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Kent Peterson and Kevin McCary on a day trip to Duluth in the late 1980s. Photo courtesy of Kent Peterson

Kevin D. McCary—phantom mentor no more

Inside the lively Cuppa Java coffee shop at the corner of Cedar Lake Road and Penn Avenue South in Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr neighborhood, Kent Peterson, 61, lit up a dim corner as he told me about the African-American lawyer-mentor most of us have never really had a chance to celebrate.

No historic appointment, no Attorney of the Year award, no standing ovation at another one of those fancy gala dinners we love to plan.

“This was, hands-down, the most impeccably dressed, just perfectly coiffed lawyer,” Peterson said with a beaming smile that communicated something deeper: This particular lawyer’s looks were bested only by his smarts.

Kevin D. McCary, died 25 years ago on March 5. The Assistant Hennepin County Public Defender was 33. Photo courtesy of Kent Peterson

Kevin D. McCary, died 25 years ago on March 5. The Assistant Hennepin County Public Defender was 33. Photo courtesy of Kent Peterson

“If he had a regret, and kind of speaking third-person here, I think he really believed that as a young, smart, black lawyer, he believed in how far he was going to take his career and run with it,” Peterson said. “And he was remarkably frustrated that he wasn’t able to complete the task.”

That lawyer, Kevin D. McCary, died 25 years ago this Saturday, March 5. The Assistant Hennepin County Public Defender was 33. He had known that he would not be able to “complete the task” for about as long as he had been practicing law — almost five years.

See, McCary knew he was living with HIV/AIDS.

McCary told Peterson about his illness on their second date in the spring of 1986 during a walk through Washburn-Fair Oaks Park in south Minneapolis, Peterson said.

“He goes, ‘There’s something going on with me and I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I just want to get it out here and out front, but I think I might have the beginning stages of AIDS,’” Peterson said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh geez, how far do I run, how quickly?”

But Peterson didn’t run. The budding romance with the handsome, young lawyer proved too much to resist.

“It was just one of those moments, I mean, how many people have been there?” Peterson said. “You just click. You just hit it off.”

The pair eventually bought a house together in Bryn Mawr in the spring of 1989. Peterson, then (and now) a photojournalist, still lives in that house — about a 45 second quick-walk from the coffee shop where Peterson sat on a recent afternoon, beaming about “a phenomenal character” he has longed, for a quarter century, to get the word out about.

McCary died in March 1991 after several hospitalizations and without much of a traditional lawyer-legacy to leave behind. It is something that has bothered Peterson ever since.

“When you’ve only practiced for five years and then the rug gets pulled out from underneath you, what legacy are you able to create for yourself in that short period of time?” Peterson asked. “Tragically, I don’t think you can create enough of a legacy because I think that period of time is too short.”

It is tragic. But McCary must have left a legacy — and a large, enduring one that teaches us to this day. To think otherwise would be an injustice, right?

Redefining ‘legacy’

So what’s a lawyer to do? Redefine or clarify exactly what a “legacy” is, of course.

To do that, I caught up with B. Todd Jones, the former U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and former Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Fire Arms and Explosives — a giant of a lawyer-mentor in his own right.

A number of years ago, Jones gave one of the best talks I’ve heard on mentors, mentorship, and the influence of others in our lives. He was the keynote speaker at the then-Leonard, Street and Deinard’s annual Scholars Program dinner. Jones described four mentoring influences in our lives: traditional mentors, peer mentors, historical mentors, and phantom mentors.

The delineation struck me, instantly generating, in my mind, a list of dozens of people who fit neatly into the various categories. The four types of mentors immediately came to mind again when I first heard about McCary several months ago.

Jones, now the chief disciplinary officer with the National Football League, elaborated on these people and their influences via phone last week from the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

Jones said “historical mentors” — less obvious than traditional or peer mentors — can be role models whether they’re “big H” historical or not. Likewise, phantom mentors, he said, afford opportunities unbeknownst to the recipient, sometimes by passing on “a legacy that you don’t even have an awareness of.”

Kevin D. McCary—phantom or historical Twin Cities lawyer-mentor. I like where this is going.

“You’ve got these [people’s] influences spreading to a lot of people where, even though it’s not someone who’s in the history books and generally known, there’s still a historical legacy that they have through their influence on others — who go on to influence others,” Jones said.

A pebble in our pond

McCary arrived at the University of Minnesota Law School after graduating from Wayne State University in his native Detroit in 1981. After law school graduation in 1985, McCary worked for a few years at Fredrikson & Byron before rejoining mentor Bill Kennedy’s public defender office in Hennepin County, where McCary had clerked during law school.

To resolve any doubts about an everyday-person’s ability to leave a powerful legacy, one only needs to speak to one of McCary’s contemporaries, his peer mentees, if you will.

Karl A. Doss, 55, and Edmundo D. Lijó, 55, both said that McCary, a year ahead of them at the University of Minnesota Law School, was a stabilizing influence during a very difficult period of their lives.

Doss, now the director of access to legal services for the Virginia State Bar, recalled being on the “verge of giving it all up” during law school and feeling isolated at times as the only black male in his 1986 law school class.

“I don’t think I would be a lawyer without Kevin,” Doss said.

McCary, Doss, Lijó, and three other students of color rented a house together in Dinkytown during McCary’s third year of law school. The other five were 2Ls.

“Kevin naturally became a mentor to the five of us and really helped us get through law school,” said Lijó, who practices immigration law in St. Paul. “He was a great mentor in so many ways.”

Described as hilarious and fun, yet private and dignified, McCary did eventually come out to his law school friends. And what did they make of it back in the late 1980s?

“It didn’t matter, it was Kevin,” Doss said of his friend, with whom he DJ’d many “wicked” law school parties. “I think we all took it in stride. Kevin was a friend, we loved Kevin. Kevin is our brother.”

Still, hindsight’s 20/20 clarity has given McCary’s old law school buddies a lot to think about in the years since he quietly and privately came out to them and ultimately succumbed to AIDS.

“It pains me to this day that Kevin, I think, spent much of the time that I knew him in a place where he couldn’t truly be himself,” Doss said. “And by the time he was able to be himself, unfortunately, there just wasn’t much time.”

Charli E. Winking, 64, who now lives in Victoria, British Columbia, worked the arraignment calendar alongside McCary nearly every day as a junior public defender in Hennepin County.

“He was really great with his clients, they loved him,” Winking said. “And our clients [in the P.D.’s office] don’t always love us.”

She described McCary’s influence on her life as “profound” and credits him with her long career in public defense and now her work in social justice in Canada.

“I think the fact that he was African-American was very significant to his impact as well as being gay,” Winking said.

She is particularly fond of the way McCary pushed the limits of those stodgier-old courtrooms of yesteryear. She recalls having an African-American teen client who was arrested on suspicion of drug possession. The police report said the reason for stopping the teen was that “the boy had money in his hands,” Winking said.

“Kevin stood up in court and said, ‘Black man with money is probable cause? Well lock me up,’” Winking recalled. “And I loved that. I loved him saying that.”

Winking said McCary never came out to her at work but that she pieced together her dear friend’s story near the end when he was sick and hospitalized.

“It’s hard for me to understand how somebody would have to feel that they couldn’t be that open,” she said. “But I learned that that’s true for many people — and for someone who I really loved and admired.”

 A life ends, a legacy lives

Peterson said McCary was very guarded about his diagnosis while at work and that, in any event, he was “all business” and always giving his law practice 1,000 percent.

By the end, however, it was becoming apparent that others knew. It also became clear that whatever pre-existing stigmas others may have harbored, McCary — an undeniably beloved figure — was probably changing hearts and minds because his life had been so well lived.

Peterson recalls McCary getting “really scared” one day near the end after he had received a few hospital visitors, a couple of the investigators from the P.D.’s office, who were mostly all former cops.

“Kevin said, ‘This is a big, tough cop who is looking at me and crying and now I’m really scared,’” Peterson recalled McCary saying. “The last hospitalization was a pretty tough one and that was in January of 1991.”

Not long after, McCary died.

Judge Michael J. Davis eulogized McCary at a memorial service in 1991 and, last week, remembered McCary as “a terrific advocate for the downtrodden.”

McCary’s influence reaches farther and deeper than I’ve been able to uncover. It’s a legacy worth remembering this black history month as we reflect on where we’ve come from, where we’d like to go, and who has touched us along the way.

“Maybe this is kind of that moment that you just need to take pause and look around and go, ‘how did those people you work with in an office that is much more diverse than it was 25 years ago get there?’” Peterson said. “It was for folks like Kevin and others that sort of changed things, albeit very subtly, but still managed to get things changed and managed to open up a few eyes and maybe open up a few minds.”

Kevin D. McCary—phantom mentor no more.

I, for one, have squarely placed McCary in the “historical mentor” category — because I know my own law practice is richer and freer because of all those small ripples he cast my way, starting more than 25 years ago. For him, I will remain eternally grateful.

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