Jesse Corum sits in his office at his law firm in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Jesse Corum sits in his office at his law firm in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Friday May 13, 2011

On May 4, Jesse Corum IV sent an e-mail to his colleagues at the Brattleboro law firm Corum Mabie Cook Prodan Angell & Secrest.

It was an anniversary, Jesse told them. As of that day, he had been with the firm for 30 years.

"If you don't toot your own horn, who will?" Jesse jokes.

He leans his long frame back in a low red chair, the sun dappling a corner of his Linden Street office. Painted a deep, rich red, the room is both comfortable and formal, with family pictures lining the top of a wide bookcase and a delicate bicycle sculpture decorating one wall.

"I felt nostalgic, thinking over the years. Thirty years is a long time!"

In fact, when Jesse joined the firm in May 1981, it had an entirely different name.

"It was Gale, Gale and Barile then," he says. "Mr. Gale had started it back in the late 1930s, and his son Dick, who's now the register at the probate court, joined him about 1971 or so."

His voice reflects his peripatetic childhood, as his Presbyterian minister father moved the family to churches in Vermont, New York, Switzerland, and Great Britain, among other places. The slightly flattened mid-Atlantic vowels slip into a friendly New England chuff, all in a smooth baritone that softens, George Bailey-like, around the letter "s."

"Then Leo Barile came in 1976, and I was the second kid on the block starting in 1981." He grins again, revealing shades of that young, fresh attorney.


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Jesse actually had three years -- "three years and eight months," he corrects himself -- of law practice under his belt before Mr. Gale hired him.

After graduating from Vermont Law School's second class in 1977, he had joined the office of Windham County State's Attorney John Rocray in Brattleboro. At that time, the court was in the Municipal Center, where the Selectboard now meets.

"I was immersed in the prosecution of criminal cases, and I loved that work, but the schedule," he pauses with a half-smile on his face. "I can remember handling 3,000 cases a year, and those were just the criminal cases."

With his wife, Lynn, pregnant with their second child, and the first just turned 3, it was time to move to private practice.

Under the mentorship of his fellow attorneys, Jesse expanded his work beyond criminal law to real estate, worker's compensation and personal injury, among other areas.

He was especially drawn to defense work.

"I enjoy prosecution," he says, "putting the case together, but defense is much more fun, to find the holes, or make the holes, in the prosecution's argument, then drive your case through them."

Jesse's enthusiasm for his work is palpable, as it must have been when he first discovered law as a senior at Guilford College in North Carolina.

As a young man, he thought he'd go into social work. Given his family background, Jesse had a strong drive to help people in need.

But the classes in law, economics and society "lit a fire under me," he says. "By the end my friend and I were fighting for the highest grade in class."

He wasn't quite ready to forgo social work, though. After graduation, he first found unlikely work as a prison guard, then after three months became a counselor for the Reedsville Correctional Center in North Carolina.

"The work wasn't challenging, but it was 1973, it was good just to have a job," he remembers. "But I really wanted to make change happen on a bigger scale. I wanted to be Commissioner of Corrections for the state!"

The way to do that, he realized, was to go to law school, and his passion for helping people and his burgeoning love of the law came together at last.

This grounding belief that he was doing the right thing with his life was particularly helpful during his first year at VLS.

"Oh, I worked like the devil that first year," he says, shaking his head with humility. "In our family, we didn't have much debate. My father was a pretty stern disciplinarian."

Abstract argumentation wasn't exactly a dinnertime ritual, he said.

"But suddenly, here I was, holy mackerel, having to take positions, support them, argue them verbally and in writing. It was a sea change of thinking for me."

As Jesse had found a way to marry his need to serve people and his attraction for the law, his training in rigorous intellectual effort became a partner to his steady, compassionate heart.

"I'm proud," he says, then stops, his inherent humility raising an eyebrow at pride.

"I just feel that I've been able to help a lot of people through different processes, whether that's getting through a criminal case, or handling the legal aspects of a car collision for a client, or helping a worker's comp client get the benefits they are entitled to under the law. That is very rewarding."

He also takes pride in his deep commitment to the ethics of his profession.

"In the most serious criminal cases, for example when Judge Paul Hudson asked that I represent Chris Bacon, or when I represented Tim Grover, the public perception is that this guy's guilty, he should be put in jail and throw the key away.

"It's a lot of work, time, and effort, but it is rewarding, because those people deserve representation, too."

Jesse has extended his sense of duty and care to his community as well, serving on the board of Youth Services for 27 years, participating in Jaycees and the Brattleboro Rotary Club, and serving as a Selectboard member for three terms.

He waves his hand, however, at the idea that there is anything remarkable in his civic work.

"Oh, it's just what you do!" he says "Plus, we've been empty nesters since 2000. People, like Tim O'Connor, who are heavily involved in civic life and raise a family and run a full-time law practice, I take my hat off to them!"

He also gives overwhelming credit to his law firm colleagues for helping him achieve professional success.

"I have surrounded myself with people who I think are super," he grins. "And our staff is just the best."

He pauses to give extra weight to his next words.

"If there's one thing I pride myself on, it's that people have stayed working with me for a long time. Deb, Barb, Mary Lee -- they are real workaholics, as dedicated to their work as I am to mine. They're a big part of my success. They're the ones who should be interviewed!"

He smiles at the thought of sharing the spotlight, then stands. There are tasks to finish, clients to serve, spring sunshine to enjoy.

"Most mornings I get up and I look forward to the day," he says. "And I know, I'm very blessed and privileged to feel this way."

Case closed.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.

About this column ...

In our busy world, only the most sensational people get our attention - the crazy politician, the prize-winning scientist, the earthquake survivor. But we all have stories to tell. They often appear unremarkable, just another bead on a string of days. Yet when we look deeper, the stories of our neighbors, relatives, and friends reveal to us the tenacity and beauty of the human spirit.

This column celebrates our stories - the woman who's baked pies at the local church for 20 years, the young man who builds sculptures from old bikes, the retired guy who still works part time for the town - and we invite you to suggest to us people whose tales we should tell.

Contact Becky Karush at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.