One of the benefits of writing a blog is that I’m free to write whatever I choose. And, of course, you’re free to read it or not as you choose. Still, even if you choose to ignore me, at least I’ve said it.
I awoke this morning, about to announce my latest essay about Hartford. It’s entitled Redouble, and it appears just after this piece. However, I realized that I couldn’t let the day go by without saying something about the passing of two of the finest gentlemen and interesting human beings I have been privileged to know. Sadly, their lives are now in Hartford’s past, but they will live in the minds of many of us in Hartford, today and tomorrow.
James B. Lyon was my partner at Murtha, Cullina Richter and Pinney in Hartford. When I joined Murtha Cullina in 1978, it still was an old-fashioned law firm, a collection of talented men who had come together with varying backgrounds and personal idiosyncrasies to help people manage their lives and businesses in an increasingly complicated world. Their ancestors were Irish and German and English, Protestant and Catholic, with a couple of relatively recent Jewish additions. They had gotten their law degrees at Harvard and Yale.
I don’t know Jim’s personal history well, but just the broad outlines are interesting enough. A football player at Amherst college and a football coach at Yale while he attended law school, Jim was an only child, and he never married. Just those characteristics made him unique at Murtha Cullina. I always suspected the relative absence of family in his life was cause for some sadness for Jim, but he never commented on it, and he filled his life with people. Jim was out all the time; he knew interesting people and he did interesting things. He was loved everywhere he went.
Jim was a joiner. He joined all manner of clubs and charitable organizations. He didn’t join to pad his resume; he joined with passion. He was a fixture at the Hartford Golf Club and the University Club in Hartford, the Dauntless Club in Essex, and other social clubs. He served on countless nonprofit boards and committees, and he was a willing donor to many charities around Hartford, Connecticut, and the northeast. He was welcomed everywhere he went because he was committed, because he had a genuine interest in each organization, because he always came with a positive attitude and sense of humor, and because he was a talented lawyer.
Murtha, Cullina, Richter and Pinney was, at its roots, a firm of tax lawyers, and over the years, Jim had become the firm’s expert on tax-exempt organizations – charities, clubs and associations. Not just the firm’s expert; Jim was Hartford’s expert, Connecticut’s expert, one of the nation’s experts. Jim knew his stuff, and whether serving organizations in his professional capacity or as a volunteer, he was invaluable. Jim always wanted to help, and he did so (to the occasional consternation of his partners) whether the organization was able to pay or not. He was the quintessential old-fashioned lawyer.
Since his death, many Murtha Cullina lawyers from younger generations have written about how Jim welcomed the opportunity to mentor them, informally. No one actually worked with Jim, but everyone knew him. He always seemed to have a friendly smile and a twinkle in his eye when he uttered a simple inscrutable sentence or two that invited, almost demanded, inquiry from his friend. I’d say “Hi, Jim,” and he’d respond with something like “It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?” Sometimes, when I was busy, I’d say “It sure is,” and keep walking. But if I stopped and took the bait, if I asked “what is a beautiful thing?” we’d be off on a thirty-second or five-minute excursion about something that had captured his thoughts that day or that week. Those trips into Jim’s world often resulted in Jim giving some friendly advice, or asking for some incidental help; you always were rewarded in some way for having taken the bait.
Jim shared the friendly smile, twinkle in his eye and inscrutable sentence or two with Hugh C. Macgill. Hugh was a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served effectively as Dean for several years. He was well-established at UConn when I arrived in 1975, where I first met him as my Constitutional Law professor. Our paths crossed only occasionally after my graduation; I’d see Hugh at one event or another every year or two, and I welcomed every opportunity to talk with him.
Hugh was perhaps the greatest pure scholar I’ve ever met. He had the raw brain power, intellectual curiosity, and discipline necessary to study and understand those things that rarely occur to the rest of us. What made him such a great scholar was that he combined all that with almost unbounded joy and enthusiasm in discovering what he did and sharing it with others. Thus, the friendly smile, twinkle in his eye and inscrutable sentence or two. Hugh wouldn’t puzzle you with an uninvited, out-of-the-blue comment like Jim Lyon, but one way or another, after the warmest of initial social pleasantries with Hugh, it was coming. I welcomed every occasion to chat with Hugh; a simple question like “So, Hugh, what have you been thinking about lately?” was enough to begin a sometimes brilliant, always interesting and typically challenging dive into something.
I think Hugh understood his brilliance, and I’m sure he was proud of it, but when he began talking, it wasn’t intended to be a lecture. He wasn’t about pontification; he sought, always, intellectual discourse. He wanted his thoughts to generate a reasoned reaction; he wanted you to challenge his thinking, tear down that part of what he said that wasn’t exactly correct or expand on it to broaden and deepen his own understanding. He wanted you to be there with him in his thoughts and to go with him where those thoughts led. He wanted to discover something new with you.
It was hard not to feel challenged by these conversations with Hugh, because it took your finest thinking to keep up with him. He wasn’t giving you simple observations; he was offering a deeper understanding of things worth thinking about, and he was expecting you to understand them at his level and respond in kind.
Many of us gladly accepted the challenge of discourse with Hugh because well, he was just so damn funny. It was hard to keep up with Hugh in Con Law, because his lectures probed esoteric points that required a good deal of legal or historical background to understand the significance of the issue. You needed to listen carefully. Often, he’d lose maybe a quarter of the class to their own thoughts or a crossword puzzle, and he’d lose another quarter with the simple intricacy of the ideas he was weaving. Eventually, the other half of the class would erupt in laughter as Hugh delivered a genuinely funny word or phrase. It wasn’t a punch line, because he wasn’t about being a comedian. It was punctuation – it was humor that made a point in the unique context of the thoughts he was expressing.
Hugh didn’t explain the truths he had discovered in straight-forward, scholarly English. Hugh’s vocabulary was admirable, and his grammar was impeccable, but his social speech was anything but scholarly. Hugh’s thoughts always came with a unique turn of phrase, a dash of irony, the slightest of off-color humor, or a political dig. You couldn’t not listen to Hugh, because almost every sentence was intriguing, just as a sentence. And that made the challenge of talking with Hugh greater, because you not only were trying to keep up with him intellectually; you also felt obligated to entertain him in some way that at least approached how well he was entertaining you.
I’m sad today. I will miss Jim and Hugh.