“The Kid From Brookline” Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s Farewell to Board of Trustees Chair Ralph J. Cappy

Issue Date: 
May 11, 2009

(This is the print version of University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg’s eulogy for The Honorable Ralph J. Cappy, retired Chief Justice of Pennsylvania and chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. A memorial service celebrating Mr. Cappy’s life was held May 5, 2009, in Heinz Memorial Chapel in Oakland.)

The University of Pittsburgh was Ralph Cappy’s university. He arrived here, as a college freshman, in the fall of 1961. After earning two degrees, he was prepared to move into the real world and craft his distinguished career—a career that was centered in Pittsburgh and included his service as Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice, a pinnacle of the legal profession.

But in a very real sense, Ralph never left this campus. Pitt was in his heart; he believed in its mission; and he supported the University in a broad range of ways and over the course of many years. He would be very pleased that so many of you have come to his academic home—not only to honor his life of high achievement, but to reflect, more personally, on the parts of that special life that he shared with you.

Ralph and I began partnering in the mid-1980s—when he was a young, but already accomplished, trial court judge, and I was a brand new law school dean. Over the course of the last 20 years, there were few important events in his professional life, or in mine, that we did not, in some way, share. And for the past six years, I had the uncommon privilege of working closely with him as the chair of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Of course, our relationship was not purely professional. Ralph was a caring and loyal friend to me, as he was to many of you. He was someone whose abilities and character I respected and whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. We always had fun together!

As you might expect, our families also became close. And Janet and Erik, I know that I can speak for what might be called the very extended “Cappy family” that has assembled in this Chapel this morning, when I say that, just as we loved Ralph, so we love his wonderful wife and the son of whom he was so proud. And not only do we share your sorrow today, but we intend to be a continuing source of support in meeting the challenge of building a long succession of happier tomorrows— as Ralph surely would have wanted us to do.

In the ways that he regularly expressed himself, Ralph Cappy almost seemed more proud of the place from which he had come than he was of the lofty destinations to which he traveled. He was the “kid from Brookline” who became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania— not only the highest court in this Commonwealth, but the oldest appellate court in our nation.

It was interesting to hear Ralph talk about one of the early legs of that journey—his trip from Brookline to Pitt, a distance that was short in miles but not in certain other ways. Ralph arrived ready to “take on the world,” with his priorities apparently aligned to place social success first, with academics to follow.

His freshman first impressions were not encouraging. Ralph judged his new college classmates to be more stylish and sophisticated than he was. Undaunted, he pursued that social agenda with levels of effectiveness that later would characterize his approach to important professional undertakings. One of his undergraduate friends later reported to me, admiringly, that Ralph fit more of a social life into any single Pitt weekend than he had been able to muster in all four of his own undergraduate years combined.

That, of course, is the way that Ralph was. He had a personal appeal that drew people to him. And he had an enviable combination of qualities that held those people close, as friends and as allies, and that contributed to his many successes. Those qualities included an active and agile mind, a principled commitment to worthy causes, the courage of his convictions, good judgment, common sense— and, most important of all, a caring heart.

Ralph was one of the kindest, most considerate, and genuinely empathetic individuals I have known. As a jurist and as a person, he was the embodiment of what Justice Frankfurter called “dominating humility”— which includes the ability both to form and to unform habits of mind, the capacity for detachment, and the temperament for putting one’s passion behind one’s judgment instead of in front of it.

He built his career by doing good work extraordinarily well in each and every job he held— public defender, trial court judge, Supreme Court justice, and, most recently, private practitioner. And the list of honors that he was accorded— not because of the positions he held, but because of what he did from those positions— reflects the breadth and impact of his accomplishments.

Ralph was presented with many honors by his professional peers, only some of which I will mention here. He was recognized by the National Center for State Courts for work of national significance in the field of judicial administration; he was one of only nine persons ever to receive the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Bar Medal; he received the highest honors bestowed by the Philadelphia and Allegheny County Bar associations; and he received the Susan B. Anthony Award from the Women’s Bar Association of Western Pennsylvania for his efforts to promote equality in the legal profession.

The range of other groups honoring him included the Pennsylvania State Police, the Fraternal Order of Police, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and, of course, the Sons of Italy. Here at Pitt, he was recognized as a Distinguished Alumnus of the School of Law, as a University Distinguished Alumni Fellow, and as a Pitt Legacy Laureate. And the “people of Pitt” always will be indebted to him for his leadership in our drive through this period of historic progress.

To that impressive list of past honors, we might today add by acclamation a well-deserved citation to Ralph for being such an all-around good person. In any occupational setting dominated by vertical relationships—and both the judiciary and the academy are examples—an inflated sense of self-importance can become an occupational hazard. But, perhaps because of his Brookline background, Ralph never suffered from that problem. Instead, he always was able to take his responsibilities seriously without taking himself too seriously—a wonderful combination of qualities in any person, but especially in a judge.

Reflecting his lifetime commitment to public service, Ralph never thought that his role as our Board chair entitled him to anything other than the privilege of doing important work.  And in all of our many meetings— sessions that too often focused on either the difficult or the disagreeable—Ralph never spoke in terms that were disrespectful of any other person. Instead, he always seemed able to see the best in people.

During private moments, in fact, he often was hardest on himself, sometimes muttering, when he thought he had fallen short, “Come on, Ralphie!” I found even that form of self-address to be telling. “Ralphie” may be an endearing nickname. In fact, I have heard some of you use it. But it is hardly a label likely to have been chosen for himself by someone who perceived that he was positioned on a pedestal.

As each of us attempts to deal with the deep sense of loss triggered by Ralph’s sudden and untimely death, we may find some comfort in tragically prophetic words attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.” No one fit more life into his years than Ralph Cappy.

One year ago, when the University honored Ralph as a Distinguished Alumni Fellow, we praised him as “an individual of uncommon compassion, commitment, and courage” and we celebrated his “distinguished career in the law,” his “many contributions to the greater good,” and “his leadership in helping to elevate Pitt to a place among the country’s strongest and most productive public research universities.”

This morning, let me close by expressing all of that somewhat more simply. Chief Justice Cappy, through your many achievements, your countless contributions, and your inspiring example, you earned our highest respect. And, Ralphie, for the kind of person you were, for the special friend you have been, and for the ways that you added richness to our lives, we always will love you.