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About Utah: Every so often, a great mentor comes along

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 11:31 p.m. MST

Everyone, if they're lucky, has a mentor. A person who shows the way, usually by example rather than by lecture.

My twin brother Dee had a really good one. Harold G. "Hal" Christensen. Hal died last week of cancer. He was 86.

My favorite story about Hal and my brother might not necessarily be Dee's favorite. He was a new lawyer at the Salt Lake City firm of Snow, Christensen & Martineau, just figuring things out. Fresh out of college and driving a Volkswagen bus, he was used to shall we say a rather free spirited lifestyle. I recall he was still playing soccer at the time – for the Utah Golden Spikers, remember them? – which required some daytime workouts, and he was dating, and juggling a bunch of other balls, including this new thing called a job, which he was taking care of at some rather odd hours.

One day he got a call. It was Hal – the Christensen in Snow, Christensen & Martineau. He asked if they could talk. Dee said sure. When they met, Hal said it would be better if Dee started coming to the office from 8 to 5. Dee asked why. He was getting his work done. He was billing his required hours. Besides, he was more efficient when the office was quieter late at night.

Hal answered that it wasn't for his efficiency that he was suggesting regular daytime office hours.

"It's our clients," he said. "They expect they can find you between 8 and 5."

And so it went. One corner on the learning curve after the other. Everything Hal said, Dee did. He carried Hal's briefcase to trial. He studied his mannerisms, his way of speaking, the way he handled clients, and tried his best to copy them.

I watched this with some amusement, because I know my brother and I know he isn't a fan club sort of guy. Plus, he never copied one thing I ever did. He's very selective on who he extols and emulates. Growing up, his idols tended to be the unruffled, unconventional get-the-job-done mavericks unbothered by what the establishment said or did. He liked Yogi Berra before Yogi Berra was cool. He thought Steve McGarrett in "Hawaii 5-0" was the perfect detective. Same with Mike Stone in "The Streets of San Francisco." To this day, the only person he's ever asked for an autograph is Willie Nelson.

How exactly Hal Christensen fit that mold I wasn't quite sure, only that he did.

Dee got to work for him twice, first at Snow, Christensen and later on as Hal's assistant when Hal became Deputy Attorney General under Edwin Meese during the Reagan Administration – the only Utahn to ever hold the No. 2 post at Justice.

According to Dee, Hal handled Washington with the same aplomb as he handled things at the law firm in Salt Lake. He brought to the Department of Justice his uncanny knack for looking at situations with a view that was often very different from the norm, and ultimately more effective. He didn't have conventional wisdom; he had unconventional wisdom.

But the law was only part of it. "A true renaissance man," Dee always said of Hal, who could be conversant on topics ranging from the winter solstice to nuclear physics to Native American rituals to Eastern philosophy to sheep ranching methods in various countries around the world. He was like the "most interesting man in the world" in the Dos Equis ads, only with more range.

In his retirement, Hal and Dee got together fairly often for lunch or to talk. On one of their visits not long ago, Hal said he was through riding horses and wanted to give him his saddle. Dee said he didn't have a horse. Hal said that didn't matter, it was one of his prized possessions and he wanted him to have it.

It's in Dee's house right now – one of his prized possessions. A tangible reminder of the person who let him ride alongside him for 50 years and observe and absorb – and copy – everything he did.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

email: lbenson@desnews.com

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