New Hampshire Bar Journal
2011 Winter, Pg. 20.
Getting It Right: An Anecdotal Profile of Justice William R. Johnson-1930-2009
New Hampshire Bar JournalVolume 51, No. 2Winter 2011Getting It Right: An Anecdotal Profile of Justice William R. Johnson(fn1) 1930-2009By Barbara G. H. StewartEd Waters is a Concord attorney of long experience. Back in the early seventies, while he still in law school, he spent a few months working for a lawyer in Exeter. At one point, he accompanied his employer up to Grafton County for a trial. "The case involved a car accident," Waters recalls, "and there were several defendants. Judge Johnson was presiding.(fn2) And in the middle of trial, someone mentioned 'insurance.'" Judge Johnson picked up on it and called all the lawyers into his chambers. "i sat in the corner, out of the way, while the others went back and forth about a mistrial motion. Judge Johnson listened patiently to each in turn, his hands folded."
"Now, his chambers were in a back corner of the Grafton County Courthouse, and his windows looked out onto a field that sloped down to some woods and then to the river. And a doe came out with two fawns and started grazing." Somehow, the deer caught Judge Johnson's attention. "So, in the middle of this big discussion with all these lawyers about a mistrial, he said, 'Gentleman! Stop for a moment. Look at that. isn't that lovely? Just look at that for a moment. isn't that beautiful?' And we all did. And everybody calmed down. That's when i knew i wanted to practice law in New Hampshire."
Judge Johnson made the same decision 20 years earlier, during his four years at Dartmouth. He grew up in Excelsior, Minnesota, but came east for college. Between hours of intense study, he played baseball and basketball, joined the Army ROTC, and became a member of Casque and Gauntlet. Soon, he fell in love with both the school and the state of New Hampshire, and in the spring of 1953, he graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa history major. He began at Harvard Law School that fall and married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Preston, the following summer.
Before returning for his second year of law school, however, Johnson fulfilled his two-year commitment to active duty service in the United States Army. He served first at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and then at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as ordnance officer with the 101st Airborne Division. Years later, he readily admitted the irony of his position. "i'm about the most mechanically-wninclined person on the planet."(fn3) Nonetheless, he executed his responsibility carefully and learned the useful art of delegation.
it was a bus ride south with the Fort Campbell baseball team, however, that gave the 23-year-old officer a lesson he would take into the courtroom every day of his service to the law. it was 1954, in Georgia, and the bus was pulling into a town at meal time. "How about we stop at Howard Johnson's?" he asked. The bus, full of black and white soldiers, became still, the noisy camaraderie suddenly silenced.(fn4) Strained moments passed, and the team manager finally explained to the future judge that black people weren't allowed to eat at Howard Johnson's. Judge Johnson would never forget the shock and the sting of that moment or lose his resolve to use his education for justice. He returned to Harvard ready to work.(fn5)
During his final year, one of Bill Johnson's courses required an extensive research paper. To help steer the students in appropriate directions, the professor met with them early in the semester, in pairs, to discuss topic ideas. When he spoke with Johnson and another classmate, he suggested automobile safety as a worthy subject. Johnson answered first. "Nah. That's not something i'm really interested in." The professor then turned to the other student. "How about you, Ralph?" "Okay," said Ralph. it was Ralph Nader. The paper led to the book, Unsafe at any Speed,(fn6) which helped launch an historic overhaul of automobile safety regulations and marked Nader as a passionate force for consumer protection.(fn7)
As he neared graduation, Johnson began searching for a firm to join in the Upper Valley. He interviewed with Jack Stebbins and Charlie Tesreau in Cambridge, who came from the Hanover firm of Cotton, Tesreau and Stebbins.(fn8) His wife, Nancy, greeted him upon his return and asked how it went. "Not too well, i don't think," he said. "All we talked about was sports and Doggie Julian!" Alvin "Doggie" Julian had been Johnson's basketball coach at Dartmouth. A few days later, the firm offered him the position.(fn9)
Bill Johnson graduated that spring and then began the merciless task of studying for the bar examination. David Nixon, founder of the Manchester firm now known as Nixon, Raiche, Vogelman, Barry and Slawsky, studied with him in the basement of the Manchester City Hall Annex West. Jack Middleton and Marshall Abbey taught the course. "There were about 20 of us, probably," Nixon remembers, including several Harvard Law School graduates, who seemed to know all the answers. Nevertheless, Nixon says, "My memory is that Bill Johnson looked like he was sick the whole time he was studying for the exam. And I'm sure he was. I think he was very insecure, as I was, and I noted that." Nixon, in fact, was so sure he was going to blow it that he and a buddy went out golfing the day before the start of the three-day ordeal. "Why bother studying anymore?" they thought. "We're going to lose this thing." But they all passed,(fn10) and soon they began their lives as practicing attorneys.
"A couple of months later," says Nixon, "I stopped in to see Bill, in beautiful, downtown Lebanon." Newly minted attorney Johnson was performing the fine art of title searching. "And he expounded at length on what fun it was and how challenging it was to search real estate titles. In fact, that's what my firm taught me to do, too. I did some titles, and it's the most boring, dull work. Lawyers don't do it anymore. But Bill went on at great length about what a great career it was for him - searching titles. And I'm sitting there, in awe, saying, 'This guy's deluding himself.'" Nixon soon understood what he called one of Judge Johnson's "prime traits - his ability to focus on what he was doing and convince himself legitimately that it was important and worthwhile." "But," says Nixon, "I'm sure his real estate title abstract career didn't last very long."
Retired Superior Court Chief Justice Walter Murphy has little to say about Johnson's brief term in the title trenches, but he recalls what the Upper Valley practice was like in the late fifties and early sixties, while Johnson was a young attorney there. "Grafton County was a very, very small county in those days, in terms of population and lawyers. And there were virtually no lawyers in Hanover. Everybody was in Lebanon. And there were a total of 22 lawyers in the county. So, we knew each other intimately. We certainly had an awful lot of good times.(fn11) And we'd go into court during the day and fight like cats and dogs and then get through and then everybody would go out and have dinner together. That's the way the practice was those days. Now, you can't even be seen talking to your opponent, or your client will take you to the Professional Conduct Committee or something. It's just not the same."
Justice William Batchelder, retired justice of both the New Hampshire Supreme Court and the Superior Court, also traces his long friendship with Johnson back to the "discreet camaraderie" of the Grafton County Bar. He can remember the days when the fields of law and sports would occasionally intersect on the town green. "Johnson was practicing law with Jack Stebbins, who was the municipal judge in Hanover. There was a case that Stebbins couldn't sit on, and somehow Johnson was assigned to take his place. It was the first case scheduled for the afternoon, but Johnson was playing a pick-up softball game on the green in Hanover. The police department sent someone over to get him, so the case could start. But when they got to the green, Johnson was playing the field and he told the police that he wasn't leaving until he hit his 'raps.' The case was delayed three-quarters of an hour until Johnson got his 'raps.'"(fn12)
Lest we think this was an isolated occurrence, we have a similar story from Justice Murphy. Once, when he was working with the county attorney, the police needed a search warrant for a case. "And the only game in town, we were told, was Bill Johnson, who was apparently sitting in for his law partner as a part-time judge at the Hanover Municipal Court. And so we were in Hanover, and we hunted down Judge Johnson. And because it happened to be 3:00 in the afternoon, it wasn't hard to find him because he was on the baseball field. And he was playing first base, as I recall, and we interrupted between innings and obtained the search...