How I Got My Gayle


Illustration by Alex Nabaum

The TV show Jeopardy was playing in the ground floor lounge of the Emory School of Law when I walked in during orientation in August 1977. The old host was Art Fleming, not Alex Trebek, but to win, the format was the same: Answer in the form of a question. When I think back on that scene now, the answer would be, “This person represents your most treasured legacy from Emory.” My question: Who is Rebecca Zimmerman 80L—my devoted friend, my bosom buddy, my BFF, my Gayle!

In front of the TV show that day, Rebecca and I clashed in all apparent respects. She was slouched on the couch. I stood by. She is white, I am black. She is Jewish and from New York City. I am a Christian army brat who called Georgia home. I love clothes and makeup and high-heeled shoes. Until recently, she seemed to pooh-pooh those things as impractical and frivolous. She is older than me by several years, which to me at twenty-three seemed really old.

Yet simply trading hellos over Jeopardy began a friendship that back then I never could have imagined, and today I never could imagine living without. As Emory celebrates its 175th year, and as we all look back at how our education there made us who we are today, I can name professors and experiences that prepared me to become Georgia’s first female Supreme Court justice and the nation’s first African American female state chief justice. The most enduring influence, however, remains the relationships that grew out of my years at Emory, most notably my thirty-four-year friendship with Rebecca Zimmerman.

When she and I met, women and African Americans were just coming into law schools in greater numbers, so we both represented something new there. Gradually, our bond grew, partly out of a shared curiosity and openness about people different from ourselves.

Rebecca and I were part of the same first-year law school section, as well as the same study group. We walked together and ate together. We’d meet at the Emory cafeteria, Dooley’s Den, Lullwater Tavern (now Panera Bread Company), and the cheap meat-and-two-veggies place in Emory Village that in 1979 was leveled by fire. Most of all, we talked—about everything under the sun. We discovered that we both spend a lot of time in our heads, figuring out who we are and what things mean. Our problems are the Rubik’s Cubes we solve together by deconstructing, examining, and finding a new order.

We had the kind of deep honesty that allowed us to ask each other questions of identity without fear of being called racist or anti-Semitic. Even when we didn’t completely understand each other’s answers, we still worked hard to “get” each other. We became comfortable being vulnerable. Above all, I learned at Emory that I could trust Rebecca, and I hope she knew she could always trust me.

Still, we would sometimes clash. When we graduated in 1980, I knew I wanted to climb the ladder of the legal profession as far as I could go. Rebecca, who is very smart and who was a very solid law student, wanted success, but a less stressful life. For years I didn’t really understand why work wasn’t the fuel that fired her life, as it was for me. I think she in turn thought I was demanding, overly driven, and somewhat uptight.

Nevertheless, Rebecca always came to my family events, where she was at times the only white person. I went to her Seders and ballroom dancing events (when I could make it) because no matter our differences, our friendship was always more precious than our personal needs to be right.

Just like any young adults, we had no idea when we left Emory what we would weather in our personal lives. I was there for her when her parents died, and she was there for me when I lost my father, as well as my older brother.

We held onto our friendship much like a long, flexible rope. Sometimes one of us needed to pull on it. Sometimes it was the other’s turn. At our greatest emotional distance, we barely held onto the ends. But we gripped hard when the survival of either of us was at stake.

Rebecca had been working at a law firm when she called my chambers one day at Fulton County Superior Court. My secretary promised I’d call her back after I finished charging a jury. Rebecca insisted I take her call. I wasn’t finished, but I took a recess to talk to her anyway. “They fired me,” she said. “They told me to get out now.” I was angry that anyone could treat such an honest and decent woman as badly as she was treated that day. And I was relieved that I dropped what I was doing to help my friend, because I knew she, too, would drop everything for me.

As my marriage of twenty years ended, Rebecca and her husband came over to comfort me as my ex-husband picked through our house to claim his belongings. So when her marriage of seventeen years ended, I likewise didn’t want her to feel alone. I sent her e-cards almost every day, and once my daughter and I took her out for a movie. The cast was African American, and Rebecca was the only white person there. But when you looked around the theater, she was laughing with everybody. As she often says, we appreciate each other’s sense of humor and can make each other laugh in the direst of moments.

When I rose to the Georgia Supreme Court, I could trust very few people other than my husband at the time, because anything I said could—and often would—be exploited. Rebecca and I would meet near the court, at the same little restaurant downtown, for lunch. Whatever I bounced off her would stay between us, and that security was invaluable. Years later, when I was on President Obama’s short list for the US Supreme Court, Rebecca called me because the New York Times wanted to interview her and she wasn’t sure she should. I wasn’t surprised that she asked me first, because she had before proven her loyalty so many times.

Since our days at Emory, we have both remained in Atlanta, and that’s helped us stay close. We still meet every other week or so for lunch, although nowadays at much nicer restaurants in Midtown. And we talk at least every other morning. There’s no agenda—just to check in.

Today Rebecca is 62, and I am 56. She spends a lot of time ballroom dancing; I like to use my free time to shop. Rebecca is a successful Amway distributor; I’m still practicing law as a partner at Schiff Hardin in Atlanta. She owns cats; I’m a dog person. We keep giving each other gifts that the giver loves but the recipient does not. We realize that we will never see eye-to-eye on many things, but we still love each other.

Rebecca says that our multitude of conversations, connections, shared experiences, life-cycle events, cheering for each other’s successes, lifting each other’s spirit during life challenges—these are the threads of the tapestry spun from Emory.

I counter with my own metaphor that I read somewhere once: each of us is born into a particular spot in the universe, and the friends we choose hang like stars around us, giving us reference points and direction to chart life’s course. Rebecca has been such a star for me. She is the best, most unexpected gift from my time at Emory, one I hope to hold onto forever.

Leah Ward Sears 80L is a partner at the law firm Schiff Hardin and former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

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