Saying farewell to a trusted colleague

The legal community is mourning the loss of Harlan Lemon who died peacefully of congestive heart failure on Tuesday, March 20. Below is a eulogoy written by Joe Weeg, a retired Assistant Polk County Attorney.

Harlan Lemon

Harlan Lemon will be buried today.

Most of you have never heard of him. He was 77 years old when he died and he lived a quiet life. But he was a county attorney in a small county in Iowa, many years ago, when I did not know him; and he held several other high-flying legal positions in a time before me. But, around 1979, he became an Assistant Polk County Attorney in Des Moines. Through most of my career, he was the old man in charge of the Simple Misdemeanor Docket for the County Attorney’s Office.

The simple misdemeanor docket is anything but “simple.” It is the last legal bastion where criminal lawyers are gunslingers in the O.K. Corral. In the simple misdemeanor courtroom, no one knows what a witness, victim, or defendant is going to say on the stand — no one knows who will actually show up — and the prosecutor’s preparation for trial is about 10 minutes. Assaults, trespass, disorderly conduct, interference with official acts, driving violations, public intoxication, minor in possession. You name it — there’s a simple misdemeanor violation. And the prosecutor has to make it up on the fly. It requires tremendous legal nimbleness and tremendous people skills. It’s like Court TV at its best. It’s amazing. And Harlan was the pro.

And Harlan was the pro. Thousands of victims and defendants flowed before him over the years. Each one was met by Harlan with grace and calm. As the courtroom would explode around him, as witnesses would go south, as police would suddenly forget their own name let alone the identity of the defendant, Harlan would quietly and competently take care of business. I funneled all the young law students to him in my job as an intern coordinator. I wanted him to be an antidote to the aggressive style of lawyering taught in the law schools. I wanted them to see the power and effectiveness of a lawyer who practiced nonviolence and fairness-to-all in the courtroom. Harlan did not disappoint. His style was modeled to hundreds of lawyers now practicing in Iowa — a style  I’d call Wyatt Earp crossed with Gandhi. Indomitable.

When I think about it, Harlan had a father’s face — lined, thoughtful, a transparent smile and laugh, but a steely backbone. His square, strong body was a comfort to be around. I would sometimes peek into his office when his son Zach was visiting. I couldn’t tell which one loved the other more. With the not unexpected death of Zach, many of  us feared for Harlan. But Harlan quietly and competently continued his life and made a new career as a mediator. That darn old man again modeling for the rest of us a calm resilience in the face of tragedy.

Perhaps his easy laughter will be the echo for me. I can see him in his office on the second floor, which he shared with his dear secretary and fierce protector, Mary Miller, as he argued with me about a point of law — but inevitably bursting into a giggle. His hand would go up to cover his giggle, which would be rapidly turning into a full-throated laugh. And as the laugh burst out, I would feel his joy.

He will be missed.