Lawyers Journal

A different kind of McCarthy era

Special to Lawyers Journal As is so typical of folks who give everything of themselves, it's darn near impossible to get Vin McCarthy to sing his own praises. Fact is, once it's clear just how voluminous the Hale and Dorr senior partner's pro bono portfolio is, it's tough to figure how he has time to even accept unrelated calls.

The best tactic, then, is to confer with McCarthy's colleagues, comrades and peers for initial input. And there's no shortage of gushing volunteers.
"Vin McCarthy is the power of example," says The Hon. Dermot Meagher of the Boston Municipal Court. "I've known him for years and he's as involved (in pro bono efforts) today as he was when I met him. And he'd been going strong long before I met him."
Impressive. Someone else?
"He's remarkable," says Phil Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party and former secretary of Health and Human Services under Michael Dukakis. "He's been the pro bono council to the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps for 32 years and does the same thing for the Pine Street Inn. He lives his values. He's a progressive Catholic. He's done so much charitable and philanthropic work over the years, it's hard to believe it's just one person that's done it all."
True enough. McCarthy's bio is four pages long and three-quarters of it consists of benevolent bullet points. Some highlights: Founding director of the Fund for the Homeless; appointed director, Fund for Boston Neighborhoods; Boston Center for the Arts chairman; Massachusetts Housing Partnership Fund chairman; president of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health; founding director of Lawyers Clearinghouse on Affordable Housing and Homelessness; and chairman of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.
To suggest that Samaritans tend to be cookie cutters is far from unfair. While their volunteerism may be eminently applause-worthy, most seem confined to a genre or at least a certain species of philanthropy. McCarthy, Robert Kennedy's in-state campaign coordinator during the 1968 election race, is all over the giving-back map. Serve up a circumstance where injustice is being done, he'll make it a cause.
"He is a man of passion; it's what drives him day-in and day-out," says Ed Kelley, executive director of the RFKCAC, which McCarthy co-founded with the MDP's Johnston. "I'll give you an example. I was in a meeting with him once that had to do with one of our programs. A person on the other side of the table intimated their priorities were more important than ours. Well, Vin, in a slightly elevated voice, proceeded to quote the Bible, Shakespeare and Harry Truman in a two-minute rebuttal. It was very clear to me I was sitting on the right side of the table. He's absolutely unbelievable. Passion and intellect. That's Vin. He's one of the true heroes of today's society."
McCarthy's most recent appointment - to the Gay and Lesbian Youth advisory committee chairmanship this year by Gov. Jane Swift - has him particularly energized. The 61-year-old real estate law specialist is gay. He came out late, at age 35, after a 1975 encephalitis infection nearly killed him. He would spare others the personal pain he endured before publicly accepting who he is.
"I decided to stop being depressed about who I was," recalls McCarthy, who was a frontrunner for Tip O'Neill's vacated 8th Congressional District seat before Joe Kennedy entered the race in 1985. "I decided I best not just be a private homosexual, but be part of the revolution. I caught the wave and I'm still riding it. Eleanor Roosevelt had a line she borrowed from The Christophers: 'It's better to light one candle than to curse the darkness'. Lawyers are very good at that, because they work one case at a time. That's kind of been the theme of my life."
McCarthy, a recovering alcoholic since 1971, insists lawyers are the lynchpin in how wholeheartedly a society embraces progressivism. He's seen mores and misconceptions change. He believes lawyers and laws are a big reason why.
"The argument of the Southern whites who opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s was that laws don't change people's hearts," explains McCarthy. "Well, laws do, over time, modify people's behavior as a culture changes. Once people get beyond their hatred, they begin to act appropriately."
Though he's inarguably an equal-opportunity philanthropist, McCarthy holds the gay and lesbian human rights agenda particularly near and dear. He's thrilled with American progress in that venue, particularly in Massachusetts. McCarthy points out that former Republican President Gerald Ford recently offered his public support for same-sex benefits at the federal level. He notes that more than 180 publicly funded gay-straight alliances convene in Massachusetts' public high schools. Not just in such "usual-suspects" communities as Brookline, Newton and Lexington, but in districts like Quincy, Canton and Whitman.
"Massachusetts has become such a bastion of social liberalism that there is enormous public support to reach out to gay and lesbian youth and other young people who are at risk for suicide," says McCarthy, who notes the governor's advisory commission will celebrate its 10th anniversary early next year. "We're getting there. Obviously, we don't care who reaches out for help. There are a lot of straight members in these gay-straight alliances. Some are kids who are just different. Some are jocks. The world is changing and teenagers get this issue."
"I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone who's participated as long and as consistently as Vin has at the level he has," says attorney Chris Ferguson, program director of Gay and Lesbian Youth Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "To do it the way he's done it is amazing. He's a stalwart of the gay and lesbian community."
Predictably, McCarthy remains passionately articulate about how much more change is necessary and how to affect it.
"We're talking about saving kids lives, we're talking about human rights," says McCarthy, "Three of the heroes of Sept. 11 - Father Mychal Judge, (United Airlines Flight 93 Pennsylvania victim) Mark Bingham and the first officer (David Charlebois) of American Airlines Flight 77 that went into the Pentagon - were openly gay. But people and kids just like them are discriminated against every day. This stuff has to stop and lawyers have to help. Lawyers need to raise the issue and raise the awareness. I think individual lawyers in their communities can speak out more. Teachers and principals are oftentimes afraid to speak out on the issues.
"It's important for attorneys to be visible at the school committee level and in the PTA to make sure there's a climate of safety," he adds. "Teachers and principals need to get the message that this is 2001 and that the time has come to make sure kids don't get brutalized. Lawyers need to deliver that message. Lawyers should be as outspoken on this human rights issue as they are on any other."

©2017 Massachusetts Bar Association