Eulogies for Stanley Preiser
Delivered by Rabbi Victor Urecki
It is an honor to have been asked by Stanley himself to officiate today. Stanley Preiser and his family have always treated me with the utmost of courtesy and kindness and it is a privilege to be here. To his family and friends, I apologize in advance for these stumbling, halting words I am about to utter. But when the canvas of a human life has been filled with such vibrant colors and such varied texture, when the brush strokes applied have been both graceful and so elegantly beautiful, it becomes difficult to speak of such a man adequately, to describe him fully.
Stanley Preiser was a great and talented man, a magnificent voice in his chosen field. But he was more than a superb lawyer. His lifetime of achievements in the legal world lifted the entire profession to new heights and glory. Stanley Preiser was a brilliant man but he was more than an intellect and scholar. He was a creative and imaginative genius that could take the impossible and make it a reality, the commonplace and elevate it to a standard by which all things are then measured. Stanley Preiser was a charismatic and dynamic human being, but he was more than that. He was a presence, an irrepressible force of nature, a gifted man of boundless energy, unmatched stamina and complete commitment.
How does one capture such a man with words? How does one celebrate a life as spectacular as Stanley’s in just a few minutes?
Well, Stanley Preiser was a proud member of the Jewish people and I think he would appreciate that I choose today to frame his life by noting the Jewish significance of the day of his passing and now burial. Stanley passed away last Thursday, the 6th day of Chanukah, our Festival of Lights, and the time we recall the victory of the Maccabees in ancient Israel. His date of passing also coincided with “Rosh Hodesh”, the celebration of the new moon, an important monthly date on the Jewish calendar. And finally, this day of Stanley Preiser’s burial comes on the week where Jews read the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. In particular, the Torah portion for Shabbat (Vayigash), the first section of which was read in synagogues this morning, begins with our Patriarch Jacob’s youngest son Benjamin falsely accused of thievery. He is unfairly incarcerated in Egypt, and it is Judah, the leader of the children of Israel, who passionately speaks out against this travesty of justice. He launches into one of the most powerful speeches in all the Torah, eloquently offering an incredible defense for Benjamin. His full throated and deeply moving plea in the court of Pharaoh moves Benjamin’s jailer to tears and saves his life. I think Stanley would appreciate the fact that we read that section this morning. How appropriate!
I will get to Hanukkah and Rosh Hodesh in moment but as we celebrate Stanley’s life this afternoon, let’s begin with Judah’s defense of Benjamin, because Stanley Preiser was, indeed, our defender, our eloquent voice, our Lion of Judah. Judah was unafraid to stand up in defense of the innocent. He was the only thing that stood between prison and freedom for Benjamin. And Stanley, too, was always ready to fight for the underdog, unwavering in the defense of cause or client, often the only thing that stood between the weight of injustice and his client’s freedom.
Stanley was one of the most highly sought out lawyers in West Virginia, and beyond, throughout his memorable career. He was fully committed to defending the “little man” and made his reputation as one of the best lawyers in the country. His skills, his oratory abilities, his charismatic courtroom presence were unmatched. Stanley could outwork, out prepare, out maneuver, out think and was better on his feet than any lawyer you would ever meet. I was told that of the 102 major criminal cases Stanley Preiser worked on, he won 99 of them, an unheard of percentage. This morning, Jews read how Judah won the day for Benjamin. Today, we pause and celebrate how Stanley always won the day for those who trusted him for their defense.
And he did it with more just eloquence. Stanley did it with “presence”. Stanley could walk in a room, freeze it and own it. Stanley entered a courtroom (or ballroom, or hall, or dinner reception!) and people would turn, conversation would stop, and a crowd would gather.
I remember the first time I met Stanley Preiser. He and Joyce were already spending much more of their time and life in Florida. I had just started my career in Charleston and fortunately for me, Stanley was coming back to speak to our Men’s Club. The topic they wanted him to discuss was “Capital Punishment,” which was a big issue at that time in our state. Everyone was telling me how much I will enjoy meeting this larger than life man. Typical of Stanley, he wasn’t going to just speak about capital punishment from the legal angle. That would be easy. No, he wanted a challenge and also wanted to play to the audience. It was at the synagogue so he decided to explore the subject from the perspective of Jewish law. This wasn’t going to be just a ‘surface’ speech, something he could just pull from a book or do it off the cuff. Like everything he did, he plunged fully into the issue. Stanley exhaustively researched the topic; he called me weeks earlier, introduced himself over the phone, and wanted to pick my brain on a couple of sources he found in the Talmud (our Oral Law). And boy, did he know his stuff! (I actually thought I was being cross-examined as the star witness for the prosecution!) But I do recall thinking how captivating he was even on the phone, how charming and gracious, and how I couldn’t wait to hear him.
And then I met him.
Nothing prepared me for my first encounter. Stanley came into the social hall of our shul. It was an experience I am sure many of you have seen but I will never forget it. Stanley Preiser came in and the room dynamics changed. His presence, that smile, that stance, that warmth; he lit up the room. And sure enough and I saw this every time, and I am sure you did, too: everyone drew near to him; everyone came over to see him. And G-d bless him, he had everyone enthralled. He made sure we all knew he was glad to see us and he made each person feel special, whether by a hand on the shoulder, a warm embrace, a playful boxing jab, a knowing smile, a personal quip. He could work a room. Why he didn’t go into politics is beyond me!
And when he came up to me, he knew exactly what to say and how to make me, the new kid on the block in Charleston, feel special and immediately a part of his life. He looked pleased to see you and you, in turn, were honored to be in his presence. And that is what he brought to the courtroom. Stanley wasn’t just brilliant of speech, but a powerful and charming persona.
But when he spoke, he could bend the course of a river.
I listened rather intently to Stanley that evening and I saw why he was so successful. He impressed the hell out of me. He had mastered the subject he studied and prepared. His address could have been quite dry but it was one of the best prepared speeches on the subject I had ever heard. And he personalized it, reaching out to members of the audience, calling them by name, smiling at them. In fact, I remember during the speech he would look at me periodically and say “Isn’t that right, Rabbi?”, “I think I have the Hebrew right, don’t I Rabbi?” “Correct me if I am wrong, but I think the rabbi will agree with me…” He was one of a kind!
In his question and answer, he wanted to be challenged, loved the back and forth debate, and I saw that intellect, that ability to think on his feet. And that is the way he was in the courtroom. Ready for anything, sharp, mesmerizing and charming.
Like Judah who would not rest until Benjamin was safe, Stanley would use everything in his power, from preparedness to presence, determination to diligence, to defend his client. Like Judah, he would never abandon a defendant. How fitting, therefore, that Stanley’s passing is today forever connected to Judah.
And how appropriate as well that Stanley’s passing was on Chanukah. The Maccabees were an outnumbered but courageous band who fought with a tenacity that liberated the homeland from the powerful, restored the Temple, and inspired a nation over 2000 years ago. Stanley was molded in their image. He said of himself when he was inducted this year into the American Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame: “I’m still tough as hell and mean as can be”.
Tough indeed. He was a pit bull in the courtroom. Admired by his peers and feared by his opponents. Loved by those beside him or by those he promised he would stand to protect. He took incredible risks in the courtroom, fought hard, and wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone. This former All State 2nd team football player for Charleston High, this eagle scout, this ex-boxer was a warrior; he never gave up, never backed down, never slowed down. He was as heroic as he was brilliant.
I said to Stanley these many months when he was suffering and when he told me his time was near: Stanley, you are just too tough to give in. And I think he fought as long as he did, even while the pain may have made him want to quit, because he just didn’t know how not to fight - and he was not going down without a fight.
Like the Maccabees, Stanley never gave in and never rested. Those who worked for Stanley knew that when they came in at 7:30 AM in the morning, Stanley would already there, and when they left at 10:30 PM, Stanley would still be there. He would return a call at 3:00 AM, not to be a smart aleck, but because that was the first time he was free that day! And the unstated question was: why aren’t you up, yet?
Like the Maccabees, he lived life with dogged persistence and dedication; he was an irresistible force of nature. If you worked for Stanley, you had to be as willing and committed to the administration of justice and you had to work as hard and be as prepared for anything as he was. Not many could do that for long, but if you could keep up with Stanley, even for a short time, you learned a lifetime of experiences under this man. You studied under the best.
Studied under the best. As many told me, he wasn’t just a great lawyer, but in the valued and cherished ideals of our faith, he was a great teacher. He taught young lawyers the skills they needed in this profession. You never finished a case with Stanley or, G-d help you, against him, without learning something. As much as he loved the courtroom, I think his world was the classroom. The courtroom was his chalkboard; he was the master and you, be you opposing counsel, jury, or judge, were the pupils. And Stanley enjoyed the relationship of guide and teacher to the next generation. He was a lawyer’s lawyer. Like the Macabees, Stanley was a courageous warrior but like our people’s finest heroes, a scholar and a teacher.
And finally, Stanley was a loyal member of our religious heritage. The new moon is celebrated in our faith as a regular reminder of the uniqueness of our people. We base our holidays on the lunar calendar. The sun was celebrated by most cultures and so the Jews, perhaps to break away and proudly establish their own identity as a nation, used the moon as an affirmation of who we were and a pride in our separate identity.
Stanley always identified proudly with his people. Whether it was in raising his family in the importance of being Jews or supporting such organizations as the Simon Weisenthal Center and Federated Jewish Charities, identifying as a Jew was a source of pride for him. So was his family; he never forgot his roots, regularly sending contributions in the memory of his dear parents Joe and Madeline Preiser and extended family. When he became ill and couldn’t come to Charleston for a visit, he would call and ask if I could go to the cemetery and say prayers at their gravesites on his behalf.
And B’nai Jacob Synagogue was important to him. He remembered my congregation in Charleston with frequent gifts, including most recently a new bima (altar); Stanley was proud of his people and proud to be a Jew. He never forgot where he came from, his roots or his humble beginnings.
As a young lawyer starting out, many of the larger firms didn’t want to hire this up and coming lawyer in Charleston. Why? Anti-Semitism. And Stanley made a promise to himself that when he made it and when he had his own practice, he would see to it that his brethren would always have a place to start their careers in his firm. And he made good on that promise and brought many young Jewish lawyers to Charleston! And they in turn became great and respected lawyers in their own right for they had learned under the best. And thus, Stanley made our Jewish community a shining light, a source of strength and vibrancy.
Stanley Preiser, a proud and noble son of Israel. Like the celebration of the new moon, Stanley celebrated his Jewish identity.
Stanley Preiser gave dignity and strength to everything he did. His powerful stature, his captivating smile, his brilliance, his unparalleled work ethic and his boundless energy has left lasting impressions upon us and everyone who ever met this man.
To his devoted wife Joyce, his son Monty and his wife Sara, to his daughter Terri, to his grandchildren Blair and Justin, these are just some of the gifts he has bequeathed to you. Celebrate today the gift G-d gave you in Stanley.
I end by saying blessed is the family that was given Stanley as a husband, a father and a grandfather. Indeed, blessed was our community who had the privilege of sharing his life. Because of Stanley Preiser, we were in presence of a Judah, a defender of the weak par excellence; we witnessed the heroism of the Maccabees, and like the moon, through him we always found light in the darkest of nights. Stanley’s illuminating presence will shine with us all forever.
May his memory be for a blessing.