“But how do you thank someone
Who has taken you
From crayons to perfume?
Oh, it isn’t easy but I’ll try
If you wanted the sky
I would write across the sky in letters
That would soar a thousand feet high
To sir, with love.”
– Lulu (‘To Sir with Love’)
I first met Frankie in his office, when I attended a job interview with him some 13 years ago. I was a newly qualified lawyer and it showed. Yet, it was the easiest job interview I ever faced. I remember how relaxed and warm Frankie was and how comfortable he made me feel. Not once did I feel like I was being assessed or evaluated. Not once did I feel like I had to prove myself. It just felt like I was having tea and a chat with an old friend.
They say that first impressions can be misleading. That’s probably true. Nothing could have ever prepared me for what was to come.
I was told then and there that I had the job. I was even told how much I would be getting paid (and it was mind-blowingly sweet!). There was never any suspense or intrigue. It was all so easy. So direct. So thoughtful. I had gone to the interview a nervous wreck. I came away feeling like I was on cloud nine.
That interview literally changed my life – not only because of its importance to my career as a lawyer, but also because I came to meet and befriend some truly wonderful human beings thanks to the opportunity it brought me.
Frankie was always one of the first to arrive at the office each day (even though he was one of the people who lived the farthest away). I shared an open-plan set up on the second floor with about nine other team members. Frankie, being the head honcho (and someone who often hosted meetings with high-powered CEOS and Union Officials), had an office on the floor above mine, right next to one of the meeting rooms. Though he was on a different floor, we never felt cut off from him and he made it very clear that his door was always open to us. He would come down to see us more or less every morning, just before our official opening-time. He would often join us at lunchtime and again, just before we closed for the day. We could always look forward to a joke and a word of encouragement and morale was always high.
At age twenty-five, I was the youngest member of the team. I was also extremely childish for my age (a trait that persists, but something I have now come to accept). This was also reflected in my behaviour at the workplace, for which I earned the title of ‘juvenile delinquent’. I would routinely harass my older (and very tolerant colleagues), sometimes even physically. I’d chuck paper balls at them or sneak up behind them to yank the height adjustment levers on their office chairs and so on. One day, Frankie caught me red-handed, while I was tormenting our colleague who was in charge of IT. I could have expected a good telling off or at least a dark look, but that was not how Frankie reacted. He just smiled at me and said “Ah. You’re free! Come with me.” and I was led away to sit through a very high-level meeting, which I tried very hard to follow and learn from.
Although I had just qualified, Frankie never referred to me as a ‘junior’ or anything like that (although it was common for senior lawyers in Sri Lanka to do so). I was always ‘Indika’ or ‘my colleague’. I liked that. I liked it a lot!
Though I was the youngest and indulged in delinquent behaviour, Frankie made it clear that he expected big things of me. I remember one time when we were hosted to dinner by a client, right then and there at the conclusion of the dinner, he asked me (of all people) whether I would mind doing the after dinner ‘thank you’ speech. I was nervous as hell, but it turned out ok and once my nerves had recovered, I felt happy and proud that I’d done it.
Though my role was to provide legal advice and representation, Frankie knew that I was a bit of a computer geek. He therefore asked me to join our IT manager (yes, the poor soul I tormented so often) in making a pitch to a representative from a partner organisation, for funding, in order to re-vamp our IT systems. The presentation went without any hiccups and the funding was approved. We soon had a network of new computers! Again, I remember feeling so happy and proud to have been part of that. I still do.
Frankie was also pretty tolerant when it came to our personal quirks and idiosyncrasies. I remember approaching him (somewhat nervously) to ask if I could come in at the weekend and decorate the second floor for Christmas. I wanted to get it done at the weekend so it would be ready for my colleagues when they arrived at work on the Monday. He very kindly said okay, even though he didn’t know what my taste and skills in that department were like.
Though he was our boss, Frankie also took a keen interest in our personal welfare. I used to drive a 20 year old Toyota Land Cruiser at the time. It was a superb machine, but as you can imagine, with that sort of age, I would occasionally have the odd problem or two. I remember how I was messing about with it during one lunch break and Frankie appeared out of nowhere to ask if I needed his car to fetch a mechanic or to go and buy spare parts.
When my Mum was diagnosed with cancer and went into hospital for surgery, Frankie told me that I could just take all the time I needed and that I could return to work when I felt ready to do so. All he asked of me was that I arranged with colleagues to cover my court appearances for me (which we routinely did for each other when there were clashes with appearances or when we took our annual leave). I was basically told that I had all the time off I wanted, with pay, so I could spend time with my Mum. To me that was just HUGE. It inspired the fierce kind of loyalty and gratitude that saw me report to work every single day. I would spend my evenings with my Mum and sleep over at the hospital and every morning, I’d wake up early to drive home to shower and change, so I could turn up to work on time – because I wanted to!
Frankie is one of the cleverest people I have ever come across. He was well read and routinely introduced us to very ‘non-lawyerlike’ information that would still help us in our work (I first heard the term ‘amygdala’ from Frankie’s lips and next heard it many years later while studying psychology). He was the first person I ever met who had written a book – he’d written a few actually.
Frankie was one of the sharpest lawyers I have ever encountered. Yet, his razor-sharp intellect was tempered with compassion and humility. He was never brash or aggressive in his approach – even when dealing with aggressive people. He taught me to respect adversaries (which I often forgot to do) and to offer them a ‘fall-back’ position or a way out, so they wouldn’t lose face with the people they represented. Frankie was also the person who introduced me to the (then rather alien) concept of ‘win-win’ outcomes – I didn’t even know such things were possible!!!
I am a bit older and wiser now than I was when I worked with Frankie. It makes me all the better equipped to appreciate the extraordinary human being that he was: someone who inspired me and brought out the best in me.
We humans are so used to speaking good of others when it is too late and when they are no longer around. I guess we are poorly equipped to share with others how we feel about them. We let our fears and inhibitions get in the way. How do you tell someone these things? I guess you write about it… and I guess I just did! You see, I may have used the past-tense to talk about Frankie…. but what I haven’t told you is that he is very much around and receiving an email from him this morning was what prompted this post!
Frankie, I will be sending you this link and I hope you’ll end up reading it, because I want you to know how grateful I am for all that you have done for me and for taking a chance on a young punk like me. Thank you also for setting the bar so high, so I will always have something to aim for.