Article Written by Edgar Cahn for Management Information Exchange

One Saturday morning, shortly after Jean and I had moved to Washington from New Haven, there was knock on the front door. I opened it to see the smiling face of a total stranger, who told me that Dan Freed, a friend at the Justice Department, had told him about something Jean and I were writing and he wanted to see it. 

I was not very happy with that request. We were working on our first article, The War on Poverty: A Civilian Perspective,  that is generally regarded as providing both the blueprint and inspiration for the national legal services program. We had shared a draft with our former Swarthmore professor, Paul Ylvisaker, who was then a top ranking official in the Ford Foundation -- only to be told that someone else had submitted a grant proposal containing the last part of that draft and that Ford Foundation officials had funded it. That was a time when we had no money, not even enough to get the manuscript typed. So I was not feeling in a very trusting mood. 

Somehow Gary prevailed. He always did. Something about the intensity of his interest, his desire to contribute, and the innocence and purity of his curiosity were compelling. But before long, we were all hunched over the kitchen table, brainstorming together to flesh out a part of the article that still needed work. We had come up with the idea of a neighborhood law firm with a special advocacy mission – but we were still working on describing how a lawyer could make a significant contribution in an area or areas of law that didn’t really exist: poverty law, community development law, and more generally, law as an instrument of enfranchisement. We believed that there was vast unmet need – and so we also were trying to wrestle with the issue of priorities. 

We had only limited experience. All the practical experience was Jean’s. I was all of three months out of law school. Gary was at the time an investigator with the Legal Aid office, trying to convince the bar that despite all those unpaid traffic and parking tickets from his days at Northwestern, he had truly reformed and could be admitted to the bar. 

There were many such sessions, weekends and late into the night. From the situations he had witnessed at Legal Aid, Gary brought both concrete examples and a wealth of ideas, and possibilities. We wrangled and debated how to explain the kinds of functions that lawyers could perform in an area of law that did not yet exist. And we were able to extract general principles and formulate guidelines specifying how these still-to-be-born law firms should cope with a caseload that did not yet exist in fields of law that were yet to emerge. 

Gary was full partner as we made that journey into an unknown future. And I remember, when it came time to write the footnotes and finalize the manuscript, feeling that his contribution had been so significant that we felt we should ask him if he wanted to be listed as co-author. Typically, Gary turned down the offer. So  over his protestations we inserted these words:

 The authors wish particularly to express their gratitude and indebtedness to Gary Bellow of the Legal Aid Agency, District of Columbia for his many substantive contributions and the wealth of personal experience which he shared

His role in shaping that landmark article is not generally known. It is only one of many, many debts. 

Next came the Grey Area Project in Washington DC. The Ford Foundation had launched a half-dozen or more, high visibility, multi-million dollar, anti-poverty initiatives. This was intended to fund a comprehensive attack on the causes of poverty through a coordinating array of services and programs. Gary suddenly came back in our lives – now as Deputy Director of the United Planning Organization (UPO) – Washington D.C.’s program. 

The Grey Area program is widely acknowledged to have supplied the prototype of the Community Action Program, the center piece of the Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. So along came Gary, before there was even a war on poverty or a legal services program, trying to bring a neighborhood law office into existence based on the work we had done together. I remember long coffee sessions as Gary encountered frustration after frustration, trying to past setback after setback with the District bar. 

By virtue of sheer tenacity, Gary prevailed. A legal service office was created as part of the United Planning Organization’s comprehensive Grey Areas program . Gary recruited an old buddy, Earl Johnson, to come to Washington to head it up. And then came the next round of meetings. Earl Johnson remembers one, once again in a letter written to Jean that is worth sharing as a matter of historical record:

I vividly recall coming to your house one morning with Gary Bellow – a Saturday, I believe, in early 1965. At the time, I was with the local Washington, D.C. Neighborhood Legal Services project. As I recall we were there to seek your advice on the relationship between NLSP and the local CAP program of which it was apart – the United Planning Organization. Gary was deputy director of UPO and I had the same position in NLSP. We had different views on the degree of independence NLSP should have. So we were coming to you as sort of “The Godmother” to resolve our family dispute. 

You were down with a cold. So the meeting took place in your bedroom. I don’t remember that much about the substance. I do recall it went on for a long time and ranged far beyond the immediate topic. I remember leaving the meeting happier about your advice than Gary was on the question of independence for NLSP within the UPO structure. It was a struggle in which you had some earlier experience and one I was to engage in several more times in the future.

 That was typical. Gary listened, and changed his position even though it meant he had to give up control over his “baby,” the legal services program he had struggled to hard to bring into being. Gary, Jean and I could disagree. But as in that instance involving the autonomy of the legal service program, Gary was always open to rethinking his position. He was always passionate about what his position. No one ever accused Gary of being tepid or luke warm on a position . But it was always more important for him to do the right thing than to win an argument. 

And throughout his life, he fought for what he believed but, also, he always went out of his way to acknowledge when he had been wrong. We didn’t often disagree -- so when we did, it was intense. 

We disagreed about whether it was wise or desirable to seek the support of the organized bar, the American Bar Association. Gary though we were out of our mind and only his deep affection restrained him from accusing us of selling out to the enemy when Jean and I undertook to secure the support of Justice Lewis Powell, then President of the American Bar Association. Years later, he wrote to Jean:

You saw, better and sooner than I, how crucial was an accommodation with the Bar and how important it was that such an accommodation be a genuine and knowledgeable one. I shake my head to thing where some of would have taken, and left, the legal aid movement where it not for your understanding of what the future could hold.

Time and again, a shared vision brought us together. It was Gary who engineered a trip by Jean and me to help bridge the divide between California Rural Legal Assistance Corporation’s (CRLA) elite lawyer staff and the Mexican-American community aides and paralegals who had a different vision of how to achieve social and economic justice. We ended up urging the community workers to organize. Poor Gary had to live with the consequences but he never allowed the turmoil we had brought into his life to get in the way of the friendship or the love we all felt. And years later, revisiting that struggle, he would write: “the worst thing a lawyer can do . . . is to take an issue that could be won by political organization and win it in the courts.”

Gary’s commitment was to justice – and while he was a consummate lawyer, he was a pioneer in trying to devise ways to take the mystery out of law and in trying to make sure that people could learn and assert their rights without a lawyer. I remember a visit to Harvard where he showed me the computer program he had personally helped design to enable people to find out what their food stamp entitlement should be and another trying to simplify efforts to establish disability under the Social Security law. He had a child’s delight in supporting and helping with the work Mark Lauritsen was doing to try to create an integrated, comprehensive entitlement program that would, in one interview, enable a client to learn eligibility for every possible entitlement available in Massachusetts. 
 It did not take long before Gary became a legend at Harvard. He was always saying he didn’t belong when in fact, everyone at Harvard, knew he brought something unique,  irreplaceable and invaluable to that institution and to its student body. 

Gary pretended he wasn’t an intellectual but he read voraciously and we would go off for hours debating different theories of social change and exploring the limits of what was possible within the world as each of us saw it. He usually concealed how well read he was -- but his mind was always in what computer tekkies call “seek mode.” What he brought first and foremost was a living example of what it meant to be an lawyer without peer, fighting for the underdog, and committed to a vision of justice that went beyond law, that embraced social and economic and political justice. 

I remember coming up, visiting with him in May 1993, – because he wanted to give me a forum for some maverick thinking I was doing about a new kind of money called Time Dollars. He was skeptical that it would do what I hoped it would – but he was determined to give me a shot at persuading colleagues, students, legal service lawyers.  Before it was over, we were both scheming again about new possibilities for linking technology with legal expertise and converting the rendering of legal services into a catalyst for community building and social change. 

I remember the joy with which he took me on a tour to the Jamaica Plains Hale and Dorr Legal Services Center. He was always dreaming of next steps, new possibilities -- but there was a special combination of exuberance and centered serenity, as he showed me the ways in which Harvard and Northeastern law students were learning and the rigorous standards to which they were being held. 

Gary had vast dreams – but unlike most visionaries, he had a rare sense of the underpinnings, the infrastructure it took to make anything happen.  He understood passionately the importance of filing systems, tickler systems, case management systems - and there was as much beauty for him in making those work as in turning out the finest appellate brief. I don’t know if Gary had played with one of those erector sets as a boy – but it was as if he had been given a new giant erector set. And he was showing me how the whole contraption worked, how he had put that Center together with every nut and bolt in place, every desk and every computer, every piece of software and hardware, every required access ramp for the disabled, every work space shaped to reduce elitism and to affirm the value and esteem with which he regarded every employee, regardless of status.  The systems, the architecture, and the product all sent the same message. 

  The twinkle in his eye, the excitement, the grin all told me, more than words, how much he savored forging a new tradition in legal education,  a new model of legal scholarship and a new kind of professor-student paradigm here at the home of Langdell. He had done more than that. He had somehow bridged multiple worlds -- the ivory tower, the ghetto, the migrant fields. He had tapped Harvard’s vast resources, beguiled and enticed it to redefine professional decorum, and captured a part of its awesome respectability. And as part of his legacy, he knew that, forever more, there would issue forth under the Harvard standard, an onrushing stream of legal services for the poor -- and an alternative and enduring vision of what it really meant to be a Harvard lawyer and a Harvard professor.

I want to end this tribute with a letter Gary wrote to Jean when she was dying. It was a long letter about many many special memories - but it ends with what for him, for Jean and for me is the most special memory of them all. He wrote:

But my favorite memory – I’m sure you know – came much earlier in our relationship and probably forever bound me to Edgar and you. There we were – two meetings into efforts to get the United States government to fund legal services (something most state governments considered inconceivable at the time) and, as we walked home, we realized – implausibly, improbably, impossibly – that it was going to happen. We couldn’t describe exactly how – the plans for conferences and speeches and bureaucratic maneuvers came later - or why we were so sure, but we looked at each other and we just knew. And knowing, we suddenly began skipping down the street. I don’t recall whether we all began skipping together or you and I skipped, and Edgar trotted laughing alongside. But in the end, hand in hand, the three of us skipped that entire street, tied to each other, in our innocence, and our lack of innocence at one and the same time. Such moments – when you care, and hope, and doubt and know in some complicated mix that I don’t begin to understand – are treasures. And no one and nothing can ever take them away from any of us. I didn’t know then – when everything was future – that they come very few and far between, and, for many, many people, not even, not ever once. 

And so, I’ll stop with that memory, noting only that it changed me, and us and our relationship, our futures in ways that feel right to this very day. 

I remember that night clearly. We were on Pennsylvania Ave in Southeast Washington. The sky was clear, the stars bright. And I remember thinking wasn’t it wondrous that at that moment in time, there were only three people in the universe who knew what was about to happen with a certainty that was unshakeable. Jean, me and Gary. And we knew that legal services for the poor, federally funded, would be a reality. 

Gary’s letter bore the post mark, December 28, 1990. It arrived December 31. It was one of the last letters I had the privilege to share with Jean. Hearing it, she smiled. She had only one day left to live. 

Among so many other things, I will always owe to Gary the special smile that spread across her face on hearing those words. And the timeless moment we three shared, skipping down the street that night under the stars. 

 

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