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Edward Barshak, bar association leader and defender of civil rights, dies at 96

Mr. Barshak won several key civil and defendant rights cases in Massachusetts.
Mr. Barshak won several key civil and defendant rights cases in Massachusetts.Stanley Rowin

Asked once what he specialized in as a lawyer, Edward Barshak replied: “You name it, and I guess I try it.”

He was known for his plain-spokenness, his fondness for common sense, and for winning cases, which had set the stage for the 1980 Globe interview that prompted his response.

Boston Mayor Kevin White had just hired Mr. Barshak to represent his administration in a legal dust-up with the City Council. The mayor had firsthand knowledge of his attorney’s prowess: Mr. Barshak had prevailed in two previous high-profile court cases in which White was on the losing side.

Indeed, Mr. Barshak was so prominent that some in White’s administration thought hiring him might draw too much attention. “It’s like calling in the National Guard,” one official told the Globe.

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Mr. Barshak, a former Boston Bar Association president with a history of championing and winning civil rights cases, died of heart failure Aug. 12 while in hospice care in Amherst. He was 96 and formerly had lived in Brookline for decades.

“He cared deeply about the principles of equal justice for all,” said Margaret H. Marshall, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court.

“He showed me early on that you could practice law at the very highest levels, but you could also give back endlessly,” said Marshall, who also is a former bar association president. “He was a north star for the bar in my estimation.”

Over the decades, Mr. Barshak was involved in numerous civil rights cases, including representing the Boston chapter of the NAACP.

“Ed Barshak is a lawyer’s lawyer! An expert in the field of First Amendment rights, Ed is a fierce champion for the disenfranchised,” Leonard Alkins, a former Boston NAACP president, said in 2014 when the Boston Bar Association honored Mr. Barshak with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

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“He is a true drum major in the continuing struggle for civil and human rights,” Alkins added.

Among Mr. Barshak’s cases was representing Doris Bunte, the first woman to serve on the Boston Housing Authority board, who White tried to remove in 1971.

At the mayor’s request, the City Council voted to oust her. Represented by Mr. Barshak, she appealed to state Superior Court, which overturned the council’s decision. The city appealed, but the Supreme Judicial Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

In the 2014 bar association tributes, Bunte, who later became the first Black woman elected to serve as a state representative, and the first named to lead the housing authority, expressed “sincere gratitude to my friend Ed Barshak for changing my life.”

Mr. Barshak “was a lawyer’s lawyer and was often sought out for some of the most complex cases that we as civil litigators would handle,” said Christine M. Netski, managing partner of his firm, Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen.

At the firm, “the collegiality that he promoted and fostered was really, I think, somewhat unique as far as law firm culture goes,” she added. “Ed set the tone, and he was such a kind, compassionate leader.”

David Barry, a partner at the firm, said that “one of the things that made Ed so special was this combination of incredible achievement with real humility. It was never about Ed, it was always about you, whoever you were.”

Mr. Barshak, he added, “had great judgment without being in the least judgmental.”

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Edward J. Barshak was born in Boston in 1924 and grew up in Fitchburg.

His father, Samuel Barshak, sold insurance and medical products and later had an Inman Square store. His mother, Lillian Kahn, raised the children and later worked in the Cambridge store with her husband.

The older of two brothers, Mr. Barshak graduated from Fitchburg High School and studied economics at what was then Tufts College before leaving to serve in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II.

He returned to graduate from Tufts and from Columbia Law School in New York City.

Mr. Barshak was already at law school when Tufts held its commencement, so his parents picked up his bachelor’s degree for him — “an early sign of him not needing the pomp and circumstance,” said his daughter Danielle Barshak of Leverett.

“He was the least aggrandized person that I know,” Marshall recalled. “He was genuinely humble and warm.”

Early in his career, Mr. Barshak “achieved the groundbreaking” SJC ruling in 1957, in Brown v. Commonwealth, “recognizing a right to counsel for criminal defendants under the Massachusetts Constitution,” Netski wrote in a tribute published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.

The SJC decision occurred six years before the US Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that the US Constitution also recognized that right.

In the 1960s, Mr. Barshak represented Mitchell Goodman, who was on trial as part of the so-called Boston Five, among them Dr. Benjamin Spock, for counseling young men to refuse the draft during the Vietnam War. The convictions of Goodman and three others were reversed on appeal.

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Mr. Barshak served as president of the Boston Bar Association from 1974 to 1976, when school desegregation dominated Boston. During his tenure, the organization launched the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center to offer free legal advice and referrals to Greater Boston’s low-income residents.

“Ed, with a steadfast belief in the nobility of the legal profession, believed that lawyers could help guide progress and make a difference,” the bar association said in presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award. “Ed worked tirelessly throughout his presidency to educate the public about desegregation and the busing movement, cementing the BBA’s reputation as not only a trusted voice in the legal profession, but the community at large.”

In keeping with his low-key approach to accolades, Mr. Barshak typically said little more than thank you at awards ceremonies, Danielle said.

When he was asked to say a few words at a family gathering for his 90th birthday, Danielle recalled, he rose to say: “In some families, it’s the tradition for the person being honored to stand up and make a speech. Luckily, we’re not one of those families.” And then he sat down.

Mr. Barshak had been married to Regina Winder, who survived the Holocaust by hiding out in France. She died in 2016.

In addition to his daughter Danielle, Mr. Barshak leaves another daughter, Rachelle Dobbin of Sharon; a son, Joel of Bolton; and seven grandchildren.

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A service will be announced after state limitations are eased regarding how many people may gather for public events.

For years, Mr. Barshak ran to the office carrying work clothes in a knapsack, a vigorous approach to exercise that helped him remain active late in life.

Cross-country skiiing with his family was a favorite activity for Mr. Barshak.
Cross-country skiiing with his family was a favorite activity for Mr. Barshak.

Along with the uncounted hours Mr. Barshak gave to his firm and the profession, he included his family in activities such as skiing and vacations to Cape Cod — cross-country skiing and riding the waves on a boogie board well into his 80s.

“He had such a sense of play and delight,” Danielle said.

“In his early 80s in Truro, he looks at me and points down the beach a little bit where there were others boogie-boarding,” she added. "He said, ‘Let’s go down where those other kids are.’ "


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.