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Respected Vermont Law School Professor Dies

Cheryl Hanna (Vermont Law School photograph)

Cheryl Hanna (Vermont Law School photograph)

South Royalton — The community at Vermont Law School is mourning the death of professor Cheryl Hanna, an expert in constitutional law familiar to many from her frequent media appearances, where she worked to explain how law impacted people’s everyday lives.

The circumstances of Hanna’s death were unclear on Monday, with the law school characterizing her death “untimely.” The Burlington Police Department released a statement saying that an ambulance was called to a residence at the south end of the city on Sunday and transported a 48-year-old woman to Fletcher Allen Health Care, where she died. A preliminary autopsy and investigation conducted Sunday and Monday showed no signs of foul play or suspicious circumstances, according to Burlington Police.

The Burlington Free Press reported Monday that Hanna was found at her home on South Winooski Avenue in Burlington around noon Sunday. The cause of death is expected to be released Tuesday, according to the Burlington Free Press.

Students and faculty members gathered at Vermont Law School around 3:30 p.m. Monday in the Charles Yates Common Room to grieve and remember Hanna.

A group of students who had Hanna as their constitutional law professor during their first year of law school attended the gathering and spoke about Hanna outside Monday afternoon.

Alex Jury, a rising second year law student from Kansas City, said Hanna had a way of getting students to talk about a subject and think about it critically with little effort.

“She got the quietest people in the room to speak up,” Jury said. “People you’d never expect to hear a peep out of gave the best answers.”

No student was unimportant to Hanna, Jury said, and she was so good at leveling with students that it often felt like she was a peer leading the class.

While some professors made a reputation by intimidating their students, that was not Hanna’s approach.

“She made her name known by creating an intellectual environment and by making everyone feel smart,” Jury said.

She also made her name known by becoming a public face of Vermont Law School.

John Cramer was director of media relations at VLS from 2009 to 2012 and worked closely with Hanna, who became a regular commentator for media outlets such as WCAX, Vermont Public Radio, Seven Days and the Burlington Free Press. Cramer said some attorneys and legal professors do not enjoy talking to the media, but Hanna did, and more importantly, she understood the value in communicating and explaining the law and various court rulings in laymen terms.

“My impression, and I’m not a lawyer, but as a communicator, she was terrific at communicating about legal complexities in plain English,” said Cramer, who now is a spokesman for Dartmouth College.

Hanna recently became the Vice President for external relations, and Peter Teachout, a professor at the law school who also has an expertise in constitutional law, said that position allowed Hanna to help develop strategies for maintaining enrollment levels and strategies for dealing with the press when there were negative stories about law schools and VLS.

Cramer recalled numerous occasions when the school would be working on promotional videos in which they would enlist students to talk about the law school. Hanna knew most of the students by name and had a way of immediately putting them at ease in front of the camera. She would often bring her makeup kit and help women — and sometimes men — touch up before appearing on camera.

Hanna graduated from Kalamazoo (Mich.) College in 1988 and Harvard Law School in 1992, and beyond being an expert in constitutional law, she also had expertise in the U.S. Supreme Court and women and law.

Her work had been published in journals such as the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal and Michigan Journal of Gender and Law. She also served on the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore before joining the VLS faculty in 1994.

Vermont Law School put out a statement Monday saying that, in part, “Professor Hanna was a beloved teacher and role model to many within and beyond the Vermont Law School community. It is with heartache that we share this loss. She will be deeply missed by our faculty, staff, students, and alumni.”

Hanna is survived by her husband Paul Henninge, an industrial designer. They have two children ages 11 and 9.

State Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, was a student of Hanna’s when she started law school in 2007 before Buxton became her research assistant and teaching assistant for her constitutional law class, as well as a very good friend of Hanna’s.

Buxton, who also worked for the law school from 2010 to 2013 as assistant director of community and alumni relations, said Hanna strove to blur the lines between professor and mentor and often had “some pearl of wisdom” to share with students.

Hanna was the person who convinced Buxton to run for state representative, and she gave Buxton her first financial contribution and challenged her not to be afraid to fail.

When Hanna tried to hand Buxton a check, Buxton hesitated. Hanna then smiled at her and said, “Take it.”

“I will never ever ever ever forget that,” Buxton said. “That is just an example of her saying, ‘I see some potential and I want to be the strength and courage behind you so that you can grow.’ ”

A memorial service for Hanna will be held at a later date.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Correction

Because of a dropped prefix, the nature of Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna’s death, which had been described as unexpected, was mischaracterized in an earlier version of this story.