My son and daughter were having dinner with me at Lincoln Inn in Dupont when attorney Mike Cefalo and his wife, Bette, walked in. I instinctively stood and extended my hand, which Mike, of course, shook. But he did something else. He kissed me on the cheek. And, though neither of us realized it at the time, left a lasting impression on my son.
Just a young teen when he observed this brief moment of affection, my son Michael, now 33, has greeted me with a kiss ever since.
Last week I reminded Mike Cefalo of that night and thanked him for setting an example for my son. We had not been much for kissing in my family. Mike Cefalo changed that.
My daughter recalls another encounter with Mike when she and my son were kids. When my son admired the funky watch Mike was wearing, Mike immediately took it off and handed it to him. Then he pulled another, identical one out of his pocket and gave it to my daughter.
“I bought a bunch of them,” he said, “just so I could give them away.”
The watches weren’t expensive, but they weren’t cheap either. Their material value, however, made no difference. What made a difference was how Mike’s kindness made my Michael and Greta feel.
Making a difference has driven Mike Cefalo for as long as he can remember. Inherited from his father, Angelo, an international labor figure, it’s what led Mike to law school, and what, he says, probably could have gotten him a punch in the face or two.
“I can’t resist trying to right a wrong, even if it means sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong,” Mike told me one time and then provided an example: “We were at the airport in Pittsburgh and this guy was smoking. When I started walking toward him, Bette went in the opposite direction. She knew what was coming. I said ‘hi’ and then asked if he had kids. When he said yes, I told him he really should quit smoking so he’d be around to watch them grow up. By the look in his eye, I could tell my words sunk in.”
Another time, Mike, a lover of fine automobiles, was stopped at a red light in Kingston in his red Ferrari convertible when four kids in a Jeep with the top down pulled up next to him.
“Cool car, Mister,” one of them shouted.
“Thanks,” Mike said, “but you can have a car just like this too someday. All you have to do is work hard for a long time. The trick, though, is to live long enough to get there. So, if I were you guys, I’d wear my seatbelts. The next sound I heard was ‘click, click, click, click.’”
This tale and others were the topic of conversation last week when I got together with Mike Cefalo for a long-overdue visit. When I heard he had retired, sitting down to reminisce with him became a high priority. At 79, Mike has practiced law for 55 years, one fewer than he and Bette have been married. And when I recalled the first time we met, I realized I have known Mike for 43 of those years.
I was just 26 when my editor called me into his office, pointed to a photo in Time magazine and told me, “Track this guy down and get a story.”
The photo was of a delegate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention wearing a crazy hat on the convention floor. This was the convention at which Jimmy Carter was nominated for president. The guy in the photo was the talk of New York City, where the convention was held. His hats, which he ordered from a Broadway costume designer, made national TV news every night. The guy was a young local lawyer named Mike Cefalo.
He invited me to his office where we talked late into the night. In between answering my questions, Mike opened one case folder after another, recorded notes for his secretary, and dropped each onto a pile on the floor next to him. He must have gone through 20 folders. All the while, a Billy Joel album played in the background and I couldn’t help thinking how Mike and Billy resembled each other. Not so much anymore, however. The years have been kinder to Mike.
It was an office, by the way, that Mike shared with attirney Charlie “Buddy” Bufalino, a staunch Republican. Yes, back then Democrats and Republicans actually got along.
Mike and I became friends and that meant over the past 43 years I had a front row seat for his many charitable endeavors. I wish I earned during that time what Mike has given away. We talked about some of those last week, as always with the understanding I’d never write a single word about them, although I wish I could.
I suppose I can mention one, however, since I included it in the article I wrote in ’76, a copy of which is framed and hangs on a wall at Cefalo Law. During the convention, Mike and Bette sat next to a blind woman at a restaurant and, of course, Mike struck up a conversation. He also quietly pick up her dinner tab. That woman, of course, could not see the flamboyant hats for which Mike was becoming famous, but she did get to see his flamboyant heart.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.