Gerald Gillerman, 86, judge known for concise decisions

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / November 23, 2011
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More than a year after the artillery flash that divided life between before and after, Gerald Gillerman was ready to step forward with one good leg, the other no longer whole.

“I had to get into college,’’ he wrote of the decision he made in spring 1946. “I had to test every new and old belief.’’

In an eight-page recollection, he described an epiphany he had as he joined other seriously injured soldiers on a hospital ship headed home from World War II.

“We had survived, and now we knew what was important and what was trivial,’’ he wrote. “We would never forget what we had learned. We would never cease to appreciate life; we knew it was a treasure.’’

Judge Gillerman, a retired justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court who wrote opinions that rendered complex law understandable to all, died Nov. 15 in Neville Center in Cambridge of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 86 and had lived in Cambridge most of the past 65 years.

Taught lessons by war and by the kind of pain few could imagine, Judge Gillerman brought a studied seriousness to each encounter. To greet him “was pure delight,’’ Margaret H. Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, wrote in an e-mail.

“Gerry never trafficked in gossip, nor did he waste his time talking about the weather,’’ she wrote. “He was too interested in ideas, ideas about everything, but primarily about the law. He was curious, focused, probing, and insightful, a true Renaissance thinker.’’

Distilling those thoughts, Mr. Gillerman wrote appellate decisions that Marshall said she found a joy to read.

“Devoid of rhetorical flourishes or tiresome legalese, he wrote so that everyone could understand his opinions: judges, lawyers, and most important, untrained litigants,’’ she wrote. “Gerry saw his role as teaching about the law, to which he devoted much of his extraordinary life.’’

That was also true at home and at the law firm where Judge Gillerman worked before Governor Michael S. Dukakis appointed him to the Appeals Court.

Judge Gillerman “was devoted to the law and helping others, including the younger associates, his colleagues, the charities he supported, and the community organizations with which he was affiliated,’’ said Richard Goldman, a lawyer with Sullivan & Worcester, whose father was a partner in the firm that Judge Gillerman joined after finishing law school.

Judge Gillerman had a sense of humor that was easily engaged. His daughter Hope of Brooklyn, N.Y., recalled a family outing to a drive-in to see the 1966 Carl Reiner movie “The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming,’’ when “he laughed so hard he had to step out of the car.’’

In conversation, though, “everything was thought out,’’ she said. “He would never say anything based on hearsay. It was always from his readings, his studies, and his discourse.’’

After Judge Gillerman left a corporate law practice for the Appeals Court, which often handles cases stemming from criminal actions, he raced to keep pace with his colleagues, reading so much that he often ended up ahead of the pack.

“He was a superb jurist,’’ said Kent B. Smith, a former member of the court who is now a recall justice. “He knew everything about each case that appeared before us. He knew it backwards and forward.’’

In every decision, Judge Gillerman saw potential for a lasting impact.

“There was hardly a case in which he didn’t discern a constitutional issue,’’ said Rudolph Kass, a former justice on the court. “We had to persuade him that you could decide the case on less portentous grounds. We kidded him about this.’’

Born and raised in Brookline, Judge Gillerman was the youngest of three children. His father, a shoe salesman, had emigrated from Russia.

Shortly after graduating from Brookline High School, he was in the Army.

In his eight-page recollection of his time in the service, he captured crystal images.

In Fargo, N.D., where he trained, he remembered “water frozen in a drinking glass on our dormitory windowsill in 24 degree below zero weather.’’

He thought of his memories as “a series of color slides,’’ including one of “taking aim on a German soldier with his back to me.’’ Mr. Gillerman found himself unable to pull the trigger. “Who was he?’’ he wondered. “What had he done, or not done?’’

On Jan. 24, 1945, he climbed the tower of a bombed-out church in France to scout advancing German artillery, and went to the roof’s edge, calling out information to soldiers below.

Turning to walk back, he heard a thud and “slumped slowly to the platform. “By some tender miracle, I was carried down those narrow rickety stairs, into an ambulance, thence to the rear for care, terrifying dreams, searing pain, and almost extinction, but not quite.’’

Doctors could not save his left leg below the knee. What remained was a spirit for perseverance he might not have recognized before that day.

A year later, Judge Gillerman testified before Congress on behalf of a bill that provided money so every World War II amputee could buy and customize a car. In the decades that followed, he was an avid cyclist, and for years he played squash.

Judge Gillerman went to Harvard College, graduating in 1949. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1952, the same year he married Dorothy Hughes.

Joining the Boston firm Slater and Goldman, he wrote in his sixth Harvard class report that law was “an excellent profession if free time bores you.’’

For work he wrote constantly, in longhand with a black fountain pen on yellow legal pads. Conversations were as precise as his prose.

“Where it would be a question of perception or sensitivity, he had this amazing facility for capturing in a very few words the distinctive qualities of a piece of music or a bottle of wine or a dress,’’ said his son David of Cambridge.

In addition to his wife, daughter, and son, Judge Gillerman leaves two more children, twins John Gillerman of Highland Park, N.J., and Ellen Cox of Brooklyn, N.Y.; a sister, Jeanette Bello of Oakland; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 in Story Chapel in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

In June 1987, Judge Gillerman and his wife traveled to the Alsace in France so he could revisit the place where he was injured.

After they found the church, “42 years were brushed away and again I saw myself entering that tower,’’ he wrote. “Tears surged up as I grieved for the death of my youth.’’

Five pages later, in what he titled “A Soldier’s Memory,’’ Judge Gillerman had survived injury, surgery, and rehabilitation. Ready for life to begin anew, he awaited news from Harvard’s admissions office.

“Admitted! My God, was there a greater happiness ever known to man?’’ he wrote. “I forgive you, world.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

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