A tribute to Vincent L. McKusick, 1921-2014.

AuthorLanghauser, Derek P.
PositionMaine Supreme Judicial Court chief justice - Testimonial

    They say that people in rural Maine live closer to the earth and closer to each other; that the demands of rural life require of them a certain self-reliance and purpose to task; and that their isolation instills in them a deeper sense of place and community. All of that is true of life in the Town of Parkman, which was organized in the middle of the state just two years after the District of Maine separated from Massachusetts and the new state appointed its first chief justice.

    Today, Parkman occupies less than forty-seven square miles, counts little more than 800 residents, and has one main road. This is farming country, dairy and crop, where fields of fertile soil yield to forested tracts and expansive views of mountains to the west. It is also the birthplace and final resting place of Vincent Lee McKusick

    "The Chief," as he was known here in his home state, died on December 3, 2014, at age 93. Most of what one needs to know about his professional accomplishments can be told without reference to Parkman. But everything that defined his humility and kindness is best understood with some insight into his roots in this small town.

  2. BEFORE COLLEGE: 1921-1940 (1)

    Vincent L. McKusick was bom on October 21, 1921, on The Lone Elm Farm to Carroll and Ethel McKusick, former educators who returned to Parkman from Vermont to raise the young family that eventually included twins Vincent and Victor. Although "my twin brother was ... born on the same day, ... I always make clear that I was born first" because "there are certain perks that go with that," Vincent once recounted. (2)

    The twins "did everything together." (3) Along with their three older siblings, they shared in the daily demands of the farm: chopping wood, tending the cows, and delivering milk along a local route. This rural upbringing was, Vincent recalled, "just about as near perfect as it really could be. We got a whole lot of work ethic pounded into us. We were expected to work hard on the farm. The habit of work was very important." (4)

    The twins were home-schooled by their mother until they entered a one-room, one-teacher school for grades two through nine. Later, in the local high school, Vincent was inspired by public speaking and Victor by biology. In 1940, they graduated as co-valedictorians of the largest class--twenty-eight--that their small high school had ever known. (5)

  3. COLLEGE AND THE ARMY: 1940-1946

    To maximize their access to college scholarships, including the aid that would enable Vincent to afford his $250 tuition, the twins went separate ways for college: Victor to Tufts University for its medical school, and Vincent to Bates College for its debating program. (6) While at Bates, Vincent carried forward his farming work ethic. He took summer classes and worked at the local hospital, serving as its overnight telephone operator. (7) As a debater, he followed in the footsteps of Edmund Muskie and Frank Coffin, two Bates men who were accomplished collegiate debaters, (8) learning the importance and necessity of research and careful preparation.

    He graduated from Bates in 1943 after only three years, and promptly joined the Army, which assigned him to basic training, two specialized engineering programs, and, finally, a small research group headquartered out west. The essential task of that group was to figure out how to develop thirty-two glass-fuse detonators that could fire simultaneously.

    Extraordinary secrecy prevented Vincent from knowing at the time why simultaneous detonation was required. Only later would he learn that he was working on the explosives side of a device that also had a nuclear side; that a staggered detonation on the explosives side would prevent the required ignition and reaction on the nuclear side; that this was the Manhattan Project; and that the two bombs that resulted from this work in Los Alamos, New Mexico, would be used to end World War II. (9) Often asked, Vincent expressed no regrets for how his work was ultimately used. He always mentioned the severe Japanese determination at the time, and noted that the prospect of losing up to a million soldiers in an invasion of Japan left no room for second thoughts. (10)

  4. GRADUATE AND LAW SCHOOLS: 1946-1950 (11)

    After three years in the Army, Vincent enrolled at MIT, where he earned both B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering. Intent on pairing this expertise with his prior interest in debating, Vincent enrolled the following year in Harvard Law School to become, as he would later joke, "the world's greatest patent lawyer." (12) But when he realized that much of patent law is application work that focuses on placement of "limiting adjectives and adverbs," he was not inspired; it reminded him of chopping wood back on the dairy farm. (13) So he looked more broadly at the law, and it looked favorably back upon him.

    After his first year of law school, Vincent finished thirteenth in a class of about 550, and squarely in the middle of the twenty-six students who made law review. The next year, even though he was not first in his class, he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review. That was the good news. The bad news was that Dean Griswold directed him both to publish three lagging issues from the prior volume and then publish all eight issues of his own volume--Volume 63, he would have us know--and, furthermore, to do so while incorporating innovations such as "Developments in the Law," "Supreme Court Notes" and "Comments." Vincent did in fact produce all eleven issues on time; he was then, and remains, the only Harvard Law Review President ever to do so. And he even managed to include all of the Griswold innovations.

  5. CLERKSHIPS: 1950-1952

    Vincent graduated magna cum laude from the Law School in 1951. With four degrees from three schools, the Chief considered himself "an overeducated fellow." Others uniformly recognized his promise. Judge Learned Hand of the Second Circuit, then 80 years old, accepted Dean Griswold's recommendation and chose Vincent as his clerk. Vincent greatly enjoyed this clerkship, later joking that his primary assignment that year was to find cases that cited prior Hand opinions so it would not be so obvious that the judge was really just citing himself.

    That same year, Nancy Elizabeth Green, a young woman from Massachusetts, chose Vincent for a husband, and the Portland law firm now known as Pierce Atwood chose him as an associate. "I could have gone to a few other places that would have taken me too," (14) he once said, but Nancy and he desired to "raise their family in Maine and to give their children ... the ... benefits [of] a Maine birth, upbringing, and education." (15) After Vincent accepted the firm's offer, Justice Frankfurter of the United States Supreme Court also heeded a Griswold recommendation and offered Vincent a clerkship. Ever the gentleman, Vincent asked the Portland firm if he could postpone his start in order to accommodate this clerkship. As one of the firm's partners would later note, "the question answered itself." (16)

    It was during this clerkship that Vincent met his life-long friend William H. Rehnquist, who was then clerking for Justice Jackson. He also recalled of his Frankfurter clerkship a particularly long assignment researching whether the term "sacrilegious" was too indefinite to allow the Court to uphold a New York statute criminalizing such behavior, (17) and the Court's historic decision in Youngstown Sheet & Tube, (18)

  6. PRIVATE PRACTICE: 1952-1977

    When his Frankfurter clerkship ended in 1952, Vincent returned to Maine where, after earning the highest mark on the bar exam that year, he started at his new firm. As Pierce Atwood's hiring partner would later recall:

    [b]ecause no office space was available when Vincent reported for work at Portland, he moved from the spacious surroundings of the Supreme Court of the United States to a desk in the library of the Maine firm, [but] [h]e never complained or objected ... [and] willingly undertook to do the many uninteresting tasks that were typically the lot of the youngest member of any small New England law firm. (19) Working primarily on matters involving telephone companies, electrical utilities, manufacturers, and railroads, Vincent made partner in just two years. This was fast even by the standards of the day. His work was prodigious, with one partner eventually recalling that "sharing an associate with Vincent was like sharing a carrot with a...

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