Rip Streater was one of those colossal characters you remember from growing up in a small town. A tall, shambling figure, he radiated an authority over his large brood of children that permeated his household, easily included any young visitors, and seemed to take in the neighborhood as well. Later on we discovered that this was mostly a genial facade, taken more or less seriously by the family and those who came and went there, as they pleased, or according to how well they knew Rip. His kids referred to him affectionately as Lennie, (but never quite to his face), after the hero of Steinbeck’s novel, “Of mice and men.”
Fran and I were friends with sons Jim, a high school and college classmate of mine, and John, roughly our contemporary, so we got to be regulars in Louise Streater’s kitchen – that’s where all the action was. Rip would hold court there as it suited him, or not. He also spent a good deal of time in the living room smoking his pipe, when he was not so accessible.
He had an odd way of talking – husky, slow, with regular pauses, and maybe a slight whistle; but nothing any of his kids or I could ever imitate, and we were all good mimics. What you couldn’t begin to copy was the way he had of expressing himself, a sort of droll eloquence which was always impressive, but never quite took itself seriously. If you had any kind of ear you listened to him carefully, because he could make you laugh or put something uniquely, even if only directing you to the bathroom. He once informed Fran, when she asked him why he didn’t ever answer the phone, that he had discovered that if it were anything important, the caller would come to the house and, if not, he didn’t want to be bothered.
Later on when Fran and I returned from a stint of graduate school in Washington State, he chased off a collection agency that had followed us home with a letter whose rhetorical flights made it obvious why the services of the Streater and Murphy law firm were much in demand. He informed them that his clients – (he never billed us) – were of such exceptional and widely known good character that anyone pursuing them with so flimsy a claim into Minnesota jurisdiction would be likely charged with fraud.
We were in fact penniless and hard put to pay many a bill. Late on a Friday afternoon Fran bought a soft drink at a gas station. It was discovered to contain something horrible, probably just an old bottle brush, but maybe some dead rodent, we hoped. Thinking our fortune was made, we ran over to Rip’s office with the bottle and its contents. He was not there, but on Monday informed us that you couldn’t sue anyone until you had suffered real damages. In fact, he said, the cleaning lady had actually drunk the evidence over the weekend without any ill effects, so we were out of luck. Rip was old school.
As such, he was a fountain of un-PC commentary and opinion, with which he delighted in outraging the sensitivities of his college-age children, and later on, we discovered, his junior partners. I’m sure, though, he never got a rise out of founding partner Leo Murphy, the Democrat to Rip’s Republican in a small town law office.
He loved a joke, and though he didn’t take himself all that seriously, was careful that no one could ever penetrate his mysteries completely. He teased Fran for years with the first two lines of the limerick, supposedly about her home town, “There were two young ladies from Framingham/And this is the story concerning them... He is gone now, and she’ll never know the end of it. And I don’t think anyone living knows where his nickname “Rip” came from. Louise may, but she’s not talking either.