A crowd of lawyers and judges paid tribute to the State Bar of Georgia’s longtime executive director, Cliff Brashier, at a memorial service on Jan. 8 at the bar’s Marietta Street headquarters.
Brashier died unexpectedly on Dec. 20 of complications from esophageal cancer. His death at age 69 was a shock to his many friends at the bar and in the Georgia legal community who, like Brashier, believed he would overcome the disease.
Sorrow alternated with humor in the speakers’ reminiscences of Brashier, who had worked for the state bar since 1980 and was its executive director for 21 years.
“Encapsulating a life as big as Cliff’s in a few moments is like stuffing the Lone Star state into Rhode Island,” said Jeff Davis, the director of Georgia’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, in opening remarks about the Texas native. “Grief and memories live side by side in our heart.”
The bar’s current president, Charles Ruffin, spoke at the service, along with former bar presidents Bill Barwick, Robin Clark and John Sammon. They were joined by Brashier’s daughter, Loren Brashier Gleason, Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Hugh Thompson and the bar’s retired general counsel, Bill Smith.
Brashier’s wisdom, humor, modesty, upbeat outlook and unfailing care for others were the qualities that made him uniquely suited for his position, the speakers said, and making him a friend to those who worked with him professionally.
“We come here not to bury Cliff but to praise him,” Ruffin said, expressing shock at the suddenness of Brashier’s death. “It’s been only three weeks since those of us who worked with Cliff got the news. It’s a tremendous loss. I feel like he was my best friend.”
Brashier was diagnosed with cancer last summer and underwent chemotherapy, then was hospitalized in November for a month because of complications. He reentered the hospital with pneumonia on Dec. 19 and died the next day.
During his long tenure as executive director, Brashier was the bar’s true leader and guiding spirit, the speakers said, but he preferred to stay behind the scenes and serve as a wise counsel to the 21 bar presidents he guided.
Ruffin called Brashier the “constant presence” at the State Bar as different presidents came and went each year. “Leading from behind the scenes is what Cliff Brashier did with such aplomb. … He has the unique ability to impart wise counsel without you knowing until later.”
Ruffin said Brashier never wanted recognition or credit. When his portrait was hung in the State Bar’s executive office, Brashier had it taken down.
“It has been rehung,” Ruffin said.
Brashier was the institutional memory of the bar, the person whom each president turned to for guidance, Ruffin said. In what may be the only time anyone disregarded Brashier’s advice, the bar’s leadership decided in December to dedicate a history of Georgia’s legal profession to him—over his objections. The bar is publishing the history this year to mark its 50th anniversary.
“We made the decision a day before he went into surgery. I am so glad that we did that,” Ruffin said.
Sammon, the first bar president to work with Brashier as executive director, called Brashier his friend, confidante and adviser and said he was the best manager of people Sammon ever knew. “For the next 20 years he has continued this role for each succeeding president. … He carried the bar through good times and challenging times with a level hand,” Sammon said.
“He had an uncanny wisdom,” Sammon added. “If any of us had an impetuous notion—and all of us did—Cliff was able to steer us back on the right path without us ever really knowing that he had done so.”
Smith, the bar’s retired general counsel, said Brashier’s personality made him perfectly suited to lead a group of lawyers. “He was able to dissuade without giving offense,” Smith said. “He was always using that magnificent temperament of his to create a place that was way more than comfortable.”
Barwick, the bar’s president from 2003 to 2004, remembered Brashier as both a wise guide and a practical jokester.
“The typical rule of thumb for lawyers is to be a wise counselor and a zealous advocate. Cliff was a zealous counselor,” Barwick said. “Just by listening to you and letting you bounce bad ideas off of him, he’d help you get done what you were trying to get done in your year.”
Brashier was notorious for his good-humored pranks. About a month into a new president’s year, Barwick said, the lawyer would receive a call from Brashier saying, “I just want to give you a heads up that you may be getting a call from the Daily Report.”
“Or the FBI. Or Alvin Leaphart,” Barwick added, referring to the Jesup sole practitioner who is a member of the bar’s board of governors and a frequent gadfly.
Some of Brashier’s practical jokes were quite elaborate. Sammon recalled one at his expense that involved the novelist John Grisham.
In 1995, following his year as bar president, Sammon made a trip to Mississippi to speak to Mississippi’s bar leadership about the Georgia bar’s efforts to raise judicial pay. He said he was enticed by the assurance that he would get to spend an afternoon cruising on a yacht with Grisham, of whom he was a big fan..
But a thunderstorm rained out the yacht outing and Sammon did not meet Grisham after all. A few days later, he received a package from Mississippi. Inside was a copy of Grisham’s latest legal thriller, “The Rainmaker,” with a personal dedication that read: “To John, A good friend and invaluable advisor. Let the rain continue to pour. John.”
“As you can imagine I was ecstatic and told everyone about the book,” Sammon recounted. It was not until a couple of days later that he realized Grisham’s handwriting was remarkably similar to that of the bar’s communication director, Jennifer Davis.
“Cliff had purchased the book in Atlanta and had Jennifer forge the message and the signature. He had mailed the book to Mississippi with directions for them to mail it back to me at my law office,” Sammon said, prompting laughter from the audience.
Clark, the bar’s immediate past president, said, her grief evident, “I’d rather be giving any closing argument right now than having to make these remarks.”
Clark became close friends with Brashier during her year as president, she said, bonding over their shared love of basketball. Brashier coached middle-school basketball for his two daughters’ teams at The Walker School and cheered on Clark’s daughter at her high-school games.
She fondly recalled Brashier’s unfailing good humor through the ups and downs of her year as president. “You need a sense of humor when you are working with 44,000 lawyers,” she added.
Clark said Brashier corresponded with her daily by email during her tenure. “I knew I was in trouble when the subject line would read: ‘Have an aspirin in hand when reading this,’” she said. “Or—’Have a bourbon in hand when reading this.’ Or, worse, ‘I’m not making this up.’ Or, even worse, ‘I could not make this up.’”
She said Brashier also sent her plenty of emails with the subject line: “To brighten your day.”
“He’d send stories about friendship, leadership, the Golden Rule and kindness to your fellow man,” Clark said, adding that those were the emails she treasured.
Brashier’s daughter, Gleason, remembered her father’s loyalty and care for others. “He was devoted to the bar. You were like family to him,” she told the audience. “He wanted others to be happy. He often closed a text or voicemail by saying, ‘Have fun.’”
Thompson, the state supreme court’s chief justice, said Brashier advised eight supreme court justices in addition to 21 bar presidents. “He was like the bar’s support beam. When you look at a beautiful building, you don’t see the support beam,” Thompson said. “He loved his family, the law, lawyers and you. He served us all well. We’ll miss him.”