Published September 04, 2005
WASHINGTON – William Rehnquist, so stern and cold on the bench, had a deep throaty laugh and warm side away from it.
Crusty and intimidating in court, the 80-year-old chief justice sat next to 85-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens (search), who by comparison comes across as a huggable grandfather.
Rehnquist, who died Saturday night, was known to snap at lawyers who exceeded their time. Behind large glasses he peered down at attorneys, sometimes raising his eyebrows to an exaggerated arch at their responses. Each court session he swore in lawyers to the Supreme Court bar and gave them "a warm welcome" in a cold, monotonous voice.
But to those who spent any time with him, Rehnquist quickly emerged as a family man and beloved boss who remembered even the tiniest of details about those who worked for him in his 33 years at the Supreme Court (search).
In return, they went overboard in finding just the perfect gift for him: a Lone Ranger doll to symbolize the days he often voted alone in cases, a videotaped birthday greeting from his hometown baseball team, a shirt from President Clinton's impeachment trial that says, "I presided over a presidential impeachment trial and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
What is striking about Rehnquist upon seeing him up close was his size. Even in his later years, hunched by chronic back pain, he was a large man with oversized hands and feet that probably served him well as a cross-country runner at his suburban Milwaukee high school.
A lifelong sports fan and trivia buff, Rehnquist enjoyed a competitive game of doubles tennis with his law clerks into his late 70s. He would balance out the teams and didn't want anyone to let him win.
He also enjoyed placing low-dollar wagers on everything from the Super Bowl to a presidential election.
Rehnquist was quick to crack jokes and poke fun at himself — for instance, he spent three years in the Army Air Forces as a weather observer during World War II but readily confessed that he never successfully repaired a broken weather instrument.
He also joked about almost flunking out of college in his early years — although he graduated at the top of his class at Stanford Law School.
A widower, Rehnquist remained close to his three children and eight grandchildren, going on trips together.
He was a history buff, frequently speaking to area historical societies and once appearing before Congress to urge approval of a commemorative coin honoring one of his predecessors, Chief Justice John Marshall (search).
Both in interviews and in person, Rehnquist was low-key and understated.
Though his colleagues include some wine connoisseurs, he ordered a lowbrow Miller Lite with his meals.
On many mornings the chief justice would walk the halls of the first floor, negotiating his way around tourists or making loops around the outside of the building. He was quick to say hello, awkwardly raising his arm in a greeting.
In a 2004 TV interview with Charlie Rose, Rehnquist said he felt like he did "a perfectly adequate job" of overseeing Clinton's impeachment trial.
As proof, he said, Democratic and Republican leaders gave him a commemorative cup afterward.
Asked what he did with the cup, Rehnquist said he put it with his other trophies.
"Where might that be?" Rose asked.
"In the trophy room," Rehnquist said.
"Is it a large room or a small room?" Rose asked.
"Medium-sized," the chief justice said.