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vern.jpg (48252 bytes)Professor Emeritus Vern Countryman died on May 2, 1999, at age 81. Countryman, who taught at the School from 1963 until 1987, was an expert on commercial law, particularly bankruptcy law, and was a strong supporter of the rights of the debtor. He was also a specialist in secured transactions and civil liberties.

A 1942 graduate of the University of Washington Law School, Countryman became assistant regional attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle before clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas from 1942 to 1943. After serving in the Army during WWII, Countryman worked as assistant attorney general of Washington State and as an instructor at the University of Washington Law School. In 1947 he began teaching at Yale Law School. In 1955 the faculty voted to grant Countryman tenure, but the president
recommended to defer decision, many believed because of Countryman’s criticism of the hunt for Communists during the McCarthy era. Countryman chose to leave Yale and worked as a partner at Shea, Greenman & Gardner in Washington, D.C., before being appointed dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1959, a position he held until 1964. He joined the HLS faculty in 1964, after teaching at the School as a visiting professor in 1963. In 1973 he was named Royall Professor of Law, the oldest professorship at the School. Countryman’s books include
The Lawyer in Modern Society (Little, Brown, 1976), with Ted Finman and Theodore J. Schneyer ’68, and Commercial Law (Little, Brown, 1982), with Andrew Kaufman ’54 and Zipporah Wiseman.

The Bulletin asked Professor Andrew Kaufman to reflect on the contributions of his friend and colleague.

When Vern Countryman retired in 1987, I wrote a short appreciation for the Bulletin. I will begin simply by repeating much of what I said then because it still represents my views.

"Some of his achievements and sterling qualities are common on the faculty: He knows the fields in which he teaches. He is a tireless worker and a very prolific scholar. When he finishes writing about a topic, the topic is exhausted. But he is no ivory tower scholar. All his work has been devoted to the public and practical ends of improving the law. He has been very respected in the profession and for decades influential in refashioning substantive and procedural rules of bankruptcy.

"Some of his sterling qualities are not so common: A fierce opponent of anything that threatens human rights and freedoms, he has followed the path less taken for such believers of holding students (and faculty) to high standards of achievement. Those standards were not to be compromised, not for politics, not for friendship.

"Some of his sterling qualities are quite rare. When important decisions have to be made, he walks by himself and answers to no one but himself. He never seeks to manipulate. He never dissembles, either to others or to himself. His integrity is incorruptible, and his departure will leave a large void in the Harvard Law School and, if I may indulge myself, in my life. I know no one like him."

For the sake of Vern’s many friends in the Harvard Law School community, especially those who tried unsuccessfully to keep in touch with him, I should address the events of the last 12 years, especially the years following the death of his wife, Vera, who had shared his life ever since high school. Vern was beset with problems, including a variety of health problems. After Vera’s death in 1994 he returned to Massachusetts from his retirement home in California and attempted to cope. But his health problems were overwhelming, and he was unable to live the kind of professional life he wished. His frustration led him to shut himself off; he could not bear to let his friends see him in a diminished state. And so he turned to a few friends, or rather, he acquiesced in letting a few friends care for him. Clark Byse devoted virtually every Saturday morning to him after Vern returned from California. Clark kept him apprised of happenings at Harvard Law School and in the world, and brought an element of good humor and cheer into Vern’s life. And then there was Maura Kelley, who had been Vern’s assistant when he was still teaching at Harvard Law School. For no reward, except the personal satisfaction reserved for those who perform saintly acts, Maura did for him what only the most devoted daughter does for a parent. He could not have gotten along without her, and Vern’s friends should be everlastingly grateful to her. I know that I am.

But I should not paint an overly gloomy picture. Vern’s friends will not be surprised to learn that beset as he was, Vern retained his essential core to the end. His sharpness of judgement, his straightforward outspokenness, his dignity, and his integrity all remained intact and constantly reminded us that we were in the presence of a man who asked no favors of the world as he sought to make it a better place.

Andrew Kaufman ’54

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