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A Lawyer's Journey to a Mission of Compassion

Tom Williams is immediate past president of the Louisville Bar Association and co-chair of Louisville Peace Works, now Compassionate Louisville, which has a mission to show Louisville, Kentucky as a transformative space where peace and diplomacy can grow and flourish. 

Tom's personal mission is humble: "to be wide awake, to get out of my car in spite of the rain, and to help pull the tree to the side of the road."

The following is a version of a speech outlining his journey to that mission that he gave on December 10, 2008 — the 40th anniversary of spiritual thought leader Thomas Merton’s death and the same date that Merton joined the monastery just four days after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1944.  It also happened to be the 60th anniversary of the signing of the United Nation's (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In May of 2007, I wrote a President’s Page in our Louisville Bar Association’s Bar Briefs — the monthly publication for Jefferson County attorneys. The title of the article was called, “Taking a Risk for Peace.” The article suggested that Louisville could become a city of peace and diplomacy.  .  . something like a Geneva of North America, but a Geneva with sweet tea and southern hospitality. 

I wrote the article to test the waters. I threw it out, without any plan, without any money, without any preparation, without knowing anyone in the peace community, without having taken a single step for peace — without, in other words, any credibility. 

After I wrote the article, several attorneys asked about it.  They asked, do you have any plans? No. Where is it going? I responded, “I don’t know.  Maybe nowhere.” 

Then something magical happened. Someone responded. Just one person — but not just anyone. It was Judge Steve Mershon who was the Chief Circuit Court Judge at the time.  He was the appointed member to the board of the Louisville Bar Association that I chaired. 

Judge Mershon wanted to explore this idea and asked if I would I mind if we put a committee together to study it. Well, let me think about that, heck yea . . . I would like to explore it.

I will never forget what Judge Mershon said around the time of our first meeting. He said “Tom, remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” He asked then, what’s next?

  The fallen redwood in Cathedral Grove.

Around this time what was next for me was a trip to San Francisco for the American Bar Association’s annual meeting. This was early August of 2007.  One of the hallmarks of these trips is to take side trips. There, my wife, Sarah, and I visited Muir Woods. It was the first redwood forest I had ever seen, an amazing place.

Deep within Muir Woods was a place called the Cathedral Grove — a place where the redwoods create a natural cathedral that is simply awe-inspiring.  According to our tour guide, (former U.S. president) Franklin D. Roosevelt loved the grove and thought that anyone who entered that space would be transformed by the space itself — that no one could be anything but peaceful while in this redwood Cathedral.  To follow up on that vision, in May of 1945, delegates from 50 countries met in San Francisco to sign the Charter of theUN. But Franklin Roosevelt tragically died on April 12, 1945 shortly before he was to have opened the UN conference. So, on May 19, 1945, the UN delegates held a commemorative ceremony in tribute to his memory in Cathedral Grove and a dedication plaque was placed there. 

When I went to visit Cathedral Grove, the spirit of Roosevelt and the UN was in the air.  I had in mind our dream of making Louisville something of a Cathedral Grove — a place where anyone who entered would be transformed by the sprit of space and the beings that occupied it.

When my wife and I came upon the marker, however, the view was stark. A huge redwood tree had fallen directly behind the marker. When you read the marker and then looked up, the view was this fallen tree.  It seemed like some kind of exclamation point on the marker. What it means, I don’t know. 

Later, I learned that this 800-year-old redwood tree toppled in Cathedral Grove as 50 awestruck visitors watched.  The tree was 200 feet tall and 12 feet wide and it toppled gracefully up-slope with a roar that could be heard all the way to the parking lot — almost a mile away.  I learned that the tree fell on July 8, 1996 — the 220nd anniversary of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. No doubt the vision of the tree and the marker in Cathedral Grove stayed with me. The tree is still there if you ever have a chance to visit.

In any event, the next week we held our first meeting of Louisville Peace Works. It was exciting as we had several lawyers from the community thinking about what we could become here in Louisville. What was fascinating happened next.  That night when I drove home there was a big thunderstorm with a lot of rain.  When I came upon my street just off of Brownsboro Road, Trail Ridge Road, the first part goes up a steep hill.  Right in the middle of the hill on that rainy afternoon was a big tree that had fallen. Right behind the tree on the road was a school bus that was blocked and about three or four other cars. No where to go . . . as other cars lined up.

Everyone just sat there in the rain and the lightning as if waiting for the tree to move on its own. Then, a mother and son got out of their minivan and started pulling on the tree. 

But there was no way this mother and her son could move the tree. It was too big — too many branches. But they just kept tugging and pulling — going about their business without any cajoling of the rest of us sitting comfortably in our cars. 

Then, something came over me . . . and I got out of my car. There was now a light rain with sporadic lightning. I stepped forward. Then others also got out and together we moved the tree. Together we cleared the road. Then we returned to our vehicles.

After returning to my car, I drove behind the school bus and watched as worried parents looked relieved to see their children coming home. I had this tremendous feeling driving my car back home behind the bus — it was a rush of something like the Great Spirit telling me to pay attention to this — to feel this — to experience this — to learn from it. I was, in that instant, in my mind back at Cathedral Grove gazing upon that fallen redwood.

Now with the passage of time and some reflection, I see how this incident symbolized and symbolizes my journey and my mission.  My mission is to get out of my car in spite of the rain, and to help pull the tree to the side of the road. That’s all — the rest has been or will be taken care of with the courage of others and the grace of God.  

This article is posted with the permission of Tom Williams.

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Thomas M. Williams is a member of the Louisville law firm of Stoll Keenon Ogden. He grew up in the Cincinnati area and attended the College of William & Mary where he graduated with a BA in philosophy. Tom moved to Louisville upon receipt of his Juris Doctor from the University of Cincinnati, College of Law. Tom’s legal practice focuses on management-side labor and employment law.  He has been recognized by Best Lawyers and Chambers USA as a leader in the field. He was named one of the top 50 lawyers in the Commonwealth by Super Lawyers.

Tom has been an active member of the Louisville legal community.  In 2007, he served as president of the Louisville Bar Association.  Recently he helped to launch a program of restorative justice in the juvenile courts. Tom was the 2009 Board Chair for Leadership Louisville and was recognized as one of Louisville’s “connectors” in 2010.  In 2011, Tom was named the co-chair of the Partnership for a Compassionate Louisville by Mayor Greg Fischer. For that work, he received the Jack Olive International Heart of Compassion award from the Compassionate Action Network International out of Seattle, Washington. Tom led the effort to recognize Louisville, Kentucky as the first model compassionate city by CAN International.

Tom and his wife, Sarah, have three children, Lilly, Lincoln and Nelson.