Remembering and Celebrating Sherry Colb
by Neil H. Buchanan
A week ago today, Professor Michael Dorf posted on this blog the sad news of Professor Sherry Colb's passing earlier that morning. As he noted, Professor Colb was one of the bloggers on Dorf on Law, and she was also his "co-author, colleague, best friend, and wife for over 31 years." Earlier this week, I posted a few brief comments but conceded that I was not yet prepared to wrestle with my emotions in a way that would allow me to write a proper eulogy. I added that "I will soon publish my own thoughts about the death of my wonderful friend and colleague."
I am still not truly ready, but I doubt that I ever will be. Here, I will do what I can. As an aside, I generally maintain a certain formality in my writing on Dorf on Law. Under the circumstances, however, I will set that practice to one side as I discuss personal matters.
Because Mike's published eulogy was so beautiful, I asked him whether it would even be appropriate for me to add a eulogy of my own. If he wanted his to be the last word (at least here), I would never want to overstep. He quickly said that, quite to the contrary, he would welcome my additional comments.
Given that I have known Sherry for about 33 years, I am feeling a great loss. What can I say about her?
Sherry was fun and funny. When she was delighted by something (which was often), she had a signature laugh that would fill a room with warmth and joy. I heard that laugh countless times, and although I can often copy speech patterns, I was never able to figure out what it was about Sherry's laugh that made me -- and everyone else -- so happy. There was no way to replicate it. In that and so many other ways, she was one of a kind.
I would be remiss if I did not emphasize something very personal, which is that Sherry is the reason that I became a vegan. My column two days ago described the last step in that process, as well as Sherry's over-the-moon reaction to my decision, but that was merely the final act of the play. I doubt that I would ever have become a vegan if not for Sherry. Yes, I had been moving in that direction for a number of years, and I suppose that it is possible that I would have eventually figured it out, but I honestly doubt it.
Sherry was, above all, a passionate advocate for what she believed in. When she wanted to convince someone of something, she brought not only moral clarity but logic and evidence to the task. She was a teacher, and she taught me (and countless other people) things that I would never have known. I would probably have continued to make uninformed claims that "a human needs protein from meat" and "cows give milk naturally without dying, so it can't be bad to drink their milk." Like almost everyone (I hope) when it comes to animal exploitation, I was neither stupid nor evil, but I was extremely uninformed. Sherry treated me that way, that is, as someone who simply needed to be told the truth with patience but also with urgency.
When I think about the best things that have happened in my life, I am lucky enough to have a long list from which to choose. Even so, I can honestly say that being a vegan tops any such list, because it aligned my actions with my values. Whatever else I might say about Sherry, here or elsewhere, this has to be the most important: She educated me and encouraged me to be the person I want to be. How many people can we say that about in our lives? And I was only one of the people whose lives were touched by Sherry's deep moral commitments.
In his spoken eulogy this past Sunday in New York, Mike included this important observation about Sherry: "She was also stubborn and fiercely independent. Trying to persuade Sherry to do something she had concluded was not right for her was at best futile and often counter-productive." Everyone in the room chuckled knowingly. The flip side of passionate advocacy is stubbornness, after all, and I was certainly one of the people who butted heads with Sherry over the years -- always telling myself that she was the one being stubborn, because of course I would say that, wouldn't I?
My point is that this eulogy should not veer into hagiography. I was recently at a funeral where a grieving husband painted a picture of his departed wife that made her seem like a saint. Afterward, the deceased's adult daughter pulled me and a few others aside and said, "All that stuff he said about Mom? Lies! She was wonderful, but she was no Mother Teresa, for heaven's sake." The desire to focus on happy memories and to emphasize the good after a loved one's death should not cause us to paint an inaccurate picture.
Sherry was wonderful, but she was an imperfect human being, and she was often at odds with people, most definitely including me. There were many days when my feelings about Sherry could be boiled down to: "Argghhh. Grrrr!" And to be clear, I am certain that she was thinking the same thing about me. I know this in part because, each time that we inevitably set those things aside, we would admit to each other how upset we had been.
But it was never in the realm of possibility that we would stay angry with each other. Once, we had had a bit of a row a few days before we were planning to go to a basketball game (the Washington Bullets against someone, I recall, so this must have been about 1992). As I went to meet Sherry and Mike at the game, I predicted to myself that we would avoid whatever it was that had generated so much heat, instead trying to put on happy faces and "just get through the evening," or something like that. To our mutual delight, however, Sherry and I found ourselves effortlessly falling into an hours-long conversation, having fun and acting as if nothing had happened -- except that we were not acting, because we were simply having a great time together. Indeed, my recollection is that we all but ignored Mike for the entire night, as we talked excitedly about politics, dogs, law, friends, and everything else that mattered to us and made us who we are. (Sorry about ignoring you, Mike! As you know, Sherry was quite magnetic.) When I was on the entry-level law professor market a few years later, Sherry actively (and successfully) courted me to join her at Rutgers-Newark. Something must have gone right with us.
Earlier this year, as the news about Sherry's medical condition was still frustratingly unclear (but still offered some reasons for optimism), she returned to blogging with a vengeance -- so much so that I took her return to form as a good sign about her survival prospects. She had, however, changed in one noticeable way. Sherry's writing style was always easy to contrast with mine (and Mike's), because she quite deliberately chose not to be in-your-face in the way that my non-law-review writing tends to be. I had once, for example, written a column in which I described the Republican Party circa 2012 as showing unmistakable signs of sociopathy. Sherry was very knowledgeable about medical issues, especially psychological concepts, but even though she agreed with my assessment, she chose to measure her words more carefully in her own writing. She did not criticize or judge me, but she choose not to write columns using such a provocative word, because that was not her way.
And that is why the evolution of Sherry's writing this year was especially fascinating. As anyone who has read Dorf on Law in the past few months knows, Sherry was absolutely incensed about the Dobbs decision (overturning Roe v. Wade). Saying that she felt "the fury of a thousand suns" might be an understatement. No, it is definitely an understatement. But here is what made Sherry Sherry. While even I will admit that my style might sometimes be reasonably described as bombastic, Sherry somehow figured out how to channel her fury without resorting to bombast. She was undeniably writing with anger and passion, but although she allowed herself to be blunt and even to describe the conservatives on the Supreme Court as "liars," she was still doing what she had always done: educating people about something that was of surpassing importance, aiming her anger where it should be aimed, and leaving no doubt about the right answer even as she kept her cool in decimating every aspect of that awful majority opinion. She treated the world as she had treated me when she walked me down the path to veganism: with respect, which means trusting people to be able to process facts and logic and not to misread her passion about the topic at hand as a personal attack.
Earlier this summer, I had been planning to call Sherry to tell her how much I was enjoying her Dobbs-related columns. This was already obvious, because I had written several columns of my own in which I drew from and effusively praised her fiery, convincing words. Before gathering my thoughts to talk to her, however, I needed to talk to Mike briefly about some relatively pedestrian matter. I decided to call Mike and then to call Sherry a day or two later. The phone system at the Colbdorf household, however, somehow patched my call through to Sherry's headset, so she answered instead of Mike. No matter that neither of us were expecting to have a conversation, we quickly fell into our fun habit of comfortably sharing our thoughts, laughing (again, that laugh!), and generally feeling good about being friends. Over the years, she had told me more than once that she thought of me as a brother, which was a high honor indeed, and I felt it that day.
I did not know that that would be the last time I would speak to Sherry, and I wish that I had had another chance to do so. Even so, that last conversation was fitting in its own way. Similarly, after reading what turned out to be her last published column, on August 10 on Verdict, I found myself thinking (by that time knowing that the end was near) that if that was to be her last column, she had done herself proud.
But none of that makes it easier to think about what we have lost. Sherry left the world with the grace, passion, and dignity that have always been her hallmarks. If only she had not had to leave us at all.