him. So much so that you’re a little surprised when you hear all the other stories, and that he had time and energy to attend to so many people. Today, in this transcendent space, all of the facets are assembled to reveal a jewel of a life – a jewel of remarkable color and clarity.”

But like any gem, there was another aspect to admire, and on that day – at that funeral mass in 2009 – Judge Post reached into the hereafter for an everlasting look at his friend.
It came in the form of a phone call, a bit of make-believe that Judge Post pulled out of his pocket.

“What’s it like up there?” Post asked of his friend in the heavenly setting.

“Not a single Republican. Boy, are they in for a surprise.”

As for another worldly matter, “Judge Hoekstra wants to know if they have golf up there,” Post inquired.

“Oh, the good news is there is golf, and the bad news is he has a tee time for 9:00 next Tuesday. I’ll make sure he gets the message.”

And then it was time to talk in a different vein.

“I won’t lie to you,” Post told Smolenski by way of the “long distance” connection. “Kathy and the kids really miss you and they are in a lot of pain, but there are a lot of people here ready to stand with them and give them any comfort they can.

“I look forward to seeing you too,” Post said to his friend in the world beyond.

“But not too soon.”