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S. Royalton, VLS Mourn Ex-President

Tuesday, August 05, 2014
South Royalton — Geoffrey B. Shields had a rare gift for paying attention. Students remember the affable former dean of Vermont Law School hiking with them to Kent’s Ledge and hosting dinners with his wife, Genie. They remember his gentle spirit, his caring nature and his commitment to fairness.

Shields died Saturday at age 68, holding Genie’s hand in their Guilford, Vt., home. After a diagnosis of mantle cell lymphoma, a rare non-Hodgkin lymphoma, three and a half years ago, Shields stepped down from being the school’s dean and president after four decades as a practicing attorney and educator.

His son, Jordan Shields, 39, of Chicago, remembers his father’s love for mentoring people.

“He was an incredibly soft-spoken and caring person,” he said. “He loved spending time trying to help people that entered his life. That’s what I’ll remember about him.”

While Shields presided as Vermont Law School’s seventh dean, from 2004 to 2012, the school strengthened the reputation of its environmental law program. Shields established several institutes, including the U.S.-China Partnership for Environmental Law and the VLS Institute for Energy and the Environment.

During the school’s 39th Commencement ceremony in May, both Shields and his wife received honorary degrees.

“Our hearts are heavy as we share the news of Dean Shields’ passing,” Edward C. Mattes, chairman of the law school’s Board of Trustees Chairman, said in a statement Monday.

When he wasn’t working in the field of law, Shields prized time in the outdoors with his family. When his daughter, Comfort, was young, he took her on canoeing trips. Jordan Shields remembers the family hiking and skiing together. Shields remained close with his parents and siblings, too, at one point moving three doors down from his childhood home in Lake Forest, Ill., so he could check in at his parents’ breakfast table on morning runs.

Mark Latham, a vice dean at Vermont Law School, knew something was different about Shields when the two met at a Chicago law firm in the late ‘80s. Shields invited Latham and other summer associates to have a dinner of smoked turkey at his house.

“That dinner was a classic Jeff and Genie event,” Latham said. “Just the notion that a partner in a large Chicago law firm would have a group of associates to his home was so wonderful, and it just made us all feel so welcome.”

Latham called Shields a “terrific lawyer and mentor,” which is why he was surprised when Shields left his chairman position at Gardner Carton and Douglas for Vermont Law School. Shields had developed a national reputation for his work in not-for-profit law, corporate law, health care law and international trade law, and he had degrees from Harvard College and Yale Law School.

But Latham immediately understood Shields’ move when he visited the rolling hills of Vermont, and soon made the same move himself. As dean, Shields maintained his “ability to connect and to do so in a genuine way,” Latham said.

Under Shields’ leadership, Vermont Law School was one of only two law schools in the country that did not allow recruiters on campus in protest of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law regarding gays and lesbians, and it was the only law school to lose some federal funding because of its anti-discriminatory position.

“That was a powerful statement and not an easy choice in some respects,” Latham said.

Shields approached his cancer in a “remarkable way,” Latham said. “He continued to work even from the hospital... It was just amazing to me that he was fully engaged while going through chemotherapy.”

Micaela Tucker, a former VLS student, remembers Shields perched on the edge of his seat, listening closely to whomever was speaking.

“That’s a truly wonderful characteristic of a good leader, someone who can put all the noise aside and tend to the person and the issue right in front of them,” said Tucker, a 2009 graduate who worked with Shields at the school’s law review.

Tucker, now an assistant attorney general in the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, remembers a four-hour dinner at Shields’ Tunbridge house. Under a chandelier lit with candles, Shields told stories and laughed with students, his attention attuned completely to them.

“It was magical,” Tucker said. “It was like he had nowhere else to be... It felt like that night lasted forever. It was that feeling of suspending time.”

Shields was a “statesman in the true meaning of the word,” said state Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a former student of his.

“He was compassionate and thoughtful, and he valued honesty and integrity,” she said. “He cared very much about students and about people, first and foremost, before policy and even his own reputation.”

Online, former students, colleagues and friends left tributes to Shields, who was known on campus as the man in a bow tie. “He lived and breathed and believed in VLS,” wrote Pavel Reznikov. “A true scholar and a gentleman, a rare kind.”

Wrote South Royalton resident Shannon Stoddard, who remembered his kindly presence in town: “I can tell you how he did at being human; he was wonderful.”

Shields’ grandson Oliver Parry wrote an essay in February about his grandfather, published on the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s website.

“I dream about being a lot like Pop Pop when I grow up,” wrote Oliver, then 9 years old. “I am hoping that I never stop learning in life and that I always take time to enjoy the things around me like Pop Pop does.”

Now, the phone calls keep coming to the Shields home, Jordan Shields said, with people telling stories about his father. They tell Jordan how ethical his father was, how he always stood up in the name of fairness.

“He always believed in doing the right thing,” Jordan said.

A memorial service for Shields will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 16, at Vermont Law School. His family has asked that any gifts in his memory be sent to the Hallowell Singers, 191 Canal St., Brattleboro, Vt. 05301, or to The Jeff and Genie Shields Prize at Vermont Law School, 164 Chelsea St., South Royalton Vt. 05068.

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