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Jim Kenyon: In Search of Anthony Doria’s Name on VLS Campus

Anthony Doria, founder of Vermont Law School, speaks on the phone in an undated photograph. (Valley News - Dan Hunting)

Anthony Doria, founder of Vermont Law School, speaks on the phone in an undated photograph. (Valley News - Dan Hunting)

At Vermont Law School, it’s the rare building or broom closet that doesn’t have someone’s name attached to it. On a stroll across campus, I found Oakes Hall, Cornell Library, Hoff Lounge and the Nina Thomas Classroom.

But one name seemed to be missing: Anthony Doria.

No building, lecture hall or washroom bears his name. It’s as though Doria never existed, at least in the eyes of VLS, which is kind of odd considering he started the school. Without Doria, I think it’s fair to say, there would be no VLS. And South Royalton, without the influx of 225 or so students a year, would be a lesser community.

I bring all of this up now only because Doria is no longer around to do it himself, which he did at every opportunity while alive. In an Oct. 17 front-page story, the weekly Herald of Randolph broke the news that Doria, after years of battling cancer and heart problems, had died. He was 85.

Considering his advanced age and declining health, I doubt the news caught many people by surprise. It was a little startling, however, to learn that Doria had been dead for nearly five months before the news broke.

A year ago, Doria suffered a stroke and spent his final months in a Hanover nursing home. He died May 23. Apparently, there was no funeral, and no obituary was published in a local paper. I was told that his daughter, who lives in New York, arranged for his cremation.

But that’s about all that anyone around here appears to know. Doria, it seems, was an enigma to the end.

Doria, who claimed to be the descendant of European nobility and a lawyer by trade, arrived in the U.S. on the Fourth of July, 1949. By the mid-1960s, the immigrant from Genoa, Italy, known by some as Count Doria, was teaching at a community college on Long Island.

During a weekend excursion to Vermont, his convertible ran out of gas. He walked across the bridge leading into the village of South Royalton, where a for-sale sign hung from the town’s vacant schoolhouse.

He bought the schoolhouse and surrounding buildings for $20,000. Within a year, he had purchased more than a dozen pieces of property. Some residents feared he was buying up the town with the intention of renaming it Doriaville.

In the spring of 1973, Doria took out an ad in a Sunday edition of The New York Times, announcing that a new law school in South Royalton was taking applications. “I had 127 applicants, and I accepted them all,” Doria told me years later. “They came because they couldn’t go anywhere else. I was willing to take a chance on them because they were willing to take a chance on me.”

By the following spring, it didn’t appear to be a risk worth taking. The school, less than a year after it opened, was already $200,000 in debt. The board of trustees, chaired by Woodstock lawyer Thomas Debevoise, a former Vermont attorney general, asked Doria to step down as dean.

Doria had little choice. A story was making the rounds that Doria had been convicted in 1959 of “cheating by fraudulent pretenses” a Philadelphia delicatessen owner, who claimed at the time that Doria had failed to repay a $5,000 personal loan. The conviction was later overturned, after the deli owner acknowledged giving false testimony. But the damage was done. After that, Doria, in his words, spent much of his life trying to persuade people that he wasn’t a “con man.” Many people, particularly those to whom Doria owed money, were not convinced.

In 1974, Debevoise took over as dean. The Columbia Law School graduate is widely regarded as the school’s savior. He engineered a successful $1 million fundraising drive and ushered the school through the American Bar Association’s accreditation process.

While VLS established itself as a national leader in environmental law and launched the careers of hundreds of lawyers, Doria was persona non grata on his own campus.

But in 1998, while the school was preparing to celebrate its 25th anniversary, then-Dean Kinvin Wroth extended an olive branch. He made sure that Doria received an invitation to the festivities. Wroth also went to Doria’s house, as I did numerous times over the years, for pasta lunches. “Anthony was obviously an important part of the law school,” said Wroth, when I called him last week.

While walking across the VLS campus last Wednesday afternoon, I met Marc Mihaly, the school’s current dean. Like most people on and off the campus, he learned of Doria’s death through The Herald. Although he never met Doria, Mihaly seemed to appreciate his role. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here today. He was an entrepreneur and a risk taker.”

During my conversation with Mihaly, I noted that I couldn’t find any mention of Doria on campus. The dean invited me to follow him to his office in Debevoise Hall. Mihaly pointed to a silver bowl encased on the wall outside his office. It had the names of all eight VLS deans, starting with Doria.

I guess that counts for something. And maybe it’s all Doria could expect. His case for having a more prominent place in VLS history probably ended in 2005, when he was sentenced to one month in federal prison for tax evasion.

On my way to the parking lot, I introduced myself to Al Miller, who works on the school’s grounds and maintenance crew. Miller, 57, attended elementary school in the 19th-century wooden building that Doria later rescued. He told me that he had met Doria a few times over the years. He knew that Doria didn’t exactly have the most sterling reputation. Still, as he looked across the campus, said Miller, “None of this would be here, if it weren’t for him.”

History can’t be changed. And it shouldn’t be forgotten, either.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@Valley.net.