He probably knew it would be his last speech.
Supreme Court Justice Leroy Hassell, who died last Tuesday, made his last public appearance at the Virginia Bar Association meeting in Williamsburg on Jan. 21, just three and a half weeks prior to his death.
He apparently had cancer. And he had the chance to speak to a crowd of lawyers and judges.
The VBA wanted to present its Gerald L. Baliles Distinguished Service Award to Justice Hassell, so they asked the former governor himself to do the honors. A fitting move, since it was Baliles who had appointed Justice Hassell to the court in 1989.
Outgoing VBA President Steve Busch, who started as an associate at McGuireWoods the same year as Justice Hassell, was unsure his longtime friend could make the trip. But after a touch-and-go afternoon of phone calls and checking back, the justice was coming.
The VBA rearranged its dinner schedule. Normally at bar association banquets, awards and accolades are served at the same time as dessert and coffee. But the Baliles award came at the start of the dinner. The justice couldn’t take sitting through a lengthy meal.
The former governor is always so good at these moments – poised, funny, ready to turn just the right phrase, in charge but at ease – and he was very good that night. He spoke fondly of the man he put on the court at age 34, plucking him from a partnership at McGuireWoods. There were handshakes and photographs all around.
Then Justice Hassell had his turn. He slowly made his way to the podium and spoke without notes.
He started a little shakily but he drew strength from the crowd and the moment.
He made oblique reference to his medical condition, saying he recently had been back in the hospital due to a bad reaction to some medicine.
It was clear he was very sick, but he didn’t say what was wrong, not even to his colleagues on the court. He was a very private man. He had politely declined our several requests for an interview at the end of his term as chief justice, just as he had politely declined our requests in 2003 when he was first taking over.
He thanked the VBA.
He thanked Baliles. Back in 1989, the governor had summoned him to his office one day and said he was one of three finalists for the seat. “Right now you’re number three,” the governor had said, giving the future justice the chance to make his pitch.
He thanked his mentors at McGuireWoods, including Anne Whittemore, for the training and comradeship he had enjoyed at that firm.
He thanked his colleagues on the court, and he said it had been an honor to serve the commonwealth.
He thanked God. Anyone who has listened to Justice Hassell speak knows that he was a man of deep religious faith. God had played an important role in his life, he acknowledged.
He thanked his children. This private man had some of his most difficult family problems aired very publicly. His son and elder daughter both ran into trouble with the law during his stint as chief justice. His message to them and everyone in attendance was he still loved them.
Last, he thanked his wife, Linda, for her love and support over the years.
He saluted Justice Cynthia Kinser, who was in the audience and who would succeed him as chief justice just 10 days later. And he said that he looked forward to continuing to serve on the court for a good long time.
No doubt he was exhausted when he sat down. But he had a smile on his face. That evening, Leroy Hassell got an opportunity few people get: He got to say goodbye in a meaningful way, with poise, humor, humility and a touch of grace.