November 16, 2020
By Scott Merrill
When Al Casassa graduated from law school Dwight Eisenhower was president, `57 Chevys were rolling off assembly lines, and Hampton, N.H., was a dry town.
A lot may have changed in the world since 1957 but Casassa, who turned 90 on Oct. 28, is still a practicing attorney with a passion for his community and his clients.
While he was not a participant in Harvard University’s longitudinal study on adult development that began in 1938, Casassa’s longevity and popularity on the seacoast makes him an example of that study’s key finding: close relationships are crucial for health and success.
Casassa Law office manager, Kathy L. MacDowell, who has worked for several law firms over her 36-year career, says Casassa is the best attorney and boss she’s ever met.
“I’ve worked for Al for 16 years and have thoroughly enjoyed it,” MacDowell says. “We work very well as a team, in large part due to Al’s professionalism, patience and deep understanding of people. He truly listens and cares about all people.”
Casassa’s wisdom and experience is what allows him to offer personal advice as well, MacDowell says.
“I see this every day in his interactions with clients, staff, fellow attorneys and his many friends. Even at his age, Al still works harder (every day!) and provides better advice and service than many much younger attorneys.”
And Casassa’s wealth of legal knowledge is something that generations of families in Hampton continue to rely on, MacDowell says.
“We have clients who are grandchildren of some of his early clients. That speaks volumes about him. Al is the kind of down-to-earth gentleman we don’t see much anymore.”
Arthur Brown, a Hampton rental property owner, is one of those clients. He says his grandparents considered Casassa their attorney, along with his parents and himself.
“Our family has known Al forever,” Brown says, adding that his mother, who is 90, attended school with Casassa. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my legal business. He’s a man of the highest integrity and I’m fortunate to consider him a friend.”
Born in Bangor, Maine, in 1930, Casassa moved to Hampton from Winchester, Mass. when he was five. His father, a traveling salesman in the candy industry at the time, eventually went on to open Colt News, a popular business on Main Street in Hampton and the only store in town which sold newspapers from all over the world.
“It was what you call a drugless drugstore. We sold everything that a drugstore sells except prescriptions and our business was wholesale newspapers,” Casassa says, recalling the popularity in the summertime of such papers as the Montreal Gazette, The Hartford Courant, The New York Times, and the Boston Post. “For the beach people everything was in the newspapers in those days.”
As a child working at Colt News Casassa learned how to build relationships with the people in his community that he would one day go on to serve as an attorney and in many other roles.
Casassa grew up on Dearborn Avenue in Hampton, the same street that Gov. Stephen Merrill lived on as a child. Casassa recalls the late Governor attending town meetings as a high school student.
“I’d moved out by that time but his (Merrill’s) family ran a lumber business in town. When he was in high school—I was the town moderator for Hampton in those days—and Merrill would come to the town meetings. He was so interested, there he was, in high school. How many kids in high school attend town meetings? So, that was Steve Merrill. Great guy.”
After graduating from high school in 1948, at a time when Winnacunnet High School’s graduating class had only 48 students, Casassa attended Boston College where he majored in business administration. During the last two years of college the Korean War had begun and Casassa eventually joined the Naval Reserve in his first year of law school at Boston University. He returned there to complete his J.D. in 1957.
While in his final year of law school he served as a law clerk for the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers in Boston and later as a Lieutenant Senior Grade in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve.
“After law school I needed to get to work. We had one child and my wife was not able to continue working as a teacher,” Casassa says.
So, after graduation in 1957 he became a federal estate tax examiner for the IRS stationed in Portsmouth, but crisscrossing the state from Keene to Claremont and Berlin for two years.
Casassa’s goal, he says, was to practice law, and in 1960 his father influenced him to open his own office.
“It was a one-man office back then. I didn’t have a secretary and I rented a typewriter,” Casassa says, adding that in those early days he worked weekends in the newspaper business while serving as a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard reserve. “I was very motivated to keep things going and my wife and I worked hard. She was very supportive.”
Bob Casassa, Casassa’s son, has been practicing law with his father for over 30 years. He recalled some “trepidation” about working with his father after honing his skills at Wadleigh, Starr and Peters in the 1980s, but it was a decision he’s never regretted.
“I have seen relatives not working well together and I’m fortunate that has never been a part of our dynamic,” Bob Casassa, whose son Matthew recently graduated from Columbia Law School, says. “We always got along good before working together and it’s been great. Working together has allowed my relationship with him to grow even more and I’m grateful for that.”
Casassa expressed pride in his son Bob and his grandson Matthew, and when asked how long he will continue practicing, he says he will do it as long as he can.
“I’ve enjoyed working with Bob for the past 32 years and I’m so pleased he chose to become a part of the firm.”
Bob, who serves as moderator for the town of Hampton, recently accepted a proclamation on his father’s behalf presented by town selectmen expressing community affection.
“Growing up I always had a sense that everyone knew him. As I went through life I’ve been very fortunate to have a father who was well regarded,” he says.
David Hamilton, who has worked with Casassa as a trustee for Hampton Academy, says he has known Casassa his entire life.
“My father was a clerk of the court when Casassa was judge at Hampton district court in the 1970s,” Hamilton says. “He’s an icon of this town. Al has always been about the community and not for Al.”
Bob Casassa agrees with this sentiment. He says his father’s interests have always been grounded in the community he has served for over 60 years.
“He didn’t like to be out of town and when he had to go away he was always calling back to the office,” Bob Casassa says. “This is a reflection of how much he loved the people in the community he grew up in. It was never, ‘I can’t wait to get away.’ He would always be on the phone wanting to know what’s going on. He had a genuine affection for the community and it was reciprocal.”
In 2018 Casassa received the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Vickie Bunnell Award. Instituted in 1998, the award honors the memory of Vickie M. Bunnell, a country lawyer. The award is presented to an attorney from a small firm who has exhibited dedication and devotion to community by giving of their time and talents, legal or otherwise.
Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development is a longitudinal study that has been following two groups of men over the last 80 years to identify the psychosocial predictors of healthy aging. Two groups of participants have been involved. The Grant Study that is composed of 268 Harvard graduates from the classes of 1939-1944 and the Glueck Study group that is made up of 456 men who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Boston.
The study has looked at the psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in life that predict health and well-being in late life and is now looking at the children of the original participants in our G2 (Second Generation) study.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care too. That, I think, is the revelation.”
“Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” said Waldinger in his TED talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”
The early days of the study mirrored the era’s dominant view of genetics and biological determinism. Researchers believed that physical constitution, intellectual ability, and personality traits determined adult development. They made detailed anthropometric measurements of skulls, brow bridges, and moles, wrote in-depth notes on the functioning of major organs, examined brain activity through electroencephalograms, and even analyzed the men’s handwriting.
Today, researchers draw men’s blood for DNA testing and put them into MRI scanners to examine organs and tissues in their bodies, procedures that would have sounded like science fiction back in 1938. In that sense, the study itself represents a history of the changes that life brings.
Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who joined the team as a researcher in 1966, led the study from 1972 until 2004. Trained as a psychoanalyst, Vaillant emphasized the role of relationships, and came to recognize the crucial role they played in people living long and pleasant lives.
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”