David Grossman’s trifecta of Harvard diplomas — undergraduate, divinity school, law school — never saw the light of day. They might be lost somewhere in his sister’s basement, which was fine with Mr. Grossman, who had no taste for flaunting anything.
“I once asked him if we could find his diplomas and hang them up and he said absolutely not,” recalled his wife, Stacy. “He was against self-praise of any kind. Whenever someone was bragging about themselves he would say to me or the kids ‘SPS,’ which means: ‘Self-Praise Stinks.’ ”
Though he made his living through his Harvard Law School education, Mr. Grossman was guided on a social justice path by his faith and the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam — the shared responsibility to repair the world. His tools were housing laws he used to help poor tenants keep their homes when they faced eviction, particularly through the housing crisis of several years ago. A clinical professor at Harvard Law School, he had directed the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau since 2006, providing free counsel to hundreds of indigent clients and inspiring his law students to assist thousands more.
“On the foreclosure work, we’re really the last line of defense,” he told The Nation in 2011. “We’re the army fighting Wall Street.”
Diagnosed with cancer seven years ago, Mr. Grossman persevered for his family, and also for his clients and colleagues, sending e-mails about ongoing cases until about two weeks before he died July 12 in his Newton home. He was 57.
Mr. Grossman helped develop the “lawyer for the day” program at Boston Housing Court, which provided assistance to tenants facing eviction and pushed law students into the courtroom version of a hectic hospital emergency room. Through the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, he also helped guide the nonprofit tenants’ rights organization Project No One Leaves.
“He made sure that lawyers and law students worked hand-in-hand with clients, community members, and community organizations in bringing legal education to low-income people facing foreclosure and eviction, advancing protections for individuals, families, and communities, changing and enforcing laws, and strengthening the tools and spirit necessary for helping people in serious need,” Martha Minow, dean of Harvard Law School, said in a statement. “With a formidable intellect and constant courage, David also brought his tremendous humility, humor, and friendship to every encounter, elevating allies and opponents alike.”
Steve Meacham, an organizer with the housing advocacy group City Life/Vida Urbana, said he and Mr. Grossman “would battle landlords and their attorneys, and then he would invite them into his class for a debate. He would treat them with such respect as human beings that they would feel welcome.”
Among those Mr. Grossman helped retain her home was Mary Wright of Roxbury, who also is a City Life/Vida Urbana organizer. “He was a great man. I called him my hero,” said Wright, whom Mr. Grossman asked to sing “Amazing Grace” at his funeral. “I don’t know where I would have been if it weren’t for David. He left quite a legacy,” she said, adding that whenever those facing eviction wanted to quit and walk away, “he said, ‘Don’t — we can win,’ and if he told you we could win, we could win.”
To help even the chances for poor clients, Mr. Grossman also “was instrumental in getting a ‘just cause’ eviction statute passed in Massachusetts in 2010, which prevented banks from evicting tenants from their homes in foreclosed properties for no fault — thus largely ending the injustice of mass eviction of tenants from such properties that occurred for no other reason than it was more expedient for banks if such properties were vacant,” Patricia Whiting, a senior clinical instructor at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, said in a eulogy at his funeral.
“He showed how words like justice and fairness were not just ideals for discussion, but principles that had to be fought for, protected, and defended,” US Representative Joseph Kennedy III, who had been one of Mr. Grossman’s students, said on the House floor, adding: “Through his service, he protected thousands of people in need and inspired hundreds of young lawyers. Our community has lost a champion, but his values and vision live on through all those he touched.”
David Abraham Grossman was born in Jersey City. His father, Harold, was a physician. His mother, the former Gloria Feldman, had graduated from Cornell University and augmented her children’s education when local schools were subpar. She read to Mr. Grossman from “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and taught him to memorize poems and the Greek alphabet.
“I grew up in awe of my brother,” his sister, Dr. Rachel Grossman of Princeton, N.J., said in her eulogy. “He was a genius — quick-witted, funny, and kind-hearted.”
The family moved to Teaneck, N.J., in search of better schools, and then sent Mr. Grossman to the Horace Mann private school in New York City.
“David was a brilliant student,” his friend and classmate Jay R. Lieberman said in a eulogy. “How many people do you know that had Princeton as a safety school when applying to college and only applied to one law school?”
Mr. Grossman majored in biology as a Harvard undergraduate, received a master’s in Eastern religions from Harvard Divinity School, and graduated in 1988 from Harvard Law School. “He was recruited heavily to be on law review and he turned it down many times,” his wife said. “I asked him why, and he said he thought it was pretentious and useless.”
Instead he began working with indigent clients through the school’s Legal Services Center, cofounded by legendary professor Gary Bellow, who became a mentor and an inspiration. Mr. Grossman returned to work at the center as a clinical instructor in 1995, after a few years practicing in New York City, where he met Stacy Soave. They married in 1997.
As a teacher and lawyer, his preferred attire owed more to his musical hero Bruce Springsteen than his Ivy League background. Sporting a goatee, Mr. Grossman had reading glasses that either perched on his nose or dangled from sleeveless T-shirts. Sunglasses were perpetually pushed atop his head. “He always had a pair of cheap sunglasses that he got from CVS,” said his wife, who added that his style spoke to “not being interested in materialism at all.”
His presence, meanwhile, spoke volumes about his experience, dedication, and clout. “His discussion of what the law could do would inspire confidence, and he was the kind of man who inspired confidence,” Meacham said, but Mr. Grossman “didn’t want the lawyer to be perceived as the savior. He wanted to empower.”
In addition to his wife and sister, Mr. Grossman leaves two teenaged children, his son, Lev, and his daughter, Shayna.
Mr. Grossman’s other children were law students who now fill offices across the country. Some are public defenders or prosecutors, some joined firms, and many were inspired to follow his example and help the most vulnerable. Scores of former students sent e-mails when they heard he was ill, writing about how they learned as much from his personal example as they did from his teaching.
“You changed my life. Not in the overused-cliche, isn’t-that-a-nice-thing-to-say kind of way, but in the truest sense of the words. I am a different person because of you. And I am one among countless others,” one student wrote. “You could’ve done anything with all those fancy Harvard degrees, you know. But instead of framed diplomas in some glittery corner office, you chose tattered maps in the back room of the Bureau. You chose your community. You chose your students.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.