FROM THE ALABAMA LAWYER - Stolen Moments with Nelle “Harper” Lee
Published on April 5, 2023
By Rebecca E. Patty
The young lady at the desk greeted me warmly as I entered The Meadows, the assisted living facility, in Monroeville, Alabama. “Can I help you?” she asked. I flashed my sweetest smile and cleared my throat. I was at the pinnacle moment of a journey that had started months, even years earlier and I was going to savor every nerve-wracking moment of truth, no matter how poorly it could all end. My beloved Labrador retriever, Harper Lee, waited patiently outside The Meadows on a leash held by a federal judge, and the plan was to get us in to meet our literary hero.
If you had ever told me that I would be standing at the front desk of Harper Lee’s assisted living facility in Monroeville, with sun-blonde hair and a deep tan from days in Gulf Shores, with a plan to get in to see Harper Lee, I would have told you that you were crazier than our plan was.
This story really begins with a middle schooler assigned to read the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The book changed my life and set me on a course of lifelong admiration for its author and a career of public service, forever yearning to be an attorney like Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch’s willingness to support social outcasts and victims of prejudice is the epitome of true jurist.
After spending the first 18 years of my life as an Army brat and crisscrossing the United States and Germany, I settled on returning to my parent’s home state of Alabama to attend college and law school. I had been to Monroeville and stood in the courthouse and experienced that captivating feeling of standing humbly on that hallowed ground. I continued to pass the Monroeville exit off Interstate 65 on many trips to Gulf Shores over the ensuing 18 years. My parents moved to Craft Farms in Gulf Shores in 2007 and my trips past Monroeville became even more frequent.
On May 17, 2008, also known as Law Day, Harper Lee received an honorary special membership in the Alabama State Bar. At that time, I was struggling under the weight of summarizing a landfill appeal transcript and drafting a brief for a hearing completed a few weeks earlier. I had hit the proverbial wall of legal exhaustion and reverted to the time-honored tradition of the carrot-and-stick approach, promising myself that I would send my hero a congratulatory card after I filed my brief.
On May 23, 2008, with the brief complete, I penned that congratulatory card to my icon. The text read, “Congratulations and welcome to the bar. I am ready to move on from environmental law and would love to have you hang out your shingle with mine. I like Patty & Lee, but if you insist on Lee & Patty, it has a nice ring to it too.” I also imparted to her that her “prose had changed the course of my life, and that just merely attempting to be ‘like’ Atticus as an attorney has guided my moral compass and driven my passion for justice to be tempered with mercy.”
I smiled as I mailed the card. Maybe she would get a laugh about hanging a shingle out with me. I had heard that she possessed a wickedly witty sense of humor. After I sent the card, I did not think about it again. Mission accomplished, or so I thought.
About eight days later, a beautiful stationery envelope showed up in my mailbox. I remember thinking someone must be getting married as I hurried with the rest of the mail into my house. Harper Lee, Boo Radley, and Scout met me at the door as my pack of rescue Labs always did. I played frisbee with Scout and Boo Radley off the back deck, while Harper Lee always faithfully remained by my side.
I opened the envelope without really looking at the address. However, you could not mistake the NLH embossed stationery. My heart skipped a beat. The beautiful note began, “Dear Ms. Patty there is nothing I like more than praise!” Unbelievably, she had read my card and had written me back! Her note continued, “Thank you for it but thank you most of all for the generosity that inspired it.” She signed it, “sincerely Harper Lee.”
I excitedly showed the handwritten note to Judge Karon Bowdre, my former law professor, who had become a family friend years before she was appointed to the federal bench. She taught me insurance law and forced me to become a better legal writer during my time at Cumberland School of Law. She also has always been an amazing friend and mentor. I played tennis with her husband and her, babysat their kids a time or two, and went on some vacations together. We both shared a love of To Kill a Mockingbird and had even seen the play performed in the town square in Monroeville.
The Judge and I planned a girls’ trip that August to see my parents and play at the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama. I had the prized letter framed and was bringing it to show my folks. My dad, JW Patty, III, was astonished that Nelle had written me back, and I swear he hatched the plan I now found myself in the middle of executing. During all the days of our trip, my dad kept bringing up that elderly people in assisted living facilities often had their moods brightened when folks brought dogs by to visit the residents. He worked this angle for three days until I capitulated. Of course, just dropping in unannounced with a Labrador retriever on a return trip from Gulf Shores to Nelle Harper Lee’s assisted living facility seemed perfectly sane and not at all threatening to my law license, career, et cetera.
The young lady at the desk repeated my statement back to me, “You and your dog are here to see Ms. Lee?” “Yes ma’am,” I grinned. “My dog’s name is Harper Lee, and…” Surprisingly, without hitting some bank type of silent alarm to Monroeville’s finest, she said, “Go on down and the room marked N. Lee is where you will find her.” And just like that, I began to walk toward my iconic hero’s room and would soon be face to face with greatness.
I took a deep breath and tapped on the door that was half open. “Come in,” an older but very strong voice intoned. I stepped into her very modest room, and there she was sitting in her wheelchair looking a bit impatient with me.
“Hi, my name is Rebecca Patty, and you are the reason I became a lawyer. My dog is named after you and is outside with a federal judge and they both want to meet you!” Well dang! I thought to myself, for all the pretty awesome opening and closing arguments I have ever given, that introduction had to have been the lamest. Nelle sat there for what seemed like a painfully long eternity before answering, saying, “I remember your card, you wanted to practice law together.” I nodded and smiled an impish grin. She continued, “Don’t blame me for your becoming a lawyer. I would like to meet your dog, but the federal judge will have to stay outside.” Her wit hung in the air about blaming her for my becoming a lawyer, which made me chuckle. However, she was serious about not wanting to meet the judge.
As I dashed out the door, I noticed her combing her short hair with just the standard black barber’s pocket comb. I raced down the hallway to the exit quicker than most criminal arraignments take and decided to go full steam ahead. It had been great up to now being such good friends with Judge Bowdre, but this was Harper Lee after all! I mean what would you do? Well, you would never leave your dear friend or a federal judge behind and neither did I. I had a lawyer’s hunch, so I acted on it. Without even telling Judge Bowdre, I ran to the bench they were waiting on, took Harper’s leash, and said, “Come on, follow me.”
As we made our way back to the entrance to The Meadows, I could almost hear the joke if any of the rest of the plan went awry: A lawyer, a judge, and a Labrador retriever walk into a nursing home…
We found ourselves back in front of the first lady I met. She looked up, remained unflappable as if this type of thing happened daily, and asked me if my dog bites. I said no and continued down the hall to Nelle’s room. Outside the door, I told Judge Bowdre, who until the date of this publication did not know that Harper Lee did not want to meet the federal judge (but I know in the end she did) that day, to hang outside while I took my dog in first. My furry Harper Lee was the most amazing dog and if anyone could help me successfully complete the adventure, she could.
We strolled into the room together and Nelle’s face absolutely melted into the warmest of smiles. She leaned down in her chair to reach toward Harper Lee. My girl moved very sweetly toward my icon, in front of her wheelchair, and in a scene that could not be replicated even by Hallmark on their best day, placed her face in Nelle’s outstretched hands. Nelle rubbed her face and ears as she stroked her neck. “I presume this beautiful creature is Harper Lee?” “Yes ma’am,” I replied. Harper the Furry, as if on some type of divine cue, moved herself to the right side of Nelle’s chair and ever so gently placed her paw onto her knee. My heart melted. Nelle’s must have too because a moment or two later she said, “You go get the judge. I will meet her but leave your dog while you go.”
I told Judge Bowdre that we should wait a few minutes outside the door because Nelle seemed to really like Harper. Finally, we returned to the inner room and Harper the Furry had not left Harper the writer’s side. Nelle did say hello to Judge Bowdre but not too much more to either of us as she spent the rest of the time enjoying Harper the Furry’s company and attention. It was hilarious and so like Nelle Harper Lee to ignore the lawyers fawning over her and pay attention to what really mattered, the beautiful creature.
A few moments later we decided to allow Nelle to enjoy the rest of her Sunday afternoon in solitude. We said our goodbyes and Nelle imparted to me that my dog was welcome back anytime. Nothing about me, just my dog! It was terrific. I will not disclose whether there were other letters or cards or visits to Monroeville before my beloved Harper the Furry died, followed nearly a year later by my literary hero, Nelle Harper Lee. It suffices to say though that no story that good could ever end right there.