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Thank You, Keith

One of the responsibilities of the Missouri Bar President is to select the best people I can find for various tasks. Some volunteer. Some are volunteered. Another responsibility is to write this column. Sometimes these responsibilities conflict.

In this publication we celebrate Keith Birkes and his 27 years of yeoman’s work for you, me and the rest of the bar. While I struggled with how to effectively describe what Keith’s tenure has meant to legions of lawyers, particularly members of the Board of Governors, my friend (and predecessor as president) John Johnston nailed it. Here is his article, recently published in the KC Counselor, a publication of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association. If you have not read it, you are in for a treat. If you have, read it again. Keith Birkes gave his working career to help improve the practice of law. These few words are but a small payment on the debt we all owe him. I could not have said it better:

When you walk into The Missouri Bar Headquarters in Jefferson City the first office you come to, directly across from the receptionist, is the President’s office. It is a nice office. It is for the current president to work in whenever that president is in Jefferson City. It is always very tidy, and usually quiet.

The next office down the hall is about twice as big as the President’s office. It is, like all busy offices, always strewn with papers and bustling with people. It is the office of the Executive Director of the Missouri Bar. For 27 years, that Executive Director has been Keith Birkes. His name and the title have come to be synonymous.

There is much meaning in the office arrangement at The Missouri Bar building. It is an allegory about Keith Birkes. All the glory goes to the president, who is just passing through. The work horse. The quiet guiding hand. The man looking out for the lawyers and the people of Missouri. For 27 years. The man behind the curtain. Has been Keith Birkes.

It says much about the man Keith Birkes that he puts the president out front for the accolades. Keith is not shy. He is notafraid of hard decisions or reluctant to step to the front of a fight. It is just that great men lead. Greater men lead and give the credit to others. Keith is one of the latter.

I wonder how many Missouri lawyers could name the Executive Director of the Missouri Bar. I would think less than 50%. Lawyers are busy, and The Missouri Bar has been exceptional for 27 years. I may be wrong about the percentage. More may know his name. But, I know that very few actually realize how important Keith has been to every lawyer, every citizen, in Missouri for the last 27 years.

I did not really know how critical to the legal system Keith has been until I was President of The Missouri Bar, even though I had known Keith for over a decade. For a year as President, I moved from problem to crisis. Public Defender offices closing. Missouri Plan under attack. Pay raise for judges battle. A tornado destroys Joplin. Leading me through every one of these issues, while simultaneously handling a completely different set of other important problems by himself, was Keith Birkes. That is just one year out of Keith’s 27. Other years, I am sure, have been busier and more important.

The simplest way to say it is that Keith Birkes has been at the center of every battle, every initiative, every great effort about anything affecting Missouri lawyers and Missouri justice for 27 years. All this time he has given others the credit for all that goes right, and blamed himself for anything that went wrong. Every person who has been President of The Missouri Bar says two things. First, Keith is incredible. Second, he made us think all the good ideas were ours.

Of course, it is impossible to hide great ability. People close to Keith’s work cannot help but point him out. Maybe the most telling is that The National Association of Bar Executives, the organization made up of the nation’s executive directors of state and local bar associations, asked him to lead them as their president. Or perhaps that the American Bar Association chose him to chair its Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services. Accolades from admirers are great. Accolades from your peer Bar executives says something deeper.

This article is too short to talk properly about a wonderful father, a loving husband, a man who climbed Danali at age 50 and a person who is held tightly in the hearts of more people than most of us can touch in two lifetimes.

So I will end with a story told to me by a person who has known Keith for over 35 years. He went to college with Keith and played football with Keith. To describe Keith, he reached back to a story aboutsports. And like all good sports stories, it is about much more.

Keith Birkes is the quarterback of his college team. It is an intra-squad scrimmage. First team offense against first team defense. Keith drops back to pass and is sacked in one of those sacks that makes every defensive lineman smile. Unfortunately, it is also the kind of sack that broke his collarbone. Few things hurt as much as a broken collarbone, particularly when it is touched. But Keith Birkes keeps playing football. As a quarterback. At least he does until his teammates tell the coach how badly he is hurt.

Every old jock loves this kind of story. In life, we face so many compromises and so much fakery. But there are moments in amateur sports that are pristine. They are simply clean. When courage is all that matters. You can’t fake adrenaline. And sometimes in sports, as well as in life, adrenaline is all you have left.

There is more to this story, but this is enough for now. Keith Birkes is a natural leader, but as Executive Director of The Missouri Bar, he was confident enough to let others take credit. Keith Birkes was a man with no quit. Just as he has been for you, and for me, for 27 years.

Keith Birkes could have been anything in the law he wanted to be. We are very lucky that he chose to be Executive Director of The Missouri Bar.

Thank you, John, for lending me your voice.

Thank you, Keith, for giving us your life.