“Here’s a copy of my book. I wanted you to have it.”
Walter handed me a thick hardback, and I glanced at the title. Medieval Canon Law and The Jews. Above the title were a lot of German words beginning with Abhandlungen. Four years of high school German allowed me to pronounce this gobbledygook, but I had no idea what it meant. I opened the book and saw it was written in English. Academic English. Dense academic English.
“Interesting. You have a German publisher. Do you expect me to read this?”
“I’d say only about 300 people in the world will read it, and of those, maybe five will understand it. So, no.
“Here. Take this one, too.”
He handed me Comparative Law Casebook, which was even heavier and thicker.
“You don’t have to read this one either.”
I opened the cover and, as in the first book, he’d signed it and added a personal inscription.
I took him at his word and read neither.
To this day I still don’t understand why Walter became my friend. I met him at a brunch at the home of my then-friends Art and Sue (Walter’s sister had married Art’s brother). He and I chatted as we ate, and we liked each other right away. Maybe it was a New York thing.
I was in my first year of grad school at the University of California, Berkeley, and Walter was the Scholar-in-Residence at Berkeley’s law school. His specialty, he told me, was Canon Law. I had no idea what that meant. I’d never met a Scholar-in-Residence before.
“What is it that you do?” I asked.
“I write. I do a little lecturing. I travel and give talks on stuff nobody is interested in. And write books that hardly anyone reads. That makes me an expert.”
During our conversation I also learned that Walter was a polyglot, although I didn’t know that term at the time. His languages included Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, and French. He was also, he told me, conversant in Italian. And although he claimed Spanish was one of his weaker languages, I later heard him speaking fluently en español. And he was still working on his Japanese. (Years later, he casually mentioned that he’d learned Dutch while getting a haircut. I had no reason not to believe him.)
However one his greatest goals, it seems, was to learn how to play guitar. And unlike Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, the guitar seemed to elude him. My ability to play jazz piano (and guitar) seemed to elevate me in his mind, far beyond my comprehension. Regardless, we became close friends and had lunch together regularly, usually at one of the many Asian restaurants near the campus, where every telephone pole and restaurant window you’d pass seemed to be covered with flyers advertising apartments for rent, furniture for sale, or guitar lessons offered by Barry Olivier, whose smiling face and head, each covered with lots of curly hair, seemed ubiquitous in downtown Berkeley.
Walter would show up for lunch wrapped in a scarf (which he wore even on the hottest days) riding his small motorcycle, and inevitably he’d order two meals—one for now, one for later.
Once a year Walter would host all of the foreign law students at an open house held in his home situated high in the Berkeley Hills. He invited Sharon and myself to a couple of these events, and I was in constant awe of his ability to move among the crowd of students, seamlessly shifting from one foreign language to another. It was obvious that these students, attending one of the finest law schools in the country, held him in high esteem.
He was married to Nancy, a “Southern girl,” who retains a slight Gone-With-the-Wind accent to this day. I was always impressed at how she could maintain her sense of self in Walter’s world. But she did—she was a computer programmer when most of us didn’t own a computer. She’d graduated from the College of William and Mary with a BS in Chemistry, and had an MA in math from Morgan State University in Baltimore (an HBCU—a Historically Black College/University) as well as an MA in Computer Science from San Francisco State. She told me that her German was quite good, and I’m not surprised.
After college she was teaching chemistry and math in Maryland and met Walter through a colleague.
Walter and Nancy have three sons, Alex, David, and Byron. As I watched them grow, I always felt that Alex most resembled Walter, and David, his mother. Byron, the caboose, was chosen by Walter to be the subject of a linguistic experiment: Walter spoke to him only in French. Byron was not happy with the experiment, and it ended when he was three. Nancy told me that Byron and his older brother, Alex, now speak both French and Spanish. The middle brother, David, is an MD and “only speaks Spanish.”
Walter graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York City, and then got a degree from City College of New York. He then went on to get a Ph.D. in Medieval History at Johns Hopkins University in 1974. Medieval history means Canon Law.
On the way to that doctorate, he spent years on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, one of the largest universities in Germany, founded (with Papal approval) in 1472.
One of my favorite stories of their time in Germany has to do with Nancy giving birth to their second son, David, but not being able to find a rabbi or qualified mohel to perform his ritual circumcision (bris). She herself had never converted to Judaism, but the sons were raised Jewish. In the end, a doctor from an American Army base near Frankfurt performed the procedure, thus sealing the covenant.
After he received his doctorate, Walter was invited to UC Berkeley to teach and do research. The guy setting up a new program had funding and needed someone with Walter’s specific skills. While at Cal he took classes at the law school and picked up an LLM (Master of Laws), which typically is only offered to attorneys.
I regularly saw Walter in the early seventies, but after my graduation in 1976, I took a position teaching at a community college in Maryland, plus worked in a clinical practice in Baltimore. (This move was the second biggest mistake I ever made in my life. Since there have only been three, I suppose I haven’t done too badly.) However, after my divorce and subsequent move with Sharon back to Oakland in 1983, Walter and I were able to reconnect. (Although Sharon is an attorney, she acknowledged that Walter occupied a totally different legal world.)
At some point Walter’s connections at the Law School were changing, and after much thought, he decided there was only one course of action—he would become a lawyer, something he’d never gotten around to doing
Instead of going to any one of the easily-accessible schools in the United States, he chose to attend the law school at Oxford University, where he spent a few years and received a D. Phil in Roman Law. It was only afterward that he discovered that Oxford was not on the “approved list” of law schools that would enable him to take the bar in California or New York.
But the California Bar permitted him to take some “additional classes” at the law school, after which he sat for the exam. To the surprise and chagrin of all, he didn’t pass. Nor did he pass the second or third time he took the bar. As he explained his difficulty to me, he approached legal questions from an academic, theoretical, and philosophical point of view, rather than a run-of-the-mill legal viewpoint. Basically, he had to dumb himself down to pass the bar, which he eventually did.
He joined a friend at a small firm in Castro Valley, CA, where he took incredible joy defending clients in the most picayune and mundane cases. When we’d have lunch, he’d regale me about winning a case that had something to do with an old lady, a cat, and a can of cat food. That’s an exaggeration but it’s how I remember it. Gone were the European lectures he gave on the rights of homosexuals in 16th Century Italy. Or maybe it was Hawaii. But if he was happy, I was happy.
Around this time, Walter was on an Air Canada flight from Europe returning to the U.S. when the plane made a stop in Toronto and the passengers were required to temporarily disembark. For some reason, a group of non-Canadians that had been on the plane were not permitted to reboard—somebody had screwed up. While this small group waited impatiently in a lounge for the next flight out, they discussed the possibility of suing the airline. Their threat to do so became more realistic when they discovered that Walter was an attorney. He was as pissed off as they were and took the case. Thus began his journey down a rabbit hole that would change the course of his life.
Aviation law, it turns out, is based on nautical law. After all, a ship is a ship. Let’s say there are a dozen or two hefty tomes that detail this branch of the law. Walter inhaled them in a short amount of time. After all, he was a legal scholar.
Suffice to say, they won their case against the airline, and Walter’s career as an aviation law expert was launched.
Aviation law is often about suing airlines, and airlines get sued most when there is a disaster. The first disaster that affected Walter’s life was the 1997 Korean Airlines crash, Flight 801, which killed 229 of the 254 passengers aboard. The way it works is that the many individual suits by families are divided up amongst a number of law firms. Along with other American attorneys involved, Walter flew to Korea for meetings with the airline. But unlike the other American attorneys, Walter had begun to study Korean, including during the long flight to Asia. As it turned out, he was the only American at the table who could speak any Korean, and as a result he played a more significant role than he might have otherwise. (Nancy tells me that Walter complained about how difficult the Korean language is to learn. It’s now off my list.)
In the year 2000, Sharon and I were married. Absent among the guests was Walter—he was in Europe attending a visit to an airline crash site. Nancy came to the wedding, however, escorted by her oldest son, Alex. I’m glad Nancy was there, but I had mixed feelings about Walter’s absence. Would you rather attend your friend’s wedding, or visit an airline crash site? Sigh. The wedding went on without him.
A visit to Walter’s small office in downtown Oakland was remarkable in that there was no staff. When I asked him why, he explained that he got phone calls in a wide variety of languages every day from all over the world, and finding a polyglot legal secretary would not be an easy task.
His work ethic and the demands of his job did, most likely, lead to his too-early demise. Stomach pain was ignored for too long. Advice from his brother, a physician, and others was also ignored. And when Walter’s appendix burst it was his misfortune to have a rare form of cancer, which resulted in the cells being seeded throughout his body. Surgery using an experimental but heroic surgical-plus-chemo treatment in Washington, DC, failed. I visited him at his sickbed several times before he died at 59. His life was a monument to genius and brilliance. His death was a tragedy.
Before he died, he gave me a poem that he’d written and asked me to set it to music. I put this task off until it was too late. When Nancy invited me to present something at Walter’s memorial service at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, I finally set his words to music.
Since I wasn’t sure if there would be a piano available at the memorial service, I arrived early with my guitar. I hadn’t played it for 30 years, and was more nervous about playing the stupid guitar than should have been the case. As I rehearsed, struggling with some of the chords, a man about my age with a curly gray beard and hair walked into the room. I introduced myself and he told me that although he hadn’t seen Walter in many years, he had been his guitar teacher. I looked more closely at his face.
“Are you Barry Olivier?”
“Yes, I am,” he said with surprise.
I was not surprised.
God works in strange ways, Barry played the guitar, and I sang Walter’s song. Sometimes things just work out that way.