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John G. Brooks, championed legal services for the poor; at 98

JOHN G. BROOKS

The indigent in Boston are fortunate, John G. Brooks wrote in 1970, that the city’s legal community is so supportive of pro bono efforts by lawyers “to give the poor a sense of security against injustice and a small degree of equality in the eyes of the law.’’

Much of that luck was due to Mr. Brooks himself, who during a six-decade career as a lawyer helped lead Greater Boston Legal Services, the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, and the National Legal Aid & Defender Association. At 80, he was sworn in as a board member of the Legal Services Corp. after being appointed by President Clinton.

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“There are really few people in history who have left such a deep and wide mark on legal services for the poor,’’ said Willard Ogburn, executive director of National Consumer Law Center. “On the more personal side, few people have been so admired by so many people from so many walks of life. He was wonderfully warm and open, whether dealing with legal services clients or dealing with the White House.’’

Mr. Brooks, who spent his entire career at the Boston firm Peabody & Arnold, where he was a partner, died April 15 in his Weston home of complications from an apparent stroke several days earlier. He was 98.

“He was a great man who traveled under the radar,’’ said Harvey Weiner of Peabody & Arnold, a partner in the firm since Mr. Brooks practiced. “I think he looked at the practice of law as a noble profession and not the type of business that it is today. He was a kind and gentle mentor whose civility and professionalism permeates our law firm even today.’’

In the 1970s, Mr. Brooks served as president of the Boston Bar Association, which presents a legal services award named for him. The Massachusetts Bar Association presented him with its 100th community service award in 1994. Also, the National Consumer Law Center and National Legal Aid & Defender Association awards consumer law fellowships in his name.

Although his father, Lawrence Graham Brooks, lived to 100 and served as a judge until he was 89, Mr. Brooks found his own reason for pursuing the legal profession.

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A quarter century after graduating from Harvard College, Mr. Brooks wrote that he decided to go to law school “in the happy belief that being a lawyer would provide a desirable combination of a modest livelihood and freedom, intellectual and otherwise, in contrast to the shackles of employment in ‘business.’ ’’

Rising to partner at what was then Peabody, Arnold, Batchelder & Luther didn’t limit his activities out of the office. In Weston, his home for more than six decades, Mr. Brooks chaired the School Committee, served on the Finance Committee, and helped lead the Taxpayers’ Association.

He also worked with many nonprofits in the region, including serving as a trustee of the Golden Ball Tavern Museum in Weston.

“He had such wonderful good sense, good suggestions, and offered good oversight,’’ Joan Bines, director of the museum. “And he was a wonderful editor. I would run almost everything I wrote by him, whether it was our annual newsletter or if I was giving a talk.’’

John Graham Brooks II, born in Medford, was named for his grandfather, who taught at Harvard and was a Unitarian minister. His ancestors arrived from England in 1631.

He was the oldest of four children whose parents liked to hike New Hampshire’s White Mountains. His mother, Susan (Hallowell) Brooks, a Quaker active with humanitarian organizations, completed a memoir before dying at 101. His father participated in a civil rights march in Selma, Ala., at 84.

As a boy, Mr. Brooks developed a love of the outdoors and learned early to guide others on all life’s paths.

“I automatically deferred to his judgment,’’ said his sister Charlotte Read of Concord. “He just quietly showed the proper way to go; proper leadership without being intrusive.’’

Younger than his classmates when he graduated from Belmont Hill School, Mr. Brooks spent time at Mesa Ranch School in Mesa, Ariz., before majoring in math at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1934.

Throughout his life Mr. Brooks counted among his hobbies what he preferred to call “field ornithology.’’ The pastime, he noted in the 25th report of his Harvard class, is “sometimes irreverently referred to as bird-watching.’’

“He and some friends from college used to climb over the wall at Mount Auburn Cemetery early in the morning to see the birds,’’ said his daughter Sarah of Weston.

Mr. Brooks, who also was an avid sailor and musician who played tennis until he was 90, joined Peabody, Arnold, Batchelder & Luther after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1937.

The following year, he married Miriam Phillips Littlefield, whom he had met through a Harvard roommate. A Radcliffe College graduate, she was a longtime volunteer for museums and legal aid causes. Mrs. Brooks died in 1998, about four months after their 60th anniversary.

Mr. Brooks “attributed anything good about his kids to my mother, because he said he was never around,’’ Sarah said. “My mother was terrific, but I never realized my father wasn’t around because he was so present when he was around.’’

In addition to his daughter and sister, Mr. Brooks leaves another daughter, Miriam Hall-Wunderlich of Cambridge; three sons, John III of Sunapee, N.H., Christopher of West Tisbury, and W. Blair of Norwich, Vt.; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

“The most amazing thing about John was that even though his body failed him in his older years, his mind never did,’’ said Carol Ludington, a friend in Jackson, N.H., where Mr. Brooks and his family kept a vacation home nearly all his life.

“He could recall things he or anyone in his family did 20, 30, 40, 50 years back. He could sit down and tell you stories about when he was 15 years old. You’d think, ‘How can this man remember all this wonderful stuff?’ ’’

Last year, Mr. Brooks finished “Memoirs,’’ a three-volume autobiography, and also had chronicled his life in entries for the anniversary reports of his Harvard class, often in an understated manner.

“All in all, life has been very good to me,’’ he wrote for the 25th anniversary. “It has been and is very full, but it’s better that way - once in a while something worthwhile is accomplished.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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