He began each of his more than 10,000 radio segments the same way, “This is Neil Chayet, ‘Looking at the Law’ ” — drawing out every L for emphasis and often closing his broadcast with a memorable pun.
A Harvard-trained lawyer, Mr. Chayet introduced listeners to legal issues from around the world and entertained them with what essentially were law school mini-tutorials. Beginning on WEEI-AM in the mid-1970s, and later switching to WBZ-AM, his show was syndicated to cities as distant as Seattle, and to foreign countries via the Armed Forces Network.
“Neil was both a storyteller and an educator,” said Peter Casey, who is WBZ News Radio’s director of news and programming and was Mr. Chayet’s longtime friend. “He taught people about the law, he made people fans of the law, and I think he helped people understand the law.”
Mr. Chayet, who announced less than eight weeks ago that he was retiring after 42 years of “Looking at the Law,” died Friday in the historic Salem home he and his wife had restored. He was 78 and had been diagnosed with small cell cancer, WBZ and his family said in announcing his death.
Though most widely known for his radio work, he also was involved in Republican Party politics for decades. Mr. Chayet had been an adviser to Governor William Weld and at various points considered running for Massachusetts governor or the US Senate. In addition, Mr. Chayet had a long legal career that often focused on medical issues, including a lengthy battle with the federal government in the 1970s over labeling issues related to a diabetes medication.
Over the years, his clients included Jonas Salk and Nobel laureate Linus Pauling. For the state Legislature, Mr. Chayet helped draft a bill to reform drug laws, writing in the Globe in 1971 that the possession statute was outdated, punishing “the possessor of marijuana as harshly as it punishes the possessor of heroin.”
Mr. Chayet also was among the attorneys representing Bridgewater State Hospital inmates who filed a $5 million lawsuit in 1969 against filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, saying their privacy was invaded by his documentary “Titicut Follies.” An advocate for providing greater legal protection to the mentally ill, Mr. Chayet wrote in a 1968 Globe essay that “the commitment laws of Massachusetts are outdated and ineffective on every level.” He told lawmakers at a legislative hearing that year that the state “now has rubber stamp proceedings where the judge always assumes the physician is right.”
Soon after graduating from law school, he was part of a team that studied fatal accidents on Route 128. And as an assistant professor at the Boston University Law-Medicine Institute, he drafted a bill to establish that anyone who drives in the state implicitly consents to sobriety tests in the event of a fatal accident.
Early on, he recognized he had a polished presence, which later helped establish him as a radio personality. “A trial is a real-life play, in a way,” he told the Globe in 1999, as he discussed his post-law school work trying intersection crash cases for an insurance company in the 1960s. Mr. Chayet wondered why he won about 85 percent of the time. “I asked a judge, and he said, ‘You prepare them like first-degree murder cases, and they’re small dollars, so we always find for you.’ I’ve always believed you’ve got to get people’s attention. My mother was a great teller of stories, and it left a lot of impact on me.”
Neil L. Chayet was born in Boston, the son of Ely Chayet and the former Blanche Poretsky. His father had served as a Norfolk District Court judge and an assistant district attorney in Norfolk County.
After graduating from Brookline High School, Mr. Chayet went to Tufts University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1960. He later served on the university’s board of trustees, the board of advisors for the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, and the faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts. In 2007, Tufts honored him with a Distinguished Service Award.
Mr. Chayet graduated in 1963 from Harvard Law School. He was a lecturer on legal medicine in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School and at McLean Hospital, and more recently cochaired the law school’s Senior Advisory Network, which helps alumni prepare for challenges they face as they grow older.
“I can’t remember a dull day in the last 17 years,” he told the Globe in 1981.
The president of Chayet Communications Group, which he launched to seek coalitions that can help resolve difficult disputes in law, medicine, and public policy, Mr. Chayet focused much of his attention in recent years on conflict resolution. He taught a Tufts University Experimental College course called “Conflict! New Ways of Thinking About Life’s Challenges.”
“He looked at the conflicts up and down the street, or around the world, and he wanted to teach people how to address conflict better and solve some of the problems,” Casey said.
Mr. Chayet formerly was married to Susan Mullen Chayet, with whom he had three children.
Since they married in 1980, he and his wife, Martha Chayet, have been “a great team and a great pair and a great couple,” Casey said.
For more than a decade, the Chayets have been restoring the 1811 Joseph Story House in Salem, which was built for the late US Supreme Court associate justice. They frequently hosted fund-raisers and gatherings for organizations — “33 events the first year they were living there,” Casey said. “They just loved doing that. It’s quite remarkable.”
The Chayets explored the New England coast in their powerboat, Sooner, and Mr. Chayet also owned Breeze, a Hinckley sloop constructed in 1946 by iconic boat builder Henry Hinckley. The couple formerly lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where Mr. Chayet “re-created the Boston & Maine Railroad in the basement” and fired it up when his grandchildren visited. “It’s a great excuse,” he told the Globe in 1999. “You wouldn’t want to be caught running your trains alone.”
In addition to his wife and former wife, Mr. Chayet leaves two sons, Michael of Weston, Conn., and Ely of Calabasas, Calif.; a daughter, Lisa Chayet Sahlberg of Raymond, Maine; a sister, Jayne Olken of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.
“I’m sort of a born entertainer,” Mr. Chayet told the Globe in 1999. He often edited scripts for his “Listening to the Law” broadcasts right up to the moment he began taping segments — all the better to make sure each one ended just right, preferably on a light note.
One segment concerned a big marijuana arrest on the West Coast, where authorities decided to bring their haul out to sea on a barge and burn it offshore, within sniffing distance of a flock of terns. “And then the last line in Neil’s piece was, ‘No tern was left unstoned,’ ” Casey recalled. “That was my favorite pun even before I knew it was Neil’s favorite one. I guess the flock of birds out there had an interesting time for themselves.”
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