Even more rarely does that greatness come with a quick grin, a sense of adventure and a boundless sense of making the impossible possible.
Such was the case with Judge Tom Stewart.
Judge Stewart died in December, but remains on the minds and in the hearts of many of us this week. A thousand or so of Tom's closest friends, family and admirers gathered in Juneau's Centennial Hall on Saturday to celebrate his life-which is another way of sharing a lot of good stories.
It's very humbling to hear the life history and accomplishments of a man whose accomplishments could fill a dozen lifetimes.
He grew up climbing and skiing Juneau's mountains, hunting and fishing.
He led men into battle as a Captain in the 10th Mountain Division during WWII, somehow remained unwounded while earning a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars along the way.
He earned multiple degrees from Ivy League schools, and could have made his fortune down South. But his commitment was always to Alaska and to Juneau, where he returned to practice law.
But in post-war Alaska as it became more and more obvious that Alaska needed to grow, he realized that no one in Alaska was ready to lead a constitutional or write a constitution. So he took it upon himself, at his own expense, to make an epic road trip across the Lower 48, seeking out experts in constitutional law and constitutional conventions, and learning how to do the job right.
I can imagine the sight of this young Alaskan, strong and bright-eyed and battle-wizened, approaching the legal experts of the country, eager to create a brave new world from this still pretty rugged territory.
That research could have been enough. Yet he truly orchestrated every aspect of that constitutional convention from where it was held to how business was conducted.
Much of what makes Alaska and Alaska government unique and successful came from those 75 days in Fairbanks, culminating in 14 simple pages that are the state constitution, still considered the model.
Can you imagine any one person having the force of character to gather 55 Alaskans -any 55 - in Fairbanks in the middle of winter, to agree on anything?
Then he went on to make a difference in the law, spending decades on the bench, often the only judge in Juneau.
And through it all he celebrated life with friends and music and the arts.
As I told a colleague this morning, hearing the retelling of Tom Stewart's life was like a history lesson in what Alaska came from and what is still possible.
As someone said Saturday, what makes the Alaska constitution unique is that it reflects the heart and spirit of the Alaskan people. And the spirit of a man with the vision to see what was possible, and the energy to make it happen.
Maybe that's the same spirit that draws some men to climb the highest mountains, to reach far beyond familiar borders.
Some men and women have an impact on a community or a region. But it goes without much debate that Judge Stewart changed and improved the lives of every Alaskan, present and future.
Beth and I never met Judge Stewart except for the briefest of hellos. And we now realize we are far the poorer for it. But our state is richer for his having lived 88 very full years here.
And at the end of the day, all that Judge Stewart said he wanted to be remembered for was being "a nice guy."
Lee Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.