A few years after Carolyn Grace and her husband, John, left their law practices to found a blanket company on Maine’s Swans Island, she crisply described their creations, which already fetched hundreds of dollars apiece. “A wool blanket is an extraordinary thing,” she told the Globe in 1998.
To some, that might sound like an exaggeration, but Mrs. Grace “was constantly saying things were astonishing or amazing,” said her daughter, Claire, of Middletown, Conn. “It could be something as banal as the sunset. It could be anything and she meant it. Everything was completely vibrant for her. She was just so riveted to life.”
When Mrs. Grace spoke of the commonplace, it was a summons to notice beauty in moments most miss.
“More than really anyone I’ve ever met, she had an incredible capacity to experience joy and wonder in everyday life,” said her daughter, Anna, of Washington, D.C. “She had a sense of amazement about ordinary things. She would say, ‘Isn’t it heavenly? Isn’t it magnificent?’ And she would invite people to experience the same kind of wonder she was experiencing.”
At 65, the same age her mother was when she began to slip into dementia, Mrs. Grace was diagnosed with cognitive impairment. She was 77 when she died on Jan. 17 in Sherrill House in Jamaica Plain.
To those who knew her, Alzheimer’s disease seemed particularly heartbreaking for someone whose brilliance was evident at each turn in a life distinguished by a fair share of distinct turns. Mrs. Grace was a community and political organizer in Cambridge during the 1960s and then a producer of science programs for WGBH-TV. She finished law school in her late 30s and left a successful practice in her 50s to launch an equally successful blanket company.
“She was one of the smartest lawyers I ever met, and also one of the most creative,” said Richard Glovsky who worked with her in the US attorney’s office in Boston and now is with the firm Locke Lord.
Tom Shapiro, with whom Mrs. Grace cofounded Shapiro and Grace in 1981 after leaving the US attorney’s office, said that “she did cases that were difficult, to say the least. She had a real passion for working for her clients against odds and difficulties and complications.” Her approach was so personal, even during a deposition with a hostile witness, that when the firm grew into more spacious quarters she wanted a narrower conference table than what was first proposed. “She put her foot down and said, ‘I don’t want a table that wide because when I’m examining witnesses, I want to be close to them,’ ” Shapiro recalled.
While serving on an advisory committee for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, she took on cases for the organization, including one striking down a local ordinance prohibiting political signs on private property in a Boston suburb, said Sarah Wunsch, deputy legal director of the state chapter. “Carolyn was a great and strong and smart lawyer, and a stalwart supporter and defender of civil liberties,” Wunsch said.
Yet after nearly 20 years as an attorney, Mrs. Grace walked away. “I loved practicing law,” she told the Globe in 2000. “I was in litigation, and at some point, I didn’t want to fight anymore.” The decision was less agonizing for her than it would be for most.
“Many people would anguish and have major self-doubts about any of the life changes that she took as matter-of-fact. Transitions were easy for her, compared to the rest of us.” said her husband, who lives in Belmont.
“She, more than anyone I’ve ever known, was completely oriented around the present and future,” Claire said. “She did not talk about the past, really. She was engaged in what was happening right here, right now.”
Carolyn Robbin was born in Washington, D.C., and spent part of her childhood in Japan where her father, a lawyer, participated in war crimes trials after World War II. When she was 10 and traveling to Japan, she published a poem in a ship’s newspaper about her experience in B-4-C, the deck and room that were her family’s temporary home. Already apparent were her eye for detailed storytelling and the succinct writing that served her well as an organizer, editor, and attorney:
Oh B-4-C is the place for me
With all the noise plus children’s toys
With the yells and screams from nightmare
With luggage and bags until the ship
With sagging bunks and cluttered floor,
And constant banging on the door,
Little boys fighting, and mothers
There’s no place for me but B-4-C.
After finishing Kubasaki High School in Okinawa, Japan, in 1955 she graduated in three years from Stanford University, where she met Steven Carr. They married, moved east, and had two children before their marriage ended in divorce.
Mrs. Grace cochaired the Cambridge Neighborhood Committee on Vietnam, notching an organizational victory in 1967 by getting a referendum on the city ballot calling for troop withdrawal. Initial results showed that more than 39 percent voted to withdraw troops, the Globe reported — a higher total than anticipated. “Though she had never done something like this before, she was so talented,” said Michael Walzer, her cochair and then Harvard professor. “She was the heart and soul of this organization. She knew how to get people to do things.”
In 1970, she married John Grace, a longtime attorney who first saw her on TV, announcing the Cambridge referendum results.
She was a producer at WGBH-TV and an editor for the ethnographic filmmaker John Marshall before going to Northeastern University School of Law, from which she graduated in 1976. Mrs. Grace practiced at Foley, Hoag & Eliot, the US attorney’s office, and in the firm she cofounded while raising her children, facing gender barriers along the way. “I do not imagine a law firm would ask a male applicant whether he would be happy,” she told the Globe in 1984. “There was a concern with how hard I’d be able to work. Which is, for anyone who knows me, amusing.”
A service will be announced for Mrs. Grace, who in addition to her husband, two daughters, and former husband leaves another daughter, Julie Carr of Denver; a son, James Carr of Brookline; a brother, Tony Robbin of New York City; and five grandchildren.
After Mrs. Grace’s diagnosis, she and her husband sold to friends a controlling interest in Swans Island Blankets, which remains in Maine. The Graces returned to Greater Boston from Swans Island, where for years they vacationed with their children before living there full time to launch the business.
She had visited the Arctic a few times and “there was nothing she liked so much as extreme forms of weather: huge windstorms, deep fog, brilliant sunshine, pouring rain, howling storms, and particularly snowstorms,” her husband said.
In the swirl of life, though, she had a liberating ability to not “be bound by the stuff of life that doesn’t matter,” Anna wrote in an e-mail, “whether it’s excess language, formality, expectations of others, the past, and instead do or say just what one most wants to do or say. I miss a great many things about my mother, and this is one of the things I miss the most.”