Remembrances of Steffen Graae
By Robert Bremner
On a rainy October 5, two hundred friends and associates filled St. Alban's Church here in Washington to say goodbye to Steffen Graae, one of our classmates who made a difference in this world. Steffan had congenital heart disease and died while awaiting a heart transplant.
Seated in the front of the church in their black robes were some fifty other D.C. Superior Court judges with whom Steffan served for twenty-two years. Steffan and Cynthia's only child, Jessica, now a professional singer, filled the church with haunting refrains from Bach and Brahms.
Steffen's boss, the Chief Justice of the Superior court, reminded us that Steffen had once ordered U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese to appear at a hearing to determine if he should be held in contempt of court for sending prisoners in DC jails to distant prisons instead of to the work-release programs they were sentenced to by the DC court. The Justice Department relented.
David Gilmore told us that Steffen was the most courageous and most caring man he knew. Steffen had chosen Gilmore as trustee for the D.C. Housing Authority after Steffen, despite advice from all his judicial peers that he should not get involved, had taken over control of its disastrous affairs. Gilmore described Steffen's final hearing, after six years of intense trusteeship and a completely successful overhaul of the Authority, with Steffen sitting at the bench with tears streaming down his cheeks as dozens upon dozens of Housing Authority residents came forward to thank him for ridding their housing units of gangs and drugs and fixing up the buildings. The Housing Authority still stands as the only successful turnaround of a DC social service agency.
Some spoke of his influence on the court through the textbooks he authored and the clarity and brilliance of his opinions. Others spoke of his mischievous wit and interest in people. Our classmate Bill Wheeler reminded us that Steffen's father was a member of the Danish underground in World War II and had given Steffen a clear sense of right and wrong. Steffen's strength of principles and ethical humanism inspired many and was a recurring theme for many of the remembrances.
On a personal note, having talked to Steffen about his court experience, it is clear that the workloads were quite heavy and his urban juries could be problematic, yet he believed passionately in the jury system and took remarkable care to prepare and work with his juries.
In a nice coda to the service, there were copies of a thoughtful reminiscence by classmate Duncan Spencer of his experiences with Steffen on the Yale freshman and varsity crews and Steffen's career as a crew coach during a post-graduate stay at Oxford.
Our thoughts are with Cynthia, Jessica, and his family. The world is a lesser place without him.
Bob's email address is BremnerRobert@cs.com.