Alexandra Dawson; lawyer specialized in conservation


Knitting or quilting quietly during lengthy evening meetings, Alexandra D. Dawson appeared so engaged in her handiwork that it was hard to imagine she listened with the same rapt attention she paid to each stitch. But at just the right moment, the clicking of needles stopped and she offered her thoughts.

And those who knew the Hadley lawyer were not surprised if she tossed a briefcase across the room for emphasis, when the occasion merited.

“She was making very serious points,’’ said longtime friend Judith Eiseman of Pelham, “but she did it in a memorable way.’’


Mrs. Dawson, a prominent conservation lawyer who helped start environmental studies programs at Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H., died Dec. 30 in her Hadley home from complications of emphysema. She was 80.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Well versed in the arcane language of law, she could be pithy, as was the case when she wrote a 2003 op-ed piece for the Globe about why it can be challenging in Massachusetts to find a stretch of beachfront sand for a stroll.

Mrs. Dawson began: “Having trouble getting to the beach this summer? How can this be, in a state with 1,500 miles of coastline? Blame King George III.’’

She explained that the king “granted to private settlers in the Massachusetts colonies the ownership of land down to low water mark,’’ while most other states followed the lead of Roman emperor Justinian, who “believed that the fore shores, like the air and the ocean, should not be privately owned.’’

Legal matters were never dry or dull for Mrs. Dawson. Though she helped write legislation aimed at preserving land, air, and the sea, in conversation she used language from across the spectrum to emphasize a point.


“She was a woman of tremendous common sense when it came to the law,’’ said her son Alexander of Durango, Colo.

“She had a way of taking wind out of all the puffy sails, making noises or throwing things or just standing up or using the occasional blue reference,’’ he said. “And she backed it up with brains.’’

She also could be inspirational. Once she offered a ride to a young lawyer as she left a meeting in Boston.

“By the time I got out of the car, I knew my life would be different,’’ said Gregor McGregor of Concord, an environmental lawyer. “She was a force of nature.’’

Her life, family and friends said, was as interesting and intricate as the quilts she stitched.


“There was something very rugged about her and absolutely fearless, and also she had a certain regal quality about her,’’ Eiseman said.

Mrs. Dawson’s father, Alef DeGhize, was a Russian count who fled when the Russian Revolution began in 1917, her son said, and her mother, Eleanor Jencks, was an artist from a wealthy Baltimore family. Mrs. Dawson grew up on a dairy farm in Cockeysville, Md., and her family later moved to Santa Fe.

In the 1950s, she graduated from Barnard College in New York City with a bachelor’s degree and soon after married James Dawson.

When her three children were young, she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1966.

“It was tough, and it toughened her,’’ McGregor said. “She was smart and independent and assertive anyway, but being one of the first women in the modern era to go to Harvard Law School, and then to seek a job in Brahmin Boston in the law firms, that toughened her further.’’

As one of the first paid employees of the Conservation Law Foundation, she often supplied answers to inquiries about land use and environmental laws. Mrs. Dawson subsequently served as general counsel for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

In the early 1980s, she helped launch the environmental program at Antioch University’s graduate school. For a decade, she directed the university’s resource management and administration program and later taught at other colleges.

While teaching, she wrote the book “Land-Use Planning and the Law,’’ published in 1982, which explained the complicated nature of land use planning.

In the mid-1980s, she became president of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, which is dedicating its annual conference this weekend to her.

She wrote or co-wrote eight editions of the association’s Environmental Handbook for Massachusetts Conservation Commissioners, according to a tribute on the association’s website.

Mrs. Dawson also served on the Hadley Conservation Commission. She had chaired the panel since 1993 and helped write the town’s wetlands regulations.

Her home phone rang often as callers sought her wide knowledge of environmental issues. Senator Edward M. Kennedy was among those who phoned, said her son, who recalled that she left the dinner table to take the call when she learned it was Kennedy on the line.

“She was a font of knowledge, and we all knew that,’’ her son said.

Along with being intelligent, “she had a wonderful way of providing folksy examples,’’ Eiseman said. “She was extraordinarily funny and entertaining. I think that was part of the essence of her, this incisiveness, and yet there was humor, and every once in a while there would be an explosion of anger.’’

Mrs. Dawson and her husband had canoed the length of the Connecticut River, the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions noted in its tribute, and she could be seen bicycling around town or kayaking with a friend as recently as last year.

When people characterized Mrs. Dawson, her son said, they often settled on the word “formidable.’’

In addition to James, her husband of 56 years, and her son Alexander, Mrs. Dawson leaves a daughter, Rachel Spring of Pecos, N.M.; another son, Adam of Berkeley, Calif.; a grandson; and a granddaughter.

Burial will be private.

A few days before Mrs. Dawson died, Alexander said, she was still working.

“When it came to the environment, there was nothing else that mattered,’’ he said. “That was her whole life. Period.’’

Emma Stickgold can be reached at