My Turn: A timeless holiday message for sure

 Tom Kirvan, Legal News Editor-in-Chief

Several weeks ago, on the eve of the holiday season, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith appeared at a special awards dinner at Schoolcraft College, an event that doubled as an opportunity for friends and admirers to snag an autographed copy of his biography, “Crusader for Justice.”

The program was sponsored by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, an organization headed by President and CEO Steve Spreitzer that is dedicated to empowering “individuals and communities to advance equity and opportunity for all.”

It was a memorable evening, spiced by a host of tributes to Judge Keith, who preferred to deflect the praise to others while even poking occasional fun at himself. He recalled one story from decades ago about winning a “Man of the Year” award, proudly telling his beloved wife Rachel of the prestigious honor. She was impressed, to a degree, fondly telling her husband, “I guess that says a lot about what kind of year it has been.”

When the laughter subsided, Judge Keith turned serious, telling an overflow crowd of various stories from his youth. One, in particular, resonates with me each holiday season.

It was December 1928 and Keith was just 7 years old when his father taught him a timeless lesson. It is a true story that the esteemed federal jurist told in a column he wrote for The Detroit Free Press in December 1963, part of a “My Most Memorable Christmas” series published by the daily.

“My father worked as a laborer at the Ford Motor Company and had taught us to expect only a few toys; some new, and some used,” Keith said, noting that times were particularly tough for his parents as they raised seven children. “On Christmas of 1928, my gift from Santa was a bright and shining green wagon. I was delighted and thrilled.”

A year later when the yuletide rolled around, “Our country was caught in a great depression, and my father joined the thousands of other men who were unemployed,” Keith vividly recalled. “Despite the fact that my dad was out of work during the Christmas of 1929, my brothers, sisters and I continued our ritual of asking Santa for the things we wanted most.”

In the meantime, that spanking new wagon of the year before was beginning to show its age.

“It was rusty and one of the wheels had come off,” Keith related. “In fact, for several months it stood unused on our back porch.”

On Christmas Eve, father and son took a walk to a hardware store on Warren Avenue, some nine blocks from the family home. On the way, they talked about the true meaning of Christmas while admiring the window decorations in the neighborhood homes.

“When we arrived at the store, my father asked the clerk for a wheel, one that would fit my old wagon,” Keith said. “It was a brand new wheel. My dad paid 10 cents and turned to me and said: ‘Son, this is your Christmas present. This is all that your mother and dad can give you.’”

As they left the store, his father discussed what Christmas meant to him. It proved to be a profound lesson, one that still carries special meaning for Judge Keith today.

“He said that we as a family should be thankful to God for the food on our table, the roof over our heads,” Keith stated. “That God had allowed us to be together for another year without a link in our family chain being broken; and that He had blessed us with good health and we as a unit had the love that Christmas was all about.”

The message was clear – and enduring. Special thanks to Judge Keith for the privilege of sharing it.