John G. Brooks — a longtime Boston lawyer nationally recognized as a leader in improving access to legal services to the poor and a past president of the Boston Bar Association (BBA) — died April 15th at his home in Weston. He was 98 ½ years old.
Mr. Brooks, a 1934 graduate of Harvard College, graduated in 1937 from Harvard Law School and began his legal career that year with the Boston law firm of Peabody, Arnold, Batchelder & Luther. In the 1950s, he began a lifetime commitment to pro bono work to improve the delivery of legal assistance for the poor. He became intimately involved in the evolution of those services from “legal aid” to “legal services,” in 1955 joining the board of the Boston Legal Aid Society, which later became Greater Boston Legal Services. He served as a board member until 1993 and as president from 1971 to 1973.
He joined the BBA in 1938, at the urging of a senior partner, and cut his BBA teeth serving on its Committee on Legislation — along with Father Robert Drinan — reviewing all bills relating to the legal profession. In Mr. Brooks’ Memoirs, published in 2011, he wrote of his frustration and ultimate success in securing passage of Chapter 156B of the Massachusetts General Laws, legislation he and his committee drafted purely as a public service.
As president of the BBA from 1972 to 1974, and a member of the Massachusetts and American Bar Associations, Mr. Brooks broadened his work toward equal justice for all, serving as president and life member of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and as a member of the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).
He was a lifelong registered Republican, and in 1993, at age 80, he was appointed by President Clinton to serve a two-year term on the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation, which he described as “the reward I got for sticking with the Republican Party.” It was a job that took him across the country as he and his fellow board members championed equal access to justice for the poor.
In his private practice, Mr. Brooks focused on trust and corporation law and served as managing partner of his firm, which became Peabody & Arnold, from 1945 to 1980. He was president of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers from 1980 to 1983.
Sometimes his humility — or his surprise at his impact in the community — would come through. In a recent discussion with one of his sons, he recalled being summoned for jury duty in a Lowell court in the 1970s and seated on the jury — unusual for a person of his profession. “The case blew up by lunchtime because of a technicality,” he remembered, and on the way out of the courthouse he met up with the clerk of courts.
“Why,” he asked the clerk, “was I not challenged as a juror?”
Replied the clerk, “You’d have to be a pretty stupid lawyer to challenge the chairman of the Board of Bar Overseers.”
Mr. Brooks garnered many professional awards during his long career, among them the BBA Public Service Award, the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association (NLADA) award for outstanding public service, a Distinguished Bostonian on the occasion of the city’s 350th birthday, an honorary LLD degree from Northeastern University for his commitment to legal services for the poor, and the American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Award.
In his honor, NLADA and NCLC have awarded John G. Brooks Consumer Law Fellowships to young lawyers across the country since 2006, and in 1988 the BBA created the annual John G. Brooks Legal Services Award. Mr. Brooks became a Fellow of the Boston Bar Foundation (BBF) in 1995.
His friends and colleagues at the BBF, in conjunction with those at Peabody & Arnold and elsewhere, organized “John G. Brooks Day,” held at the Massachusetts State House Hall of Flags on June 22, 2007, the 70th anniversary of his graduation from law school. It was a “Celebration of the Life and Legacy of John G. Brooks, Esq.”
As Gene Dahmen, a BBA past president and trustee of the BBF, said to him in her letter inviting him to his day, “Through a lifetime of professional excellence and community service, you serve as a shining example of a true ‘citizen-lawyer’ and public servant in the very best sense of the word. We hope that your life, leadership and commitment to community service will inspire a new generation of lawyers to follow your lead.”
Mr. Brooks appreciated the benefits that his career afforded him. As he noted in Memoirs, “To a large extent, throughout my professional life, I have been able to maintain the flexibility and independence I hoped for. I’ve had a happy and remarkably serendipitous career.”
In addition to his professional work, Mr. Brooks was active in civic affairs in Weston, where he lived for more than 60 years and served at various times as chairman of the School Committee, on the Finance Committee and as vice chairman of the Taxpayers’ Association. He was a longtime trustee and chairman of the Tavern Keepers for the non-profit Golden Ball Tavern Museum.
He also served as a trustee of the Sharon Sanatorium and later, after their merger, of Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston, from 1949 to 1995.
He shared many of his professional and civic activities with his wife of 60 years, Miriam Phillips (Littlefield) Brooks. She died in 1998 at 82. Together they raised five children in a close family with wide interests, from dogs and horses to tennis, camping, and traveling. Both Mr. Brooks and his wife were from large extended families that celebrated and encouraged multigenerational contacts, so their children grew up believing that they had relatives around the globe — and they did!
In his personal life, Mr. Brooks was wonderfully curious. An avid birder with a keen eye and ear for different species whether they were at home, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, around Pleasant Bay in South Orleans on Cape Cod or in the Amazon River basin, he was proud to have been a Massachusetts Audubon Society member since 1927. He loved hiking, skiing, climbing around the family house in Jackson, NH, and playing tennis into his 90’s, as well as any interactions with the natural world wherever he found himself.
He was an accomplished sailor who, before the days of GPS or LORAN, cruised the New England coast with his wife and friends in a small sloop with no engine and just a compass for navigation.
A lover of music, Mr. Brooks played the flute in family orchestras and the Harvard Instrumental Club, sang in the Weston Wayland Chorus and in productions of the Weston Friendly Society, and was a subscriber to the Boston Symphony Orchestra nearly his whole life.
He had a penchant for world travel, with his wife before her death, and later with his children and grandchildren. He delighted in having set foot on all seven continents.
Mr. Brooks leaves two daughters, Miriam P. Hall-Wunderlich of Cambridge and Sarah H. Brooks of Weston, three sons, Dr. John G. Brooks III of Sunapee, NH, Christopher R. Brooks of West Tisbury, MA, and Dr. W. Blair Brooks of Norwich, VT, eight grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, a sister, Charlotte B. Read of Concord, MA, and many nieces and nephews. He was eagerly awaiting the arrival of four more great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for Sunday, May 6 at 2 PM at the First Parish Unitarian Church in Weston.