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Richard Emmet, 82, lawyer, influential advocate for environment

Richard Emmet was a leading force behind the Conservation Law Foundation. Richard Emmet was a leading force behind the Conservation Law Foundation.

At an age when retirement beckons, Richard Emmet stepped into a third career and helped change the course of environmental law in Massachusetts.

Fresh from Harvard Law School in 1951, he had worked for Ropes & Gray in Boston, only to find that helping large companies reduce their tax burdens wasn't satisfying. Then he spent more than a quarter century at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, where he was revered for his teaching at the private school and was feared for his grading.

"I was 59, and I knew I wanted to do something different," Mr. Emmet told a school publication about the crossroads he faced in the early 1980s. "I was afraid that if I waited, I'd lack the energy to make the move. I definitely didn't want to be like Mr. Chips and go to the end of the line."

Energy, it turned out, was hardly lacking. Working with the Conservation Law Foundation as a staff lawyer and later a board member, he used his legal savvy and grasp of history to shape how public trust law could protect shorelines and fishing waters from Rhode Island to Maine.

Mr. Emmet, who had struggled with several illnesses, died Friday in Emerson Hospital in Concord of complications from cancer surgery. He was 82 and had lived in Westford for 56 years.

"He was, first of all, a conservationist of the first order," said Peter Shelley, a vice president at the Conservation Law Foundation. "From my perspective, that was coupled with a sense of moral principle and legal scholarship that was second to none. That's a powerful formula for an environmental advocate."

Outside the courtroom and the boardroom, Mr. Emmet arranged to have land he owned protected and worked with others to preserve hundreds of acres in Massachusetts and in South Carolina, near a rural lodge his family owned.

"He was one of the very important pillars on which the Conservation Law Foundation stood as it went from a very small staff in the 1970s and '80s to the regional powerhouse it is today," Shelley said. "We owe him a great debt."

"He was a very soft-spoken man, but one who held environmental protection as a foremost passion, and he can fairly be described as the dean of public trust law in Massachusetts," said Philip Warburg, the foundation's president. "Working with CLF, he advanced a number of cases that ensured public access to our coastline."

A birder known for keeping decades of precise records, Mr. Emmet also wrote a book on species found in Westford and had served on the Massachusetts Audubon Society's board.

"Dick's commitment to land protection was unmatched," Laura Johnson, president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, said in a statement.

Born in New York City, Mr. Emmet spent much of his childhood at his family's mansion on Long Island, in Glen Cove. Among his ancestors was Charles Pratt, who made a fortune in the oil industry and founded Pratt Institute in New York City. Mr. Emmet may have felt emotionally closer to his Irish ancestors; he was a direct descendant of the Irish revolutionary Thomas Addis Emmet. He wrote what he called a minibiography of his ancestor and regularly gathered with his Emmet cousins during travels to Ireland.

Mr. Emmet's studies at Harvard were interrupted by service as a sergeant in the Army Air Force. Back in Cambridge, he met Alan Summersby, a Radcliffe student who said she "admired him from the very beginning for his politeness."

"He never pushed himself forward," she said. "He was not proud or boastful in any way. I even signed up for some classes because I knew he'd be there."

They married in 1948 after he graduated from Harvard. He graduated from Harvard Law School three years later and worked as a lawyer at Ropes & Gray.

Mr. Emmet began teaching at Browne & Nichols school in 1958, long before its merger with the Buckingham school. He taught all the school's history classes at various points, introduced courses in economics and constitutional issues, and coached crew, football, and hockey. For several years he served in administrative posts, including director of the middle school.

While teaching, he returned to Harvard for a master's in education and became active in local politics. He served in many Westford offices, among them the Board of Selectmen, the School Committee, and the Conservation Commission. Environmentalists in town credit him with leading the drive to block construction of a hazardous waste dump in some Westford quarries.

"He was kind of a statesman," said Marian Harman, president of the Westford Conservation Trust. "He was a very quiet person, but a tremendous negotiator. He generally preferred to solve problems through negotiation and was very successful at it, so naturally we asked him to solve all our problems. And although he was an Old World gentleman, he was always ready to roll up his sleeves and clear a trail, as well as do legal work for us."

Mr. Emmet also traveled to Alabama to take part in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, and was at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 for King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Possessed of a prodigious memory, Mr. Emmet "could remember song lyrics from decades earlier in their entirety for hundreds of songs, Irish songs, Southern spirituals," said his daughter, Caroline Emmet Heald of Alexandria, Va. "He could recite long poems from memory."

Mr. Emmet painted a self-portrait in a passage for the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

"I am basically an outdoor person who likes solitude," he wrote. "I love to walk the woods alone in the early morning; to row alone on the Charles or Vineyard Sound; to weed my garden on a hot summer morning; to relax with a drink in hand and listen for a hermit thrush; to go to the early service at our church."

"He thought before he spoke, always," his daughter said. "If you asked him a question, there'd often be a number of long seconds of silence, and you'd wonder if he ever was going to reply. But then whatever he did say would be absolutely on point and the result of careful consideration."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Emmet leaves two sons, Henry of Groton and William of New Haven, Conn.; a sister, Katharine Temple Emmet of Brooklyn, N.Y.; three brothers, Robert of Shaker Heights, Ohio, David Schroeder of Bedford, N.H., and Harry Schroeder of Key West, Fla.; three granddaughters; and three grandsons.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today in Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Burial will be private.