A Life: Gilbert Kujovich, 1946-2017; ‘Gil Didn’t Talk About Things That Should Be Done, He Did Them’

  • Gil Kujovich and his wife, Joni Chenoweth, in Bayona, Spain. The couple met on a beach in the Florida Keys in 1994. (Family photograph)

  • Gil Kujovich in class at Vermont Law School, where he began teaching in 1981 and retired in 2014. (Courtesy Vermont Law School)

  • Gil Kujovich, center, with President Jimmy Carter, right, and Tom Farmer, chairman of the president's Intelligence Oversight Board from 1977 to 1981. Kujovich served as the board's chief counsel. (Courtesy Vermont Law School)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2018

South Royalton — Gil Kujovich had only been teaching at Vermont Law School for a year when a young black student named Shirley Jefferson from rural Alabama arrived on campus in 1982.

After watching Jefferson struggle to adapt to the rigors of law school during her first year, Kujovich stepped in.

He arrived at Jefferson’s apartment near campus one day with two empty file cabinets and an old door that he quickly turned into a makeshift desk. He then wheeled over a chair from his office.

“Now you can study,” he told her.

Next, Kujovich started knocking on the office doors of his colleagues. He explained that Jefferson was “smart and highly motivated,” but she could benefit from extra help to get through law school and pass the bar exam.

Jefferson, only the second black woman to attend VLS, was a product of the segregated public school system in Selma, Ala. She was one of nine children. Her mother died when she was 15. Her father was a truck driver.

Jefferson deserved their help, Kujovich told his colleagues.

“It was typical of him,” said David Firestone, who was among the faculty enlisted to tutor Jefferson. “Gil didn’t talk about things that should be done, he did them.”

Kujovich, who retired from VLS in 2014, died Dec. 14, 2017, following a long illness. He was 71.

At a Jan. 27 memorial service at VLS, Firestone said that Kujovich was committed to making the state’s only law school a “more diverse campus” by seeking out students from historically black colleges.

“Gil invented diversity at Vermont Law School,” Firestone said. “The school and the state of Vermont have greatly benefited.”

Today, more than 20 percent of VLS’ 575 students are people of color. And Jefferson has played a big part.

After graduating in 1986 and passing the District of Columbia’s bar exam, she practiced in the nation’s capital for a dozen years. In 1999, she returned to VLS, where she now serves as associate dean for student affairs and diversity.

“Gil was like a father to me,” Jefferson said. “He fought for me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

As part of her administrative duties, Jefferson writes an annual diversity report for the school that Kujovich offered to read before it was submitted. Last year, he emailed her from his hospital bed.

“Nice job on the diversity plan,” he wrote. “There’s a typo on Page 4.”

“To the end, he was still helping me,” Jefferson said.

At the memorial service, attorney Michael Chenoweth described his brother-in-law as the ultimate teacher. “He taught in the classroom and he taught us by the way he lived his life.”

Until Kujovich was 11, his family lived on Chicago’s South Side in a diverse working-class neighborhood.

“We were taught never to judge anyone other than how they were as a person,” said his older brother, Larry.

The family later moved to Gettysburg, Penn. In high school, Kujovich had some “rough patches,” recalled Robert Dietz, a childhood friend who spoke at the memorial service.

After a year of waiting tables to pay for night school, Kujovich was accepted at Middlebury College, where Dietz was already a student.

He “sailed through” Middlebury, Dietz said, and after graduating in 1969, he was accepted at Harvard Law School. But Uncle Sam had other ideas. The Army shipped Kujovich to Vietnam where he saw combat duty with a light infantry unit.

Kujovich graduated from Harvard Law in 1975. Afterward, he clerked for two U.S. Supreme Courts justices — Potter Stewart and Byron White — before joining the legal staff at the U.S. Department of Defense.

He also worked in the White House during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. He served as chief counsel to the Intelligence Oversight Board, which advises the president on constitutional issues involving the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

In a 1980 exit interview at the White House, Kujovich was asked about his plans.

“I want to teach,” he said. “I find the longer you spend in Washington, the more you begin to perceive it as the center of the world.

“I think it’s important that people get out for a while and sort of refresh themselves.”

In 1981, Kujovich joined the faculty at VLS, where he taught constitutional law, a course known to make or break first-year law students.

“He scared us, but he inspired us, too,” said attorney Michael Hill, one of Kujovich’s first students and a current VLS trustee.

Hill, who spoke at the memorial service, said that Kujovich “never told us about his background,” including his time at the White House.

“He didn’t talk a lot about himself,” said Kujovich’s wife of 21 years, Joni Chenoweth. “He was engaging, but he was really private.”

Kujovich was also confident enough in his abilities that he didn’t fall into academia’s “publish or perish” trap.

“He was not a prolific writer,” said VLS professor Peter Teachout, “but what he wrote was of lasting quality.”

In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court announced its decision in Baker v. Vermont. In the landmark case, the court ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to the same “common benefits and protections that flow from marriage” to heterosexual couples under state law.

But justices left it up to lawmakers to find a solution. With time of an essence, legislators turned to Kujovich for guidance. “They really needed a neutral expert who could teach them about constitutional law,” said VLS professor Greg Johnson.

Kujovich gave lawmakers a crash course in the equal protection clause of the constitution. The end result: The Legislature approved civil unions in 2000.

“He gave legislators the legal arguments for why to do it,” Johnson said.

Kujovich was not only a resource for state lawmakers, but colleagues as well. Mark Latham joined the VLS faculty in 2005, after a lengthy career in environmental law.

Attracting minority students and faculty, like himself, to a predominantly white state and law school is a constant challenge, said Latham.

“It helped that we had him behind us,” Latham said. “He was a wonderful mentor. He was fair, thoughtful and funny as hell.”

At the memorial service, VLS professor Clara Gimenez ventured to guess that few people knew that Kujovich was a fan of the “trash reality TV show” Storage Wars. Or that he knew the “exact ratio of sugar to water” to use so hummingbirds would come to “your feeder, not the neighbors’,” said Gimenez.

Joni Chenoweth was introduced to Kujovich’s quirky side on day one.

In January 1994, Chenoweth, a physician’s assistant from Indianapolis, had traveled to the Florida Keys, which she did from time to time, to “recharge her batteries.”

One morning, she arrived at the beach to find her favorite spot already taken by a man in pants and long-sleeve shirt, reading Cider House Rules.

“He was facing away from the water,” Chenoweth said at the memorial service. “Who does that?”

At the end of the day, “We just started talking,” she said. “That was the beginning.”

She described Kujovich as someone who could “think around a corner.” Early in their relationship, he warned her that he’d win any argument they might have. “I was trained to argue,” he told her, “but that doesn’t mean I’m always right.”

In September 2016, Kujovich and Chenoweth were getting ready to buy a second home in Florida when he was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome — a type of cancer that attacks a person’s bone marrow.

“When he got sick, he didn’t want anyone to know,” Chenoweth said. “I was sworn to secrecy.”

But word eventually slipped out, and his friends, colleagues and former students began calling, emailing and stopping by.

“Gil was such a humble man, I don’t think that he really had any recognition of how many people he touched,” Chenoweth said.

Brenda Taite was one. Taite grew up in rural Alabama, the daughter of a taxi driver and housekeeper. Taite, a single mom living in Maryland, was accepted at VLS in 2002.

Taite and her son, Trevor York, hadn’t been north of New York City before she enrolled at VLS and moved to Claremont. Knowing she had a long commute on what could be treacherous roads in the wintertime, Kujovich made sure that she kept a shovel and warm clothes in her car.

Aware that Taite and her son didn’t have family in the area, he and Chenoweth insisted they come to their home in Barre, Vt., for dinner on Christmas Eve.

Taite and her son, who graduated from medical school last year, now live in Albany, N.Y. On the Saturday of Kujovich’s memorial service, they made the three-hour drive to South Royalton.

“He taught me so much more than just about the law,” said Taite, who had Kujovich for constitutional law and later took his civil rights class. “He cared about his students as people.”

At the service, Chenoweth spoke of how her husband approached the end of his life. “He was so determined to live, but so accepting of death,” she said.

“The last thing he said to me was, ‘How are you doing?’

“He was dying, and he was worried about me.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.