Gersham

 
My friend and former partner, Gersham Goldstein, died of cancer on Thursday. He was 81.

Gersh was a tax lawyer, nationally known and for many years the pre-eminent tax practitioner in Oregon. Before going into law practice, he had been a law professor at the University of Cincinnati and the first law clerk of the Oregon Tax Court. He was the editor-in-chief of the journal Corporate Taxation for more than 45 years, up to the time of his death.

Gersh was a collaborator (that's the guy who does all the work) on the Seventh Edition of Bittker & Eustice's corporate tax treatise. "B&E," as it's known, is the best known book of all time on U.S. income taxation. In the 20 years since the Seventh Edition appeared, no one has been able to update the whole thing, as Gersh did. No one has been crazy enough even to try. He was also the "compiler" (again, the source of the elbow grease) for a publication known as the Index to Federal Tax Articles. Back in the day before computerized tax research, it was the bomb.

I first met Gersh when I joined the law firm Stoel Rives in 1979. He had been there for a number of years, since the days of a predecessor firm, Davies Biggs. Right away, I could see what a character he was: smart as a whip, deeply knowledgable about law, especially tax law, and funny as hell. I had never heard of him until I got to Portland, but it didn't take long after I started working for him that I saw what a force he was.

Now, as I understand it, the name Gersham means "stranger" in Yiddish. With all due respect to Gersham's parents, who lived in Portland toward the end of their lives, they picked the wrong name for their son. He was no stranger; quite the contrary. It seemed he knew everybody, and everybody knew him. 

This was especially true in the tax universe. Goldstein was a star in the pantheon of prominent tax lawyers who also spent time in the academic ranks. Jim Eustice, Carr Ferguson, Marty Ginsburg – they were all buddies with Gersh, and the gang of them, connected through the NYU Law School tax program, was tightly knit and powerful. I remember attending my first ABA Tax Section meeting in Washington, D.C., and sure enough, there was Gersh right in the middle of it all.

I used to kid Gersh that he was in the "tax mafia." I called him "the Godfather." On a national level, maybe he was just a capo, but in Oregon he was the don. Gersh was the kind of guy who would answer to a nickname. He was from Brooklyn, and for a time he worked on the docks there. "Gersham" was too much for some of his co-workers to handle, so he cheerfully went by "Gerry the Hebe." 

Gersh would also make up a nickname for you if you looked like you wouldn't take it the wrong way. The TV show Kojak was big in those days, and one day Gersh started calling me "Bojack." That one stuck.

It seemed like everything I did in my career, Gersh had done it first. One of my first tax experiences was with Boris Bittker, a god of tax law and a saint of a mentor. Wouldn't you know it, Boris and Gersh were close friends from way back. Right after law school, I was a law clerk to Judge Ted Goodwin on the Ninth Circuit. Turns out, the judge and Gersh were good pals from their time together in Salem.

When I went off to teach law school, of course Goldstein had done that, too, long before. But I could tell that sometimes he missed those old days. There used to be a fat directory of law professors that came out every year. It was informally known as the "stud book." Gersh wanted my expiring stud book every year, just to keep an eye on things.

His life had a lot of different dimensions. He was a proud and devoted husband (married forever to "Miss Pauline"), father, and later, grandfather. In the days we were working together, Gersh and Pauline's teenage daughter, Deborah, started going out on dates. Gersh bragged that he would require any boy who showed up at the house to go out on the road with him for a driving test before he'd let Deborah get in the kid's car. 

Gersh's web of connections placed him on many boards of directors of various charities, to whom he gave countless hours. He got a bunch of plaques in retirement, but as gracious as he was in accepting these honors, he was more about the people than he was about awards.

Working for "GG" was a real education. Like all good tax lawyers, he was a stickler for detail. When he sent you to the tax library on a research project, you knew that a shallow, rushed, or half-baked analysis wouldn't be enough. Gersh already knew more than you would ever find out if you didn't pursue his questions out to the nth degree. But the best part was that he was a walking encyclopedia who would throw out a half dozen suggestions to get you on your way to the right answers. Like many young lawyers, I got a grand tour of the ropes from him.

Early on in my days as an associate at the firm, Gersh asked me to help him write an outline for a talk he was going to give at a conference. It was about the tax treatment of installment sales. Dry as a bone! But nothing about Gersh could be boring, and so I enjoyed working on it. I learned everything I ever needed to know about the subject in just a couple of weeks. That's how it was so often in those days – how nice to get paid to learn things. And Gersh genuinely enjoyed showing us younger people around.

Goldstein's understanding of the tax law was legendary. It was on a level that few mortals achieve. Many of Portland's wealthiest and most influential people came to him for advice. He saw everybody's wills, including people who weren't on speaking terms with each other.

Revenue agents and government lawyers were not happy to see him coming. He was a fabulous advocate for taxpayers. In one U.S. Tax Court case, he basically won for his clients the right to take depreciation deductions on land. It's a long, technical story, but trust me, you don't usually get to do that. I'm sure the clients were pleased. They should have been.

Gersh and I hit the road together a couple of times for field trips on business. We piled into his car and headed down to Salem and Eugene. I remember the car. It was a gold-colored Cadillac, with the license plate "0 TAX." We'd compare notes on the way down and back, not only about the deals we were working on, but also about the people we were representing, and the lawyers we were up against. We had a lot of laughs on those car rides. We also shook our heads in disbelief a few times.

At one point, Gersh and I were talking about a tax issue that he, personally, had. It involved a deduction that he was about to take on his personal tax return. He thought he was in the right, but he also thought the IRS might challenge the deduction. "If they ask about it," he said to me, "you're gonna be my lawyer." We both laughed, but I think he was only half-kidding. And for me, that was a high honor.

I wish that just for one lunch hour, I could be back with Gersh and Judge Goodwin in the old Dave's Deli downtown on Yamhill Street. The cook guy with the earring would yell out "Errrrr-Reuben," and Shirley would take our money. Then we'd get to sit in a booth and talk about life over what the judge used to call "Jewish soul food."

A lot of the success I've had in tax law, I owe to Gersh. He introduced me to several important people who trusted his judgment and gave me a shot in various roles. I'm sure he put in a good word for me in more places than I know.

He was a great advisor to me. He always listened closely, and asked the right questions. And when he had heard my story and thought for a minute about my issue of the day, Gersh always spoke to the best person I could be.

He was like a big brother. I can hardly believe he's gone. When that reality sinks in, there will be a huge hole where he used to stand. I will miss him, as will so many others. You take care, Godfather.

Comments

  1. That's a lovely remembrance. Sounds like the mantle has been passed on to you?

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  2. Thanks Jack for the delightful portrait of our friend. As often as Judge Goodwin smiled or laughed, which was often, both would deepen when he had notice that Gersh was on his way. After I completed my clerkship with Judge Goodwin, I chose Davies Biggs (today’s Stoel Rives) in large part because that is where Gresham waz

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  3. We should all work to earn such a tribute. May his memory be a blessing.

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  4. There's a nice interview with Gersham here: https://www.ojmche.org/oral-history-people/gersham-goldstein/

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  5. This was lovely and informative. Joe appreciated reading it as well! Thanks!

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  6. I only recently learned from Joel K that Gersh had passed, and Wally was kind enough to send me the link to your post. Very nice job Jack. Thanks.

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