There was sad news from Vermont Law School a few weeks ago. First, there was Professor Cheryl Hanna’s suicide — made so much more tragic and unexpected because she was so widely admired in Vermont as a brilliant mind, popular teacher, and astute legal commentator in the media. I joined the VLS faculty just a few years after she did and was her colleague for quite a while. Over the years, Cheryl became well-connected within the state and was widely involved in many state-level policy issues. With her star rising, her sudden death seems that much more surprising (though her husband suggested in the press that it was attributable to depression).
Second, there was former VLS Dean Jeff Shields’s death just a week later — even if not a surprise, since he had been battling cancer for a few years, he received the cancer diagnosis while he was still Dean (and resigned as a result).
Yesterday, I attended the memorial service for Jeff at Vermont Law School. It was a beautiful event, attended by many VLS colleagues and Vermont state officials. His family and closest friends shared their recollections of his life and some of their favorite moments of him. Being able to join in remembering him and to honor a good friend this way was a privilege, especially because he made such a big mark on my life and career.
Of course, Jeff’s personality made a big mark on everybody around him. He was funny and optimistic. And he had what may be one of the most important of leadership qualities, and what I also loved most about him — the ability to inspire confidence in others, especially confidence in themselves.
That applied especially to those of us working on the VLS China program. The China program would not have been possible without Jeff’s leadership, enthusiastic support and encouragement, and mentorship.
Especially during the early part of the VLS program, when we were still trying to figure out how to do things and when it was pretty bumpy, Jeff was an ever-present cheerleader. There were times when the challenges seemed impossibly difficult. But he was always there, urging everybody on, inspiring us to rise above our limitations. One of my fondest memories of him is a variation of a pep talk he would give when things were difficult: “Think of the china project [or insert other significant challenge] as a great adventure. You don’t know how things will turn, but you do know that you will have fun doing it most of the time. You’ll be overwhelmed some of the time, and that there will even be occasions when you will want to call it quits. But in the end, you’ll see it for what it was – a great adventure. And when you are old, you’ll be able to tell your grand kids about this great adventure and what you accomplished. And then you’ll be able to point to your accomplishments and tell them: ‘I did that.'”
But without Jeff, none of the VLS China project and some of the other great things at VLS could not have happened and succeeded. And so I would say to Jeff now — “you did that.”