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Ruth Silman, a ‘multi-dimensional’ lawyer, mother, and friend, dies at 52

Ruth Silman atop Dial Mountain in 2014, reaching her goal of hiking to the summit of all 46 high peaks in the Adirondack Mountains before turning 46.
Ruth Silman atop Dial Mountain in 2014, reaching her goal of hiking to the summit of all 46 high peaks in the Adirondack Mountains before turning 46.

No stranger to ascending heights, Ruth Silman hiked to the top of all 46 high peaks in the Adirondack Mountains before turning 46.

Reaching a different kind of summit brought her renown within Boston’s legal community, though, when five years ago she became the first woman named managing partner of Nixon Peabody’s Boston office. As an attorney focusing on environmental issues, simply landing a job at the firm in 2000 had expanded her horizons.

“All of a sudden I had this national reach,” she said in 2017. “I had the opportunity to work on cases from New England to California. There were so many clean-air cases to work on, I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

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Ms. Silman, who became a board member of a nonprofit that lends assistance to cancer patients long before her own cancer diagnosis, died June 30 in her Harvard home. She was 52.

“She was multi-dimensional in a way that allowed her to shine in so many different ways,” said her friend and colleague Sarah Connolly, a Nixon Peabody partner.

“Ruth wasn’t just a lawyer and a mom. She was an amazing lawyer, a wonderful mom,” Connolly added. “She was an outdoors enthusiast and was committed to her causes, to her friends. The list goes on and on and on.”

It may have come as a surprise to some in the legal community that the attorney part of that list was initially somewhat tentative. Ms. Silman said in the 2017 interview with the Boston Bar Association that she hadn’t planned to practice law when, drawn by the intellectual challenge, she attended the Boston University School of Law.

Then during a class in her first semester, a professor “started talking about a toxic tort case that he was working on, and honestly, my entire career path became clear. I thought: I could do that for a living. I could investigate. I could figure out the law and the policy. I could help people. I could clean up the environment. Being an attorney was an opportunity to do all of that.”

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After graduating in 1994, she spent a year in the environmental protection division of the state attorney general’s office, then 4½ years with the Boston firm Anderson & Kreiger before Nixon Peabody hired her.

“Ruth was amazing. It’s actually hard for me to put that in the past tense,” said her friend Paul Bouton, who also is a partner at Nixon Peabody. “She knew the law and she knew the business, but it was her ability to really make a meaningful connection with people that made her very, very effective.”

Bouton said the two worked together on thousands of affordable-housing units that were “either being preserved or being built,” and he recalled that she participated in a Zoom call about a month ago for a proposed development in Cambridge.

Even though her health was failing, “she felt like, ‘Dammit, I’m going to help this client get this one approved,’ " he said.

On a personal level, “I knew she was somebody who was a real friend — if I needed to talk about something, she was always there,” Bouton said. “And plus, by the way, she was a blast to be around. She was someone who you’d cherish the time you had with her.”

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Born in 1968 in White Plains, N.Y., Ruth Hilary Silman was the youngest of three children and grew up in Ardsley, N.Y., and Great Barrington.

Her mother is Roberta Karpel Silman, a writer. Her father was Robert Silman, a well-known structural engineer whose projects included preserving the Survivors’ Staircase from the World Trade Center and conceiving of a way to prevent Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania from collapsing.

In her childhood and teen years, Ms. Silman was known for keeping up with older family members on long hikes, honing her musical gifts as a violinist, and developing culinary talents as a baker.

At the North Country Camps in the Adirondacks, she reveled in a love of nature and met Tim Clark, her future husband, when they were children.

Their friendship started slowly. “She had a thing for my best friend,” he said. “She had no interest in me at the time.” Neither did they exactly race into anything after reconnecting later. “We dated for about eight years before we got married,” he said, adding that “we were pretty well committed fairly early on.”

Ms. Silman was a government major at Cornell University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1990. She spent a year skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colo., before law school.

As an attorney, “she saw the law, and in particular zoning, and in particular Boston zoning, as a puzzle, as something to be understood and mastered,” said Clark, who has served as a Harvard selectman.

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At Nixon Peabody, along with handling initiatives such as the redevelopment of Boston’s Old Colony housing project, Ms. Silman faced a formidable task upon becoming managing partner when the firm upgraded and expanded its offices.

Those at the firm refer to the 53 State St. offices “as the house that Ruth built,” Bouton said. “That space is spectacular, and it’s almost entirely because of Ruth.”

Although her professional achievements were numerous, Ms. Silman also spent countless hours with her family, raising her children, Phoebe and Jacob, with her husband.

A few nights before Ms. Silman died, she “told me that Phoebe and I have been her greatest achievements,” Jacob said in a reflection during his mother’s memorial service.

“Mom taught me patience, she taught me kindness,” he said, adding that “I’ve smiled more than I’ve cried since she’s passed, and yeah, everything reminds me of her, but that’s okay. I see her smile everywhere.”

In addition to her husband and children, all of Harvard, Ms. Silman leaves her mother, of Great Barrington, and her siblings, Joshua of Fairfax, Vt., and Miriam of Lexington, Ky.

A celebration of Ms. Silman’s life and work will be announced.

“I think the thing that was so inspiring about Ruth is that she was engaged in a lot of things, and there was a through line of the environment and the natural world and making the world a better place,” Miriam said.

Among the ways Ms. Silman did that was serving on the board of the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden Cancer Support Center in Harvard for about 17 years, beginning more than a decade before the first of the two cancer diagnoses.

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“She was a bright light and full of energy and had such a positive outlook,” said Meg Koch, who served with Ms. Silman on the board before becoming the center’s executive director.

“Ruth always was methodical in her analysis of a problem. She was able to see through the weeds to what was really important,” Koch said, adding that when Ms. Silman offered her opinion to the center’s leaders, “She did that with grace, she did it with diplomacy, and she was always right in how she advised us. And she was fun and funny and fashionable.”

Earlier this year, Ms. Silman was interviewed for a video about how cancer patients were faring during the pandemic. Ever the lawyer, her observations were as pragmatic as they were peaceful.

“Today’s a good day. I was able to go cross-country skiing for a short time,” she said.

“I’m alive. I can breathe,” she added, “so today is good.”


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