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Bar News - September 16, 2015

Remembering John McKinnon: Friend, Husband, Father, Colleague, and Tireless Pro Bono Volunteer


John and Deborah McKinnon with their son, Ian, at his 2014 graduation from Plymouth Regional High School.

McKinnon hiking in Franconia Notch with his kids when they were younger.

In a diary that dated to law school, John McKinnon wrote a note to himself: “Don’t forget the client’s perspective.”

In that diary, he reminded himself never to be patronizing or evasive. He had met arrogant attorneys and never wanted to be one, his wife, Deb McKinnon said.

Friends and colleagues say he had little to worry about on that score. A small-town lawyer who didn’t start law school until age 40, he already had deep roots in the Campton/Thornton community. He knew people at many levels given his history as a local contractor, firefighter, EMT and police officer.

“He always had time to talk to you,” said Encie Triplett, a paralegal who worked with him for many years. And when it came to clients, “he always took as much time as necessary to listen to them.”

McKinnon’s unexpected death in July after a short illness came as a shock not just to family and friends but to an entire network of people in the region, from clients to colleagues, local law enforcement and the Plymouth and Littleton courts.

“He cared about people,” Triplett said, echoing a comment repeated by many of those who knew him.

Campton police Chief Christopher Warn remembers the day McKinnon showed up when he was still working as a contractor, and the town had approved an expenditure of $8,000 for a new police station – requiring the department to build it themselves.

“John showed up, and he had several large windows, which he had recovered from a burned building. The windows are still there,” Warn says. McKinnon not only delivered the windows, but also pitched in to help build the station.

If McKinnon ever feared a career in law would make him arrogant, friends say it just wasn’t in his nature.

“Fundamentally, he was perhaps driven by not letting others take advantage,” said Chris Bataille, a fellow attorney and friend who first met McKinnon in high school when they were ski racers training at Waterville Valley.

Not wanting others to take advantage led McKinnon into accepting NH Bar Association Pro Bono cases for victims of domestic violence through the Domestic Violence Emergency (DOVE) Project, even though he once said he wanted nothing to do with family law, because it was too depressing.

“I’m the only help they have,” he told his wife – and then, among other things, dug into a three-year, spectacularly messy divorce case.

“All the time, McKinnon stayed with it, and he didn’t give up,” said his client Alexandra Scrosati-Wing. “I may owe McKinnon my life.”

He gave her hope from the moment she showed up in his office, essentially penniless. He took her case and told her “in three years’ time, your life will be very different.”

It turned out to be true, she said. She feels safer and just as importantly feels her children are protected. She’s glad McKinnon got to see her children grow and thrive over time.

“I think he was a very positive man. He felt like he had the ability to protect people, and he was going to do it,” said Pam Dodge, DOVE Project coordinator at the NHBA. McKinnon was awarded the Distinguished Pro Bono Service Award for Rural Access to Justice in 2010 and was frequently on the Pro Bono Honor Roll. Dodge said he volunteered some 1,500 hours on Scrosati-Wing’s case alone.

And that highlights another aspect of John McKinnon – his tenacity.

Bataille says he also owes his life to McKinnon. He, McKinnon and another friend, John McGoldrick, ended up in Alaska after college where they got jobs working in mineral exploration, doing soil sampling and, in McKinnon’s case, quickly being promoted to camp manager.

During that time, the trio decided to explore a remote waterway that cut through a canyon with little idea of the risk they were taking.

McGoldrick, now a medical doctor in Brunswick, Maine, was the first to be washed out of his boat in the white water. McKinnon pulled him to safety. McGoldrick’s shoes and other supplies were lost, so McKinnon gave him his own boots and his shotgun. The plan was for McGoldrick to hike to the end of the canyon and meet them there.

But worse trouble was ahead for Bataille and McKinnon. Both men were ultimately dumped into the frigid water, losing boat, food and the rest of their supplies. They made it to shore, barefoot. McKinnon was hypothermic, and they were both hundreds of miles from human habitation.

So they picked themselves up and walked. Without shoes, they walked for days, hungry and tired and increasingly desperate.

“I was ready to give up, and he wouldn’t let me,” Bataille says. Meanwhile, McGoldrick made it to the far end of the canyon and found no sign of his friends. It took him another three days to walk out and get a helicopter to search for and ultimately rescue them.

“He taught me a lot,” said Bataille, who still lives in Alaska. “You can’t give up. You can do things you can’t begin to imagine.”

Deb McKinnon said her husband had an interest in law that dated back to his college days in Colorado. But he had severe dyslexia and did poorly on the LSAT, so he set that dream aside.

Decades later, when he learned the Massachusetts School of Law was willing to consider applicants without requiring the LSAT, McKinnon decided to give law another try. He left his work with the Thornton police and started the commute between his home and Andover, Mass., listening to tapes and figuring out ways to study that allowed him to succeed despite his dyslexia.

He graduated among the top in his class and went on to pass the bar in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. And he was a very good lawyer. “Any attorney I worked for was good, but he was the best,” Triplett said.

“He was incredibly articulate without being pedantic,” Bataille said. “He had the ability to analyze and present arguments that were essentially irrefutable, and he could do it quickly and easily.” He could use analogies, humor and effectively deflate the pompous, often without their realizing what had happened, Bataille said. “He was just amazing that way.”

Without pretension, he met friends and clients at home or at the office, sometimes still in his running or tennis clothes. During the ski season, he’d wear his dress pants under his ski clothes and show up in court straight off the slopes. Skiing remained a “pure joy” for McKinnon throughout his life, his wife said; “he was like a little kid.”

John McKinnnon remained an avid outdoorsman, athlete and runner throughout his life.

Judge Steve Samaha, who employed McKinnon early in his law career at Samaha and Russell, said McKinnon would run the Boston Marathon and show up to work the next day none the worse for wear – except for the tennis shoes he wore to protect his sore feet.

John and Deb McKinnon raised two children and both of them, now young adults, are following in their father’s footsteps in one way or another. Ian is an EMT and volunteer firefighter majoring in paramedic and fire science. Older sister Eliza says she plans to attend law school.

“I hope I can one day be as good of a devoted civil servant, a loving spouse and parent, inspirational role model as he was,” she said. “He not only treated his clients with the dignity, honor and respect they warranted but refused to give up on them.”

McGoldrick, his friend on multiple adventures, saw many of those same qualities. “The biggest thing for him was his compassion for other people,” he said.

Asked what he’d remember most about his friend, McGoldrick couldn’t answer.

“I have a lifetime of memories with him. I don’t have to pick one. I have them all.”

Anne Saunders is a freelance writer based in Concord.

Supreme Court Rule 42(9) requires all NH admitted attorneys to notify the Bar Association of any address change, home or office.

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