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HLS Professor Countryman Dies at 81, Left Montana For Harvard and Spoke Out Against McCarthyism


Vern Countryman, Royall Professor of Law, emeritus, at Harvard Law School (HLS) died of heart failure on Sunday. He was 81.

For years, Countryman was one of the nation's top commercial law scholars, but he had an equally large impact on the law as a political activist.

"He was a real political activist," said long-time teaching and writing partner Andrew L. Kaufman, who is Fairchild professor of law at HLS.

"From the 40s to the 50s, he fought hard for every civil liberties cause around and carried it over to the commercial field," Kaufman said.

"He was not a representative of the banks and credit card companies," Kaufman added. "He was a representative of the little guy."

Countryman's political crusade began in the 1950s, while he was teaching at Yale Law School. He fought fiercely against McCarthyism, which was at its height at the time, and he was also a thorn in the side of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for many years.

His campaign against McCarthyism eventually brought him to HLS, then presided over by Dean Erwin Griswold, who was himself a noted opponent of McCarthyism.

Backed by Griswold, Countryman joined the HLS faculty in 1964 and assumed the Royall professorship in 1973, embarking on a long academic career, principally as a bankruptcy expert.

His publications were many, including several books on his mentor, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, for whom he had clerked in the early 1940s. Countryman carried on a lifelong relationship with Douglas, who, like Countryman, was both a bankruptcy expert and a civil liberties hawk.

He was a founding trustee of the National Consumer Law Center, which presents the "Vern Countryman Award" every year to recognize attorneys who "have contributed significantly to the rights and welfare of low-income consumers."

Countryman was exactly what his name suggested: a native of Roundup, Mont., where his father was sheriff, Countryman was a "Westerner," who, in the midst of student unrest at Harvard, once compared the University to a stubborn mule.

Kaufman called his long-time teaching partner a "straight shooter," who only opened his mouth when he had something to say.

"When he said something, you knew it was the product of thought," Kaufman said. "He was not an extrovert."

And with his Western ways, Countryman brought a decided toughness to HLS's oldest professorship.

Known to law students as "stern Vern," Countryman was memorable not just for his scholarship, but also for his uncompromising demeanor, his flat-top crew cut and his chain cigarette smoking.

"I guess students were surprised that [for] someone who was as liberal as he was, he was as tough as he was in the classroom," Kaufman said.

At HLS, Countryman taught courses in commercial law, commercial transactions, financial planning, creditors' rights and the legal profession.

Countryman, whose family later moved from family to Washington state, received both his undergraduate and his law degrees from the University of Washington.

Graduating from college in 1939, Countryman was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. In law school, he was president of the Washington Law Review editorial board.

In 1943, when having finished both his education and his clerkship, the young Countryman joined the Air Force, rising to the rank of First Lieutenant during the war. He served until 1946, stationed in the Mediterranean Theater in Italy during the later years of his service.

Countryman was married to the late Vera Pound, a relative of former HLS Dean Roscoe Pound, and is survived by three brothers, two daughters and two grandchildren.

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