Bar News - November 19, 2014
Remembering Dave Nixon
By: Kristen Senz
“What a man does for others, not what they do for him, gives him immortality.”
– Daniel Webster
“Don’t focus on what the law is; focus on what the law should be, and keep your brief to eight pages or less.”
Attorney David L. Nixon, who passed away Saturday, Nov. 1, at the age of 82, gave this advice to his colleague and partner Kirk Simoneau, not long after Simoneau graduated from law school. “It was the best lesson I ever learned about being a lawyer,” Simoneau recalls. “He was focused on what the law should be and how it could be used to help people... He hated the lawyer stuff just for the sake of lawyer stuff – the whole ‘wherefore’ and ‘heretofore,’ and all that extra verbiage. He was much more focused on the human side of everything. People would say, ‘Well, what’s your theory of the case?’ He didn’t think in that way. He thought of right and wrong.”
An attorney – that’s who Nixon was, not just what he did for a living. A larger-than-life legend in New Hampshire, Nixon believed in the power of attorneys to make life better for other people, and he worked tirelessly to optimize that power, spending six or seven days a week in the office, even in his 80s and during his battle with bone marrow cancer.
He was an exceedingly good trial lawyer, prevailing more often than not in personal injury cases other attorneys wouldn’t touch. He was the most proud of his work in Murphy v. Portsmouth Hospital (1976). Working with John Peltonen, he won a $1.5 million verdict (the largest in New Hampshire history at the time) on behalf of a little boy who had become blind, deaf and paraplegic as a result of medical malpractice. After a trust was set up, the boy’s parents adopted at least two other disabled children and raised them with their own son.
Longtime friend and partner Tom Barry said recently of Nixon: “He was kind, competitive and fearless. He never patted himself on the back; he just went on to the next case. It was part of his DNA… There was this saying he had, ‘If your cause is just and you’re a nice person, I’ll see what I can do to help.’”
Nixon’s easygoing nature was reflected in his office décor – a rustic-looking collection of signs with quaint sayings, old photographs, certificates, awards, books, knickknacks and other artifacts. But it wasn’t just for fun or show; it served an important purpose.
“The whole point of Dave’s office is to put clients at ease,” Simoneau said. “He told me that sometimes he would excuse himself from a client meeting and say he had to use the restroom, just to give them two or three minutes to look around at all the things in his office, and when he came back, the person would be inevitably relaxed.”
Born in Concord, Mass., Nixon attended Leominster High School before going on to Wesleyan University, where he played football and was president of his class, and where he first met his colleague and dear friend Kimon Zachos, while the two competed in selling concessions in the dorms (“He was peddling cleaning and laundry, and I was hawking sandwiches and milk,” Nixon later recalled.)
After college, Nixon volunteered for the draft and served in the Army for two years. A mishap in basic training took the sight in his left eye, but he finished his two-year term of service at Ft. Meade, Maryland, where he played quarterback for the Ft. Meade Army “Generals” football team.
The GI bill enabled him to pursue law school. He applied to Harvard Law and, undeterred by a rejection letter, he drove from Maryland to Cambridge to talk the dean of admissions into reconsidering. “He sat and listened to my story,” Nixon recalled decades later. “It was a rainy day, I remember.”
“That’s very interesting, Mr. Nixon,” the dean had said. “But in the opinion of the law school, you do not have the makings of a good lawyer.”
Because he’d forgone acceptance at Harvard for Wesleyan as an undergraduate, Nixon would later say that “Harvard and I are even.”
Nixon applied to Boston University Law School, University of Michigan Law School and the University of Colorado Law School. He was accepted at all three and chose Michigan, in part because he heard Ann Arbor was like a small New England town. It was close, but Nixon wanted the real thing.
“We tend to always gravitate back here,” he said during an interview in his office last summer. “We tend to be very parochial about New England.”
Nixon started his law career in 1958 at what was then McLane, Carleton, Graf, Greene & Brown, where he met colleague and close friend Jack Middleton.
“I’ve known Dave Nixon for 56 years,” Middleton said recently. “He’s one of my very oldest and very best friends. He’s one of the best lawyers that New Hampshire has ever produced, as well as being a real gentleman and a friend of everybody.”
In Manchester, he also reconnected with Zachos, and the two became lifelong friends. For the past several years, Nixon, Zachos and Middleton have met for coffee at Blake’s in Manchester every Thursday morning. “Dave was the closest friend I have in the bar, and he was most generous with all his numerous friends and partners,” Zachos said. “He was very committed to doing justice and helping people, and it’ll be a long time before there’s anyone that takes his spot.”
In 1960, Nixon moved to New Boston, NH, where he was not only the town moderator and official Town Counsel, but also the unofficial town lawyer, who would help his neighbors with any legal problems they had. “I think everybody in town has a story about a jam that they got in that he helped them get out of,” said Nixon’s daughter, attorney Leslie Nixon, who worked with her father for 33 years at the Manchester firm Nixon, Vogelman, Barry, Slawsky and Simoneau.
Nixon was always involved in community life, serving as a legislator, Senate President, a gubernatorial candidate, and a volunteer mediator, among many other roles. In his mind, his duty to represent the interests of his clients extended from the courtroom to the State House, where he successfully advocated for many legislative changes.
“When he was in the Legislature, he accomplished so much more than most people do in getting laws passed that would help our profession and help our clients, and that’s something that I’m very proud of and something that he instilled in me,” Leslie Nixon said.
Nixon was an active member of the New Hampshire Bar Association for more than five decades and served as its president from 1980-81. Without Nixon’s leadership in the early days of the bar association, you might not be reading this article right now. While continuing to practice law, he took on administering the Bar Association, and it was Nixon who first proposed making the association a mandatory membership organization that would have more resources to serve members and the public.
Nixon was a regular volunteer for the NH Bar Association Pro Bono Referral Program and routinely represented women who were victims of domestic violence. In addition to dozens of other honors, he received several bar association awards, as well as the NH Bar Foundation’s Frank Rowe Kenison Award, named for the late NH Supreme Court justice, who was Nixon’s role model and mentor.
Talking to the Bar News last July, Nixon said he’d made peace with his life and with death.
“You make up your mind that, ‘I’m going to go down with the flags flying and the guns blazing,’ and that’s where I am,” he said.
Nixon is survived by his wife, Patricia Nixon; his children, attorney Leslie Nixon and her husband, attorney Lee Nyquist of New Boston and Manchester, his daughter Melanie Nixon, his daughter attorney Wendy Branch and her husband, attorney BJ Branch; his son David Nixon Jr., his son Louis Nixon and his wife, Trudy Nixon; seven grandchildren; and three stepchildren. He was predeceased by one grandson, Clifford Nyquist, and by his daughter, Amie Nixon.
A funeral service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 16, at New Boston Central School, River Road, New Boston, to be followed by a reception at the New Boston Community Church.