Opinion: Uncle Damon, the man under the robes

Luther Keith
Barbara McQuade, left, former U.S. Attorney in Detroit and current law professor at the University of Michigan, shares a laugh with Judge Damon J. Keith at his  32nd Annual Soul Food Luncheon, February 14, 2019, in his chambers at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit.

To most folks, he is rightfully known as a judge whose decisions changed the course of the nation’s history. He is the judge who stood up to presidents and stared down bus-bombing segregationists.

He was a judge who loved the Constitution and hated injustice.

He won the admiration and respect of numerous celebrities while becoming one himself.

But to me, first, foremost and always, he was my Uncle Damon, my father’s youngest brother. He was the last of the six children of Perry Alexander and Annie Keith who grew up in a west side Detroit neighborhood.

My association with him began when I was very young. In fact, he drove me and my mother home from to the hospital after I was born. That was in October of 1950.

At that time, he was a young lawyer with no idea that he would go on to be one of the most prominent judges in our nation, and would issue decisions that would make history.

One of my earliest memories of my uncle came from my love of baseball. I was sure I was going to grow up to play center field for the Detroit Tigers. That, obviously, didn’t happen.

However, some of the happiest times of my childhood were playing baseball in the alley with my brother, Terrance; my cousins, Cedric and Tony, and our friends. The alleys were only about 12 feet wide. How we played baseball in them is truly amazing.

One day my Uncle Damon was visiting us at our house on Columbus Street in Detroit and decided to join us in the alley while we were playing baseball. He was still a young man at the time, maybe in his late 30s.

He asked if he could take a few swings with the bat. I don’t think any of us youngsters really thought he could hit. Boy, were we wrong.

My uncle was a left-handed hitter and whacked the first pitched ball a good ways down the alley. I always looked at him a little different after that. He wasn’t just my uncle Damon — he was my “cool” uncle Damon.

I then became aware that he was representing the young Tiger slugger Willie Horton, and the conversation in our household was often about how my Uncle Damon, dad’s little brother, was doing great things.

Even though I didn’t see him that often, I always felt close to my uncle. In fact, I found how close when as a 16-year-old I somehow worked up the nerve to ask him for a loan.

The situation was this: A baseball coach named John Wrobel, who became one of my closest friends, invited me to join him on a camping vacation through Montana and Wyoming. Wrobel had given me a taste of camping a year earlier when he took myself and some friends on our first camping adventure to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

For a city boy like myself, exploring the great outdoors was a revelation. Now, I had the prospect of going to the Big Sky country of Wyoming and Montana, experiencing the western mountains and camping under the stars.

I absolutely had to go!

Problem was I needed to $75 to cover the cost of gas and food for the two-week adventure (this was 1967 and gas was less than a dollar). Mom and dad, who was a postal clerk, said they did not have it in their budget.

After all, they were paying for four kids to attend Catholic schools.

Somehow I worked up the courage to ask my uncle for the money. I went down to his office in the Detroit Federal court house and explained to him what I wanted to do.

He never flinched. Sure, he said, no problem.

Of course, I promised to pay him back as soon as I could make some money. Up until that point, I had never had a job.

Fortunately, that winter — thanks to my Aunt Marie Harris who was an elevator operator at Hudson’s department store — I got my first job as a stock boy at Hudson’s for the Christmas rush.

As soon as I got my first paycheck, I visited Uncle Damon in his courtroom office and said I had the money to pay him back.

“Keep your money, son” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

To this day, I still owe my uncle that $75 because he wouldn’t take it back.

It was during this period, that I truly became aware that my uncle was “big time.”

He started appearing in the newspapers for various court decisions.

In addition, when I would go to visit him in his office, there were often as many as 40 attorneys outside of his chambers waiting — sometimes for hours — for an audience with him.

One day, after one of my visits, my uncle told me that one attorney said he wasn’t happy about waiting so long to see the judge.

“And by the way,” my uncle recounted to me later, “Who is this young kid that came in and walked by all of these attorneys and got to talk to you right away without waiting?”

“That young man is my nephew, sir,” Uncle Damon said, ending the attorney’s complaint.

When I decided to pursue journalism as a career, Uncle Damon became an enthusiastic supporter.

In fact, even though I had obtained my journalism degree, I had serious doubts about my ability get a job and become a successful professional journalist.

Uncle Damon never wavered in his support, telling me “don’t’ worry about it, son. You can do it.”

I like to think he was right to believe in me. I went on to a very successful newspaper career, becoming an editor and eventually being named to the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.

Oh, I know all about the lauded and accomplished Damon J. Keith. He deserves all the accolades and all the honors.

But I will always remember him, and revere him, as the uncle who loved me, inspired me and believed in me.

Luther Keith is a former Detroit News editor and is the executive director of ARISE Detroit.