Yesterday, in New York City, my wife daughter and I were at the funeral mass for my dear friend John Palenberg. It was a beautiful service, filled with people from around the world, complete with eccentric music choices (Dancing Cheek to Cheek and Ave Maria, among others). There were five speakers, including my friend Susan Stabile (see her remarks on Creo en Dios) and John’s daughter Sophia Palenberg. I was honored, and a little terrified, to be asked to speak about John. Here is roughly what I said:
“No man who reflects, certainly no one who gives rein to his imagination, can approach even the slightest attempt to tell the story of a man’s life upon earth . . . without feeling that he is doing so in obedience to one of the overruling impulses, one of the deep-seated instincts of humanity.” That is how Henry Cabot Lodge began his remarks at a similar memorial service for his friend Charles Francis Adams. Lodge went on to argue that all of history, really, is just the attempt to tell the stories of the great men of the past.
That is what we are doing here today: telling the story of a great man of the recent past, John Palenberg. And it is fitting that we gather together to do so, for no one person tell the story of John’s life. John lived so many places, touched so many people, that no one of us could possibly know all the great stories.
I first met John at Harvard in 1978; we were in the same first year section. John did not talk much in class—he was content to let others argue—but he formed a club—the Harvard Law North Dakota Club. As best I know the club had only one member, John, but it had an official bulletin board, just like all the other clubs, complete with humorous reports of recent events.
I really got to know John well in the 1980s, when he opened the Cleary Tokyo office, and then borrowed me from Cleary Hong Kong, because the four Tokyo lawyers were overwhelmed. There was no guest office in the cramped Tokyo office, so John often vacated his own room to make space for me. It was John who introduced me to my wife Masami, then working as John’s secretary. John’s office was often a mess, and she would go in there from time to time and say, firmly, “Palenberg-san, we are going to clean this up.” I know this only because John told me so, with a laugh.
When Masami and I had our first child, Clancey, we asked John to be his godfather. On September 28 of last year, I received a long email from John headed “innocent lamppost slaughtered.” John explained that he had called Clancey, as he often did to keep in touch, but Clancey assumed that John somehow knew of his recent crime, driving his car into a post, and immediately confessed. It was a long note, reporting on his children Henry and Sophia, asking questions about my daughter, saying that he was quite busy at work. “Oof” he wrote, a word that probably only John still used.
Returning to the lamppost, John wrote that he had told Clancey that “this probably seems grim now, but decades from now you will look back on this and laugh.” John’s death seems grim now; it will probably always seem grim to those of us who loved him. But years from now we will look back on his life, and we will laugh, at all the great stories of our great friend.