The value of friendship could be measured by the number of steps David Place took so he could discuss details of every legal matter in person, and maybe trade a story or two.
His oldest son, Elliott of Hingham, was visiting Mr. Place’s law office one day when one of his father’s colleagues pulled him aside.
“Your father does something completely differently than other lawyers,” the colleague told him, Elliot recalled in a eulogy. “Whenever there is important paperwork to be signed or presented he never uses a courier. Even if the other party is a mile or more away, he will walk over there or take the subway with the papers and present them face-to-face.”
Wearing down a little shoe leather helped ensure that clients stayed clients for decades, and that friends remained friends for a lifetime. Nurturing enduring connections was important to Mr. Place, who noted in the 60th anniversary report of his Harvard class: “Lawyers, as you know, never quit.”
Mr. Place, who left a legacy in the state’s court system by chairing the judicial nominating council for Governor William Weld in the 1990s, died of kidney failure Aug. 23 in his Milton home. He was 91.
‘He saw politics as public service, and encouraged me and others to come to it in that spirit.’
“There’s something timeless about his character,” said his wife, Susanna.
There was also something endless about Mr. Place’s career and civic involvement. As a Harvard freshman, he enthusiastically backed Wendell Willkie’s unsuccessful bid to unseat President Franklin D. Roosevelt. An elder statesman 65 years later, Mr. Place set aside a lifetime in the Republican Party to help elect Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to his first term as governor of Massachusetts.
“David was a wonder,” Patrick wrote in an e-mail. “Always open and optimistic, and having already lived a fascinating life when I met him 25 years ago, he rarely spoke about himself. He had a million stories, but was always more interested in somebody else’s. He saw politics as public service, and encouraged me and others to come to it in that spirit.”
When he met Patrick, Mr. Place had put in his own time in government service, which included serving as an assistant US attorney in Massachusetts, as an assistant to the US attorney general in the Eisenhower administration, and as general counsel to the Air Force during the Reagan administration.
To take on the latter position, he set aside being managing partner at Gaston Snow & Ely Bartlett, a premier Boston firm.
“I’ve been making a good living, probably far better than I deserve, for some time,” he told the Globe in 1981 as he sat in his Pentagon office, clad in a herringbone suit, drooping green socks his mother had knitted, and a polka-dot bow tie.
It was time, he said, “to make a change from being a handmaiden to money to working for this country. It’s something I’ve wanted very much to do.”
After several years in Washington, D.C., Mr. Place returned home, and jumped back into the governmental fray on Beacon Hill when Weld asked him to coordinate judicial choices.
“He made a huge contribution to the quality of the judiciary in Massachusetts,” Weld said. “David was also a wonderful and warm personal friend to both me and my wife.”
David Elliott Place spent his early childhood outside Philadelphia, until his parents divorced and he moved to Massachusetts, where he developed a love of the ocean.
“David was a great sailor in his spare time and he was always having misadventures,” said Eleanor Bleakie of Scituate, a friend since their youth in Cohasset.
“As people said at his service, ‘Many sailed with him, and most returned alive,’ ” Mr. Place’s wife said.
He graduated from Milton Academy in 1939 and from Harvard four years later. The aftereffects of a broken leg kept him from combat duty, so he served as a navigator on hospital ships during World War II.
Back home, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948 and started his career at Ely, Bradford, Bartlett, Thompson & Brown in Boston.
In 1952, he married Penelope Griswold, honeymooning on a ketch in the Newport, R.I.-to-Bermuda boat race. They had four children and their marriage ended in divorce more than 30 years later.
Sailing was a thread that tied Mr. Place to many friends, some of whom he knew since childhood.
“We used to sail together,” said Louis Cabot of Sarasota, Fla., a friend since the two met as boys in Cohasset. “He never turned down somebody asking him for help, whatever it was.”
George N. Hurd, a retired Superior Court judge, said Mr. Place “loved people, and I don’t think he had an enemy in the world.”
That was the case politically, too, among the Democrats that Mr. Place supported later in life and the Republicans he backed earlier. “First of all, David Place got me elected governor,” Weld said. “He always believed in me, even when I was 3 points behind. With David’s prodding, I worked hard for 18 months. David told me you learn by doing, and he was absolutely right. He said you don’t have to be a superstar. You just have to keep hitting the wall.”
Mr. Place married Susanna Badgley in 1985. They had two children, and he welcomed becoming a parent again in his mid-60s. After his daughter Louise was born, he wrote in his 45th Harvard class report: “It took about 24 hours to get back into fatherhood!”
“He never met a person — or a cookie — he didn’t like,” Louise, who lives in Brighton, said in a eulogy at his service earlier this month. “When you talked with him, he had an uncanny talent for making you feel like the most important person in the world.”
When others inquired after Mr. Place’s well-being , “he consistently responded, ‘I’m alive and kicking.’ ” Louise said. “And then without a breath he would turn the focus right back to them. He had 21 questions ready for everyone.”
In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. Place leaves three other sons, Richard of New York City, Josiah of Plymouth, and Alexander of Wellesley; another daughter, Penelope Gleason of Telluride, Colo.; a brother, H. Calvin of Wellesley; and four grandchildren.
“When someone like that dies, it leaves another little hole in your life,” Bleakie said. “He was always courageous and thoughtful of his friends.”
Many saw in all Mr. Place’s endeavors a fearlessness that lingers in the advice he offered others. “He never said beware,” his wife said. “He knew the pitfalls, but said, ‘If you go forth fearfully, you’re not giving your whole heart.’ ”
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