I’d been on a band trip to Disney, a fishing trip to Leach Lake, Minnesota, with a church youth group, and a couple sleepovers, but for the majority of my first eighteen years, it was Mom, Dad, me, and a Collie named Sugar. I was the first of my family to attend college. Townsend Residence Hall at The University of Illinois was but forty miles from Nickey Avenue, but it may as well have been South Sulawesi, Indonesia. It was all one great-big unknown.
Our dorm-room assignments arrived in early August:
Muson, Bill – Bement, Illinois
Gerbasi, Joseph Aloysius - Vernon Hills, Illinois
Clewis, Scott Richard – Chicago, Illinois
Presumption, and the inaccuracy of the first impression.
With a name like Gerbasi, from the north suburbs of Chicago, Dad thought Joe’s family must have mob connections. Bement was a small town just down the road from Decatur; he figured Bill would be a good-ole farm boy. Clewis Scott, to Dad, sounded like a black guy from Chicago’s South side.
Mom thought they all sounded like nice boys. She started buying Tato Skins, Ritz Crackers, and popcorn to put together care packages.
After only six weeks, Bill Muson petitioned the RA for a transfer, and I haven’t seen Gerbasi since graduation. I refer to Scott Clewis as Brother. For the thirty plus years since we’ve graduated, we talk five days a week.
Scott is gluten, sugar, and caffeine free, he’s got more energy than that bunny wired to a tractor battery. He met our friend Kish for a cocktail after work one Friday. Kish asked, “What do you wanna do next?”
“We should go to Vegas,” Scott answered. Just like that, the boys were bound for Sin City on a redeye. Forty-eight hours later, they were back at work - running on adrenaline and a cat nap in coach.
The abridged version of Scott’s Curriculum Vitae would weigh like a hard-bound Moby Dick. In the thirty-six years I’ve known Scott, he’s run residence halls, learning centers, and taught flunked-out inner-city kids English. While putting himself through Law School, he was the Chief of the Juvenile Court Clerk’s Office in Cook County, overseeing over a hundred employees and a multi-million-dollar budget.
While Chicago-Kent College of Law does not appear on a search of the ten best law schools in the country, and Scott was not the valedictorian, he could sell a block of ice to a used car salesman, and he will never be out-worked. Diploma in hand, he researched the top three law firms in the city, made copies of his résumé, pressed his suit, and shined his shoes. He’d charm the receptionist, ask to speak to a partner, then explain that he was there to produce, and learn. Patrick Salvi of Salvi, Schostok, & Pritchard took the bait. After a six-year apprenticeship, including a record-breaking jury verdict, Scott left to become a partner at another top firm. A year or so later, he left to form Clewis & Associates.
At this writing, Scott has been practicing medical malpractice and personal injury law in Chicago for almost twenty years. I’ll pause as you conjure the image. If your vision is that of a Tom Cruise doppelganger driving a black BMW, in a suit that cost more than a new set of tires for my pickup truck, two cases of Chateauneuf de Pape in his wine cellar, and a condo in the loop, you’re three-for-three. He has a strict twenty-step daily skin-care routine, and a haberdasher, manicurist, and pedicurist on retainer.
Evoking Mom’s rules about judging books, and my assault on the notion of first impressions, Scott Richard Clewis is not defined by cars and labels. He is a man of resilience and family because that’s how Elaine Clewis raised him.
Scott, is a mama’s boy.
l met Mrs. Clewis at Thanksgiving break our freshman year of college. She stood in the doorway of our dorm room in a house coat and head scarf with a purse the size of an airline carry-on over her shoulder. We were homesick, hungry, and nursing Old Style hangovers, which mattered not to Elaine Clewis. Our level of organization and housekeeping were not up to her standards. We spent the next three hours picking up, cleaning, and organizing as she dictated orders like a Northside Drill Sergeant at three new recruits cleaning a latrine.
Scott’s dad rose from the construction trades to become a State Senator and an Alderman. Though he seldom missed a supper, he was often gone to meetings. From the age of twelve, Scott was the little-man of the house. When his dad died at fifty-six, Scott stepped up.
I’d visit Scott shortly after college. I have images of their breadbox bungalow at 5140 W. Warwick, just a short hop from Wrigley Field. Scott would sit on the couch in the parlor, kissing his mom on the temple, holding her hand and telling her he loved her. Scott brought several girls home to mother. They could be runway gorgeous and work with orphans but if Elaine didn’t give ‘em the nod, there was no second date.
As a freshman lawyer at Salvi, Schostok, & Pritchard, Scott was in awe at their first employee appreciation banquet. The partners handed out praise along with bonuses in sealed envelopes. His colleagues slipped off to the restroom and snuck peeks under the table.
No less giddy than his mates, Scott slipped his into his breast pocket. After the evening adjourned, he called his mom and told her to stay up late. He drove an hour out of his way so his mom could open his first bonus check.
Scott is an engaging speaker, a champion debater, and a hound for details. Chicago-Kent taught him law but he learned cardiac and neurologic anatomy and physiology on-the-job from textbooks and midnight calls to physician friends. In twenty years of practicing medical malpractice law, he has lost only twice.
He once explained practicing law, “Hick, you wake up every day going head-to-head with opponents. There’s no hanging out at the water cooler talking about The Bears game.” It is the ultimate adversarial profession.
Like a cell-phone car pool, in the twelve minutes from the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic, to the hill on Highway G when I lose cell reception, I’ll talk to Scott. I’ll try and recreate the moonset over the marsh west of the farm and the cricket chorus around the pond. He’ll break down the latest developments in trade talks with China, the Big Ten champion pole vaulter who guested at his gym, or a chat with Christie Hefner.
Scott will be the first guest on my podcast. I’ll put down my microphone and go mow the grass.
As core to SRC as hair care and exfoliating, is benevolence. Uncle Scott tries to expose his nieces and nephews to things they’d otherwise never get to do, has dinner with his parking attendant, and befriended a locker-room attendant from his club.
After twenty-five years of practicing law, he is going pro… helping people.
After a couple years of agonizing, he was admitted to the prestigious Masters of Positive Psychology program (MAPP) at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. Key players in the MAPP program include Dr. Angela Duckworth who (literally) wrote the book on Grit, and taught it to West Point Cadets and Dr. Marty Seligman who upended psychological doctrine. As the president of the American Psychological Association he pushed to optimize what is right with us, rather than spin wheels attempting to fix what’s wrong. The most basic premise of Positive Psychology is the scientific study of what makes life worth living.
Sounds pretty basic.
Scott has graduated from two colleges and law school. He’s prosecuted multi-million-dollar medical malpractice cases and run businesses with hundreds of employees. He claims the MAPP program is the hardest thing he’s ever attempted.
The program format requires almost a dozen three or four-day weekends on campus and no-fewer-than forty hours per week of research, presentations, papers, and tests—a heavy load while balancing full-time work.
One exercise in the curriculum is to pick a test student, write an outline, give a lecture, and teach them a few of the most basic tenets of positive psychology. Identifying me as his friend in greatest need of a tune-up, I was his lab rat. The sessions were to be roughly an hour. With digressions we routinely doubled our regulated time. I learned the components of resilience and character strengths that contribute to virtue. He taught me the effect of thinking traps on our perception of interactions, the value of sharing our victories with someone who cares, and the difference between optimistic and pessimistic decision making.
Scott’s classmates, 48 in total, chosen from around the world include Harvard and Yale MBAs, an Emmy Award winning producer, a CEO from Sweden, and a former NFL cheerleader; they are in the home stretch.
At the very last on site, the faculty hosted their annual Quaker Dinner. Everyone was encouraged to reveal a piece of themselves that fellow MAPPsters had not yet seen. To that point, Scott had been the enigmatic attorney from Chicago who occasionally showed up in a lampshade, or a Mini Mouse dress for Halloween. He had every intention of keeping it that way until Henry the Australian Rinpoche laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder. Like an encore at a rock concert, SRC made his way to the podium.
He began by thanking his parents. In grade school Scott floundered. He was more interested in getting to work like his dad and grandfather and convinced school was for the teacher’s benefit. Whether the lessons were lectured or written in textbooks, he struggled to understand. When called upon in class, he’d use his allotted time to do a soft-shoe and tell a story to hide that he could not long-divide. Teachers in the Chicago Public School System in the seventies simply hoped to make it home alive, they had no desire to hold anyone back. For four years he lived every day in fear he would disappoint his parents. When his scores on a high-school entrance exam arrived in a manila envelope, a family summit was called at the dinner table.
Scott feared the worst. Instead, his dad assured Scott he believed in him. Elaine asked, “How can we help?” Buoyed by the unconditional support of his family, he crammed eight years of elementary school into the summer of 1979, and made a spot in the remedial classes at Gordon Tech High School. By May of 1983, he graduated with distinction, from a full curriculum of honors classes and was accepted to the University of Illinois.
The catharsis of Scott Richard Clewis before forty-eight classmates and the founders of Positive Psychology was purely spontaneous, and Henry’s hand may have been a divine intervention. When he scanned the room, there were few dry eyes. His first hug was from a hotel employee who had been wiping the tables and collecting dirty dishes. With tears streaming across his brown cheeks he explained that the struggles Scott had just shared from his childhood were note-for-note his own son.
Thanks to Scott’s three-minute confessional, he would never give up on him.