×

Bill Chapman has never been in a hurry to be recognized

  • Concord attorney Bill Chapman receives the Citizen of the Year Award at the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Concord attorney Bill Chapman at his Concord home on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. Chapman was honored as this year’s Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Concord attorney Bill Chapman receives the Citizen of the Year Award at the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Concord attorney Bill Chapman receives the Citizen of the Year Award at the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Concord attorney Bill Chapman at his Concord home on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. Chapman was honored as this year’s Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Concord attorney Bill Chapman accepts the Citizen of the Year Award at the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Thursday, November 09, 2017

No one in history could wear a broken pelvis better than attorney Bill Chapman, who’s never been in a big rush, and who’s moving like a snail these days.

Take Wednesday night, for example. Chapman – named Citizen of the Year at the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce’s 98th Annual Meeting – has built his portfolio on methodical, calm thinking; a gentle nature; kindness; modesty; and, most of all, patience.

That’s what the people who voted for him told me again and again. That’s what they wrote about him as part of the nomination process. Chapman is the legal community’s version of Mr. Rogers, and Concord is, indeed, his neighborhood.

So maybe it’s symbolic in a painful way that Chapman – who’s championed First Amendment and civil rights here and on a national level, donated countless dollars to nonprofits and worked on more boards than a championship surfer – fell off his bicycle in a freak accident last week, leaving him with crutches and a walker, and forcing him to attend the banquet in a wheelchair.

Chapman rose to a standing ovation, hooked up his crutches to his forearms and made his way to the microphone. Chapman, you see, was never one to rush forward, seeking praise.

“To say I’m speechless would be an understatement,” Chapman told the packed crowd at the Grappone Conference Center. “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything and leave it at that.”

He thanked his parents for teaching him that “no one has a monopoly on wisdom,” and it’s clear Chapman has carried that with him through his professional and volunteer work.

Earlier in the day, I met Chapman at his white ranch-style home in Concord to get a jump on this column.

We walked from his office to his living room, maybe 15 feet tops, and that took a good 15 seconds. We talked for an hour, about what makes him tick, his legal career, his personal life, and never once did his words outrun his mind.

Chapman earned this award because he’s been like an octopus, his reach stretching in so many different directions since moving here 45 years ago, after working at a paper mill and in publishing in the New York City area.

He’s 75, down to three days a week at the Orr and Reno law firm. I asked Chapman to cite what’s been dearest to his heart.

He mentioned the work he’s done with Chris Emond, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central New Hampshire, and he mentioned the work he’s done with Debbie Watrous, the former executive director at New Hampshire Humanities.

Then he praised New Hampshire’s contribution to public radio, the staff of fine young reporters whose work there is as good as any National Public Radio chapter in the nation.

“Of all the organizations I’ve been a part of, the one I’m most simpatico with is public radio,” Chapman told me. “Just because of its mission. How can you do better than Betsy Gardella? I think the reporting team does an outstanding job, and to be a part of that group – and to bring my background in publishing and law into that – is special.”

Gardella is the president at NHPR. She’s worked with Chapman since 2005, looking to him for guidance as her staff pursued dicey topics.

“We have a lot of young reporters in our newsroom, and with these more ambitious pieces it’s essential we get it right,” Gardella told me by phone. “Bill is more than willing to have a conversation with our reporters and listen to what they have to say. He asks great questions and from those questions the answers become clear.”

“The only thing that surprises me is that he has not won this already,” she added.

Tim Sink, the chamber’s director, spoke to that, telling me, “A lot of things have fallen under the radar screen. A lot of people know him, but they don’t know what he’s done.”

Then let me introduce you to Chapman. He’s 5-foot-10 and wiry. He played football at Williams College and scored a touchdown in a 12-0 win over UMass Amherst in 1961, the biggest game in school history. He took a year off to pursue professional golf, and while he wasn’t quite good enough, his family got to know Gary Player, one of the greatest golfers ever.

A shoulder injury kept him out of Vietnam, and a college roommate inspired him to pursue a law degree and fight for civil rights.

His plan was simple: “Why don’t I go to law school and see what happens?” he said to himself.

Concord is happy he did.

Chapman was out front on right-to-know issues during the 1970s. When the pendulum swung and the press began to lose its footing in courts of law, Chapman stepped forward, outlining a national compendium for laws of defamation.

Before long, with New Hampshire’s lengthy statute of limitations, Chapman began representing heavyweights here like Fortune magazine, Businessweek and the Boston Globe.

“I stumbled into it,” Chapman said. “I was lucky.”

A few years ago, Chapman fought all the way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, defending a man who, because of a change in the statute, was being forced to register as a sex offender nearly 15 years after committing his crime. The judge agreed that the lower court had erred.

“Bill is the embodiment of what it means to be a lawyer committed to the principle that constitutional protections must apply to all citizens,” Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director for the state’s ACLU chapter, wrote in his letter nominating Chapman. “Many lawyers and many law firms would not have taken the case.”

Asked if he had any misgivings about defending the man, Chapman said, simply, “No. I think it was unfair, and he had not offended since.”

Through it all came the volunteer work and charitable donations, benefiting the Boys & Girls Club, Concord Hospital, the United Way, the ACLU, NHPR, the mental health community, poor people in search of legal services, and more.

Emond noted that during the onset of the recession in 2008, Chapman cut the Boys & Girls Club a check and told Emond to spend the money where it was needed.

“He said he understood that a lot of charities were hurting and he wanted to help where he could,” Emond told me. “He always just respectfully asks to be anonymous. Most of the things he’s done I probably didn’t even know about.”

While Chapman shuns the spotlight, I was surprised he opened up about his personal life.

He told me he’s been divorced for nearly 40 years and never remarried. He’s got two sons in their 40s, a book editor in Jackson and the owner of a bike repair shop in Santa Fe, N.M.

Still, he said he’s not lonely.

“I have adjusted to it. I’ve never been un-open to meeting anyone, but it’s never been high on my radar screen. And after a while, I think you sort of get into a groove, and it feels pretty good,” he said.

Concord has felt good for decades, thanks in part to Chapman’s kindness, so the city gave something back to him at the annual chamber banquet.

Chapman told the crowd what he learned from his parents: “What you don’t say today, you can always say tomorrow,” he said.

This after a long, hard walk to the stage, leaning hard on those crutches.

After all, when it comes to accolades, what’s the rush?

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)