Iowa City lost a legend last week. On October 2, 2019, Clemens Allen Erdahl died at the age of 71, just short of his 72nd birthday.
Clemens served on the Iowa City Council from 1977-1985 and practiced law for more than 40 years, representing some of the most difficult and challenging cases imaginable.
He did it with dignity, poise, and a passion for the law, from the courtroom, to preparation for every aspect of a case, to jury selection, closing argument, to telling war stories, to training young lawyers. He did it all.
Clemens practiced into the 21st century, but he was cut out of 19th-century cloth, where lawyers frequently apprenticed with masters in lieu of formal legal education. He loved mentoring and training young lawyers, almost as much as practice.
He was a mentor to me. We collaborated on quite a few cases together. They were always interesting. He would randomly call me, much in the way my grandfather would, out of the blue in the midst of the busy day. I always felt a tinge of guilt if I didn’t immediately pick up because he always called for a reason. I knew I needed to call him back soon, or he would keep calling. He would call and say, “I have a case that I think I would like you to work on.” I didn’t really ever have any choice, but to say yes because he had already thought it out.
He strategized about virtually every aspect of a case, from discovery to phone calls to other lawyers. I kid you not people, he white-boarded phone calls with opposing counsel. What to say if they said x or y or z. On occasion, we traveled to meet clients. I drove, and he sat the passenger seat. We small talked a little, but not for long. He would cut me off, and say, “Ok, Rock, let’s get to work,” while pulling out his legal pad, drafting up ideas, taking calls on the blue tooth, thinking about how to make the impossible, possible.
He loved words. I did too. We were and are word nerds. One five-dollar word from that I learned from Clemens: “copacetic,” which describes “the general mood of a group or gathering, a relationship between two people, or even the harmonies in a piece of music, with a meaning ranging from ‘just fine’ to ‘excellent.'”
That word fits Clemens perfectly. He was a very unique individual who loved working in harmony with others. He could bark now and then when he got stressed out, but quickly returned to his cool, relaxed baritone voice speaking in a slow distinct way, almost Southern without the classic drawl. He would then focus on working on the next project, working copacetically with opposing counsel, his own team, and his client, who he patiently guided through their most difficult moments.
Clemens loved history. He was more likely to quote Twain, Holmes, or Lincoln, than the most recent legal case. He loved to tell stories. He was like a real-life Atticus Finch. He recently told me that justice and not black letter law was the most important part of any case. Justice had to be on your side, or the cause was lost. People from all walks of life walk in the fresh air of freedom because he took their case, often with nearly impossible odds. Although we worked on several cases together, I never saw him try a jury trial case, one of my great regrets.
I remember talking with him about whether I was going to run for council again. He said, “Are you 100% into running?” I replied, “I honestly don’t think so, Clemens.” He responded, “Well that pretty much settles it then doesn’t it? There is only one way to run, to be all in. It is not fair to you, your family, or the City if you’re not 100% in.” As with most things, he was right. I announced a short time later that I wasn’t running.
About three weeks ago, we met together to work on a case. I nudged him a little, asking him when he was finally going to retire. He didn’t really answer, and instead, told me a story about Mark Twain’s approach to retirement, quickly going into character, channeling Hal Holbrook’s Twain, amusing himself just as much as me listening to him. I don’t remember the exact quote, but I remember what it made me think of.
I told him, “Clemens, you’re never going to retire, or even die. You’ll be like MacArthur, and just fade away. Old lawyers never die Clemens, they just fade, fade away…”
He chuckled a little, and said, “Alright Rock, really appreciate you coming. I need to meet with my next client. Have a safe trip home.”
“You too Clemens. See you next time.”
Three weeks later, I received a text at 530 in the morning, telling me that Clemens had passed the night before, confirming my prediction that he would never retire, but fade away into eternity.
Clemens, you left us too soon. I didn’t even get to hear about all of your adventures traveling the world for four years in the 70’s. Oh how I would have loved to hear those tales!! I told your kids tonight that I hope they wrote them down, your sayings, favorite words, and your reading list.
You now belong to the ages, Clemens. With gratitude for everything that you have done for Iowa City, your family, your profession, and your clients. The world is a better place because you lived. May you continue onwards through your journey into eternity.
Love you Clemens.
[Source: Facebook post from 7 Oct 2019 at 9:30 PM by Rockne Cole]