Alex Chilton & My Grandfather

My grandfather attended Yale Law School, served in the Army during WWII, then practiced corporate and securities law in Manhattan for most of his life. Alex Chilton did not.

Alex Chilton rocked out, first with the Box Tops, later with Big Star, until his too-early death this week.

My middle name is Chilton, but not because of my grandfather (that one, anyway) or Alex Chilton. The street in that grand old neighborhood a little to my southwest is not named for me or Alex, or, as far as I know, anyone related to me. Nor am I connected to the Chilton’s auto books.

But I digress.

My grandfather and Alex Chilton did not know each other. My torts professor, Uncle Dave, may or may not have known Alex Chilton, but he knew the Box Tops, and knew how to play guitar.

He serenaded us one day, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, with a song about Palsgraf v. LIRR, that featured the refrain Cardozo, you should have known better instead of My baby, she wrote me a letter. Hum along if you know the tune—it scans just fine.

The last time I was able to speak with my grandfather before Parkinson’s and other ailments completely stripped him of the ability to talk, I had graduated from law school, passed the bar, been sworn in, started lobbying, stopped lobbying, and gone inactive with the state bar. I had to reach to talk about the law, so told him a story Uncle Dave had told me about his time at Yale with a professor I knew my grandfather had studied with as well.

He immediately launched into quizzing me about first year torts cases. He’d been out of law school for well over 60 years at that point, but the way some older people can sing every word of every song from their youth, he could cite case law.

I remembered very little about most of the ones he brought up, and of course, since I was in torts 58 years after he’d graduated, I knew of a few newer ones, but I had a firm grasp of Palsgraf thanks to Uncle Dave’s rip-off of The Letter.

I know it made my grandfather proud that his oldest grandchild was a lawyer, even if I wasn’t racking up billable hours down at 80 Pine the way he had his whole life. I could speak with some authority about proximate cause, and that made him smile.

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