Thursday, September 8, 2016

Farewell to a Friend of the Working Man

The sleep was still in my eyes this morning when I learned that my friend Marv Gittler had passed away just a few hours into the new day. Marv was 77 years old.

The Chicago Sun-Times has already posted a thoughtful obituary for the man the paper rightly called a “prominent Chicago labor lawyer,” but when I heard the news about Marv’s passing today, the first thing that popped into my head was the nationally televised Bears-Seahawks game in October 2006.

Marv took me to a lot of Bears games over the years, and no matter how poorly the Bears played — and we sat through some awful games together — he and I always had a blast.

But early into the 2006 season, as the Bears were working their way back to the Super Bowl, Marv realized he had a conflict with the Week 4 game against Seattle. The night game fell on Yom Kippur, and Marv was going to be at temple with his family.

And since I'm the token Irish guy who, years earlier, had married into a big Jewish family (of which Marv was the de facto patriarch), he called me to see if I wanted his tickets to watch the still-undefeated Bears take on the formidable Seahawks. I told him I’d love to go, and he told me he’d have the tickets delivered to my office.

When the envelope arrived a few hours later, I opened it. Yes, the tickets were inside, but so, too, was a stern, handwritten admonition from Marv: "We're on a roll -- Don't fuck it up!"

It's ten years later and I still have his note. It's classic Marv Gittler.

A few weeks after that Bears victory over Seattle, the young-at-heart Marv and Carol Gittler were, as I recall, the only senior citizens hanging out at the Empty Bottle to hear me play music with my friends The Hoyle Brothers.

That same year, when my mug appeared on the front page of the Business section of the Wall Street Journal, Marv had the article framed and sent over to my office.

And I still have the note Marv sent me the following year, when he came across a story in the Illinois Labor History Society Reporter about my oldest daughter, who was then a student at Lincoln Park High School. My kid had fared well nationally in a 2007 history competition with her one-woman show about organized labor and the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. Marv, who was excited to see that a kid he knew was digging into labor history, took the time to send me the story along with a note: "Please tell Chelsea how proud I am."

When one of my family members went through some major medical challenges more than a decade ago, Marv met me for one of our many dinners together at Greek Islands (a favorite haunt of his), handed me a roll of cash during the meal, and told me to call him if we needed anything at all.

I could go on and on with these stories, and I've only known Marv since the late 1990s.

In May 2012, I was having lunch with CTU president Karen Lewis. She had asked me to speak, as a CPS parent, to thousands of teachers at an old-fashioned labor rally that was going to be held the next day at the Auditorium Theatre. While Karen and I were discussing the rally and the possibility of a strike that fall, I told her it would mean a lot to me if she would see fit to let Marv, who did not represent the CTU, crash her union's rally so that he could hear me speak.

Turns out Karen and Marv were members of the same temple in Hyde Park (Marv and I sat in the same pew at Karen's bat mitzvah in 2013), so Karen and I phoned Marv from the restaurant, invited him to the rally, and the next day Marv had a seat just a few feet from the stage.

I was thrilled to be able to share a bit of my hell-raising on behalf of workers with a guy who'd been doing it for more years than I'd been alive.

Dementia is a bitch, and when it hits a guy with a legal mind and a sense of humor like Marv's, it's doubly painful.

Last year, when Marv's deteriorating condition required him to retire, his firm threw him a party.

Jim Franczek, one of Marv's closest friends, who also happens to be a management-side labor lawyer from another Chicago firm, gave a heartfelt talk at that party about his old pal, and it brought tears to my eyes.

I got to know Jim when he and I tried a federal case against each other in 2013. His client, the Chicago Board of Education, was trying to close more than 50 public schools; my clients, two groups of students who would be adversely affected by those closings, opposed that decision.

Jim figured out early on that Marv and I were tight, and Jim and I got along well during the trial, and we still do today. As a lawyer, I try to follow the example set by Jim and Marv over the decades. Represent your clients zealously, but do your best to get along with the lawyers on the other side of the table.

The last time I saw Marv alive was on Sunday, August 28, at his home in Union Pier, Michigan. His wife, Carol, was next to him, along with several of their terrific daughters and grandkids.

Across the table from Marv, once again, was his longtime labor adversary and longtime friend Jim Franczek, along with his wife, Debbie.

Marv seemed to be at peace.

I'll miss you, buddy.