“Least of All Myself”: The life, work, and death of Bob Kurrle

On July 11th, 1986, my grandfather, Robert “Bob” J. Kurrle, returned to his home in Berlin from his office in Montpelier, shut the garage doors, started his car, and sat on the floor with a pen and paper to begin writing his suicide letter to his wife Gina. It was like Bob that in his last moments he was thinking of others, leaving instructions for what would need to happen now that he would be gone.

Five days later, a mass of people filed into Bethany Church, standing room only. Members of the Vermont Supreme Court, judges and lawyers came. One lawyer and close friend of Bob’s, Paul Giuliani, expressed his shock.

“The reality of Bob’s death is beyond my comprehension,” Giuliani said. “I don’t presume to answer the question why.”

As a young child I found a locked box in the drawer of my father’s desk. When I asked him what it was, he took it from me, saying it was nothing. My father has always been very honest with me about the details of my grandfather’s suicide. It wasn’t until I was twelve that he took my grandfather’s letter out of the box to share with me.

The letter expressed his despair.

“I have lost my soul and heart and all that power and life that was within me is lost,” Bob wrote.

“I am incapable of helping anyone–least of all myself.”

All I had of my grandfather was a few stories my father had told me, and his suicide letter. I understood he was smart, successful and generous, but I didn’t understand his character or what it was like to know him. I wanted to know him and I wanted to know why he chose to leave the life he had built.

Bob was born in Caldwell, New Jersey on October 18th, 1942. His parents had emigrated from Germany when they were teenagers; they were very strict. When it was Bob’s turn to be a parent, he abandoned their parenting style.

My aunt Karen remembers going to visit them. Her grandmother intimidated her and my aunt felt uncomfortable sleeping at their house.

“My dad knew I was uneasy, so when everyone was asleep, he would bring me into the living room where there were shelves holding all of these German hummels,” she said. “He would turn them around so they were facing the wrong direction. By morning when we woke up, all of the hummels had been turned back into their perfect places. It was our little joke- it provided me some comfort.”

Bob met Regina “Gina” Muller, my grandmother, at Valparaiso University and they moved to Vermont in 1970 after living in Washington D.C. for a few years. After briefly working with both Patrick Leahy and Dick Davis, he started his own law firm in Montpelier.

My grandmother and Bob had their first child, Jim, in 1971, and Karen came two years later. My grandmother left her teaching job to stay home with the two children. She was close with her children, teaching them how to sail and ski.

My father remembers his excitement as a child when his father got home from work each day.

“When I heard the car door, I would run to the staircase in front of the door,” he said. “He would burst through with his arms stretched out and would yell ‘Hiyo!’ I would run down the stairs and jump into his arms.”

They built their home in Berlin and Bob designed a garden of vegetables and flowers, and purchased chickens and a pig. It was a family affair, with the kids gardening and feeding the animals.

My father remembers the day when the pig, named Piggie, escaped from its corral.

“My dad was about to go to court for a trial. He was dressed in one of his nicest suits. He began to chase the pig around the yard. Finally, he tackled it, bringing it back to the corral. I remember him coming in, his suit ruined, and taking the phone off the wall,” my father said. “He called the butcher that day.”

Bob was a great father, but his work anchored his identity. I interviewed six of my grandfather’s colleagues and lifelong friends: Paul Giuliani, Rusty Valsangiacomo, Leighton Detora, Gary McQuesten, Michael Carver and Robert Halpert. They worked in four different law firms, but on Friday nights, they would meet at the Lobster Pot, a local restaurant in town, to discuss cases. Every year in September, they would circle around a table at Bob’s camp on Joe’s Pond for a huge Italian dinner and poker.

Giuliani remembers these poker games as contests of “bluff, outrage and utter nonsense.”

“It’s too bad we didn’t transcribe some of this memorable dialogue,” Giuliani said. “It would show Bob at his best- relaxed and enjoying himself.”

But at the office, Bob was serious. Sitting at his desk, a stuffed eagle behind his left shoulder, he would roll his corn cob pipe between his fingers, deep in thought, the smell of cherry-blend tobacco filling the room.

Bob watched a lot of television, studying people of all backgrounds and interests. On family road trips, my grandmother drove and Bob would sit in the back seat of the car with a red portable TV plugged into the cigarette lighter.

“He learned how to get people’s attention and how to relate to different people,” my grandmother said. “Whether they dropped out of high school or they have a PhD.”

Bob truly cared about his clients. Giuliani called him a “lawyer’s lawyer,” committed to seeking justice.

“He was morally unbent, a total straight arrow,”  Giuliani said.

Bob was always preparing for cases, thinking of every counterclaim that could be brought up during a trial. My grandmother describes him practicing what he might say during a trial, making sure it was convincing. He would record himself talking while driving so he could hear what he was saying and if it was convincing. Bob often represented the underdog, taking “oddball cases” that some lawyers wouldn’t take.

“If I ever got in trouble, he was the guy I’d go to,” Valsangiacomo said. “He’d put his whole heart and soul into trying to help me.”

In 1972, Bob represented a young hunter who was charged with negligent homicide for shooting another man in the back of the head. The hunter claimed he had mistaken the back of the victim’s head for a groundhog.

Bob believed his client. His secretary, Beverlee Hill, was more skeptical, influenced by her husband, who was a seasoned hunter.

“‘There is no way,’ my husband told me. ‘Nobody could make that mistake.’”

Bob had Beltrami Studios in Barre take photos through the scope of a gun with a model sitting in front of a stone wall, like the victim had been.

Hill remembers Bob visiting her and her husband with the photos which showed the back of the man’s head, just the hair showing over the wall.

“My husband was blown away. He told Bob: ‘You’ve convinced me. I would have thought that was an animal.’”  

When the jury came back from deliberating, they announced that the man would be acquitted.

“You could have heard a gasp from here to Burlington,” Giuliani said.

In another case, Bob defended John Keith, a Waitsfield tax collector, charged with embezzlement. All of Keith’s records were stored in a shoe box. Bob proved that, though disorganized, Keith had not taken any money for himself. Keith was aquitted.

“Every day the courtroom was packed with people from the town of Waitsfield,” Bob told the Burlington Free Press. “And they called me Friday night to tell me they rang the church bells in Waitsfield that night.”  

In time, Bob added another lawyer, Michael Carver, and he looked for a law student to be an intern. Robert Halpert, then a law student, remembers waiting in the lobby for his interview and seeing a classmate of his- second in his class and on law review- walk out of Bob’s office.

In the interview, Bob asked Halpert about his life rather than his school standing or credentials.

“‘I really don’t want to waste your time,’” Halpert said to Bob. “‘I know who just walked out of here and I can’t compete with that.’”

“‘I don’t care about that stuff. I’m not hiring that guy,’” Halpert remembers Bob saying. “‘That guy doesn’t understand people. We work with people here.’”

Bob offered him the job.

“I remember walking out of there,” Halpert said. “I don’t think my feet were touching the ground.”

Halpert remembers Bob as a master of cross-examination. In 1984, Bob defended Alan Yudichak, a Norwich student-firefighter who rolled a fire truck, killing three people and paralyzing a fourth. Breaking procedure, a police officer had wrongly taken a blood test from Yudichak rather than a breathalyzer test.

Halpert remembers Bob putting the officer on the stand during the trial and cross-examining him. Bob sympathized with the officer, agreeing that the law can often be unclear. The officer was insistent, however, that it was his understanding that in cases resulting in death, he was to give a blood test.

“Bob hands him the law book and just says: ‘Can you just read that?’”

In the end, the police officer admitted he hadn’t followed the correct procedure. The defendant ended up with a six month sentence in prison, down from the expected three to five years.

In 1984, two years before his death, Bob took a case that would make his name well known in the community.

He represented a company called UniFirst, a dry cleaning company out of Williamstown, that had been burying chemicals in the ground, polluting the wells. A group of landowners, claiming the pollution had impacted property values, sued for compensation.

The case was supposedly unwinnable. To make matters worse, Bob felt the judge on the case did not respect him as a lawyer, as the judge seemed to favor the opposing lawyer.

The trial lasted six weeks. For those six weeks there was a new story on the front page of the paper every morning. Channel 3 news had a UniFirst story every night.

Bob argued that the burying of the toxic chemicals was not illegal before 1980. And when the pollution was discovered, UniFirst had taken the necessary steps to clean it up.

“There is no health hazard,” Bob said in court. “There never was, there is none now and there will never be.”

On November 2nd, 1985, the headline of the Burlington Free Press read: “Property Owners Lose Suit Against UniFirst”.

“The only reason UniFirst won that case was because of Bob Kurrle,” Halpert said. “There was no doubt that UniFirst employees had buried the toxic waste in the ground. We couldn’t change the facts. He showed the jury that he had sympathy for the plaintiffs which is not what a defense lawyer usually does. I think the jury loved Bob.”

Shortly after the UniFirst case, when Halpert showed up for work one day, Bob handed him a number for a local travel agent. He was sending Halpert on vacation in appreciation for his hard work. Halpert went to the Caribbean for a week. Bob paid for his jet fair and hotel.

Halpert said. “He was always so generous and good hearted. He seemed so absorbed in his own work, but he also knew exactly what was going on.”

But while Halpert was away, Bob thought about the case, having mixed emotions about winning. He confided in Beverlee Hill that he felt he had won on a technicality.

It was around this time that Bob started to fall into a deep depression. His co-workers began to notice a change in Bob’s self-esteem.

“He did not seem to be himself. He had told me that he hadn’t been feeling good,” Halpert said.

Only one person knew the seriousness of Bob’s battle with depression: my grandmother.  

In the fall of 1985, Bob had seeked help, taking Prozac and going to a psychiatrist in Burlington. Bob had used this psychiatrist in cases as a witness, so he believed in him.

“I’d drive him to Burlington and let him off across the street. He never wanted anyone to think he was seeing a psychiatrist,” my grandmother said. “He thought if any of his clients found out they wouldn’t trust him.”

In that last year he would stop taking the medication, thinking he was better. Soon, he would feel bad again and go back on the medication.

“He’d lay in bed all day long,” she said. “Even on work days.”

In the spring of 1986, only months before his death, Bob took a new case.

“The breaking case of him- that broke him,” my grandmother said.

Bill Valley was a young man whose arm was caught in a well drilling unit and had to be amputated. Well-drilling companies around the country had been removing an important guard because they were poorly manufactured. The manufacturing company in Minnesota ignored the increasing number of injuries. The lawyers defending the manufacturing company expected to lose and were just trying to keep the damages low.

Both sides acknowledged the case wasn’t a matter of right or wrong. It was a matter of how much money Valley would be awarded by the jury. When the jury went out to deliberate, the lawyers representing the company came over to shake hands and congratulate Bob and Halpert.

“They started wagering with each other how much the damages would be,” Halpert said. “They knew they had lost the case. Everybody knew.”

To everyone’s surprise, the jury came back ruled in favor of the defendants. The jury had been given clear instructions by the judge that if they found there was evidence the manufacturer knew of the design flaw and its impact, they should be held liable. Bob and Halpert had this evidence- the jury disregarded it.

“There was only one case that he lost that he should have won. That was the Bill Valley case,” Halpert said. “It’s a human system. Sometimes the jury gets it wrong. When it happened to him, he internalized it.”

After the Bill Valley case, Bob began to lose faith that he could ever be a good trial lawyer again.

“The most he could tell me was: ‘I’ve lost my confidence,’” Halpert said. “Suddenly your entire view changes from ‘I help people’ to ‘I don’t know if I can help people.’”

Michael Carver, an employee of Bob’s, described visiting Kurrle one night shortly before his death. Bob had papers in front of him to get a business incorporated.

“There Bob was at his desk, helpless. He was unable to proceed. He was sitting there, wanting to get the job done,” he said. “I remember asking him if he was suicidal, he assured me no. It was out of the question.”

A day or two before his death, Bob showed up to Valsangiacomo’s home. Valsangiacomo let him in, noticing that Bob did not make an effort at any small talk.

“We had a downstairs in our house where the family room was,” Valsangiacomo said. “We had couches, but he grabbed a chair and sat in the middle of the room.”

Bob had brought a videotape, an interview between a personal injuries client and Bob. They watched the tape on the television and talked about the case. When they finished, Bob abruptly got up and left.  

Around six at night on July 11, 1986, Bob went into Halpert’s office to ask about his weekend plans. Bob told Halpert that he had plans to go to his camp on Joe’s Pond that night and stay for the weekend with his family.

“Was there anything in what he said to me? Was he trying to say goodbye?” Halpert said. “It was just unremarkable small talk.”

“He told us we should go out to camp,” my grandmother said. “He was so insistent that we get out to camp.”

But Bob never showed up to camp that night. My grandmother dialed her home number trying to reach her husband. He didn’t answer. The next morning she drove back home to Berlin, where she found Bob dead in the garage.

Saturday morning, Bob’s friends and colleagues were called and informed that Bob had died.

“I went to the house. It was a summer day, middle of July, I walked into that garage. Nothing had ever felt more dead,” Detora said. “Everything was quiet. It still hurts- I still miss him.”

“I remember sitting down and crying like a baby,” Valsangiacomo said. “I had just been with him.”

When Bob’s employee Michael Carver received the phone call, he was in shock.

“I lived on a hill and there’s construction going on somewhere. Trucks are carrying material, there is this roar of a truck coming up a hill,” Carver said. “I remember hearing the roar of the truck and I was just astounded. ‘Why is anyone on the road? Don’t they know that Bob Kurrle is dead?’ It was news that should bring the world to a stop. It certainly brought my world to a stop.”

Shortly after he died, Halpert received dozens of cards from clients, including from a Montpelier crossing guard.

“It seemed so emblematic,” Halpert said. “He went out of his way to get to know this crossing guard.”

My aunt, who was twelve, was in New York with a friend when she got a phone call from her mother saying her father was in an accident and that she needed to come home. When she arrived at the airport, she was told that her father was dead.

My aunt remembers the stigma surrounding his death. No one talked about his suicide, and when his death was brought up it felt uncomfortable. At the end of her seventh grade year, my aunt went on a school camping trip. She overheard two girls she thought were her friends, talking about her father.

“I heard one girl say: ‘My dad said her dad was crazy and that that’s why he killed himself.’ They talked about how he was mentally unstable. It was terrible, awful,” she said. “What I learned from that with the stigma was, ‘I’m not talking to anyone about it.’”

After this moment, my aunt stopped telling people how he really died.  

Nobody talked about suicide then. My father is still uncomfortable when someone asks him about his father’s death.

“It’s awkward to say he died of suicide. It’s so extreme- so final. There’s no goodbye and nobody can explain why,” he said. “Everyone was sad, there were people around, but then they left. We were on our own.”

Gina, left to pick up the pieces, tried to make day to day life as close to how it was as she could.

“It was really hard… Karen was twelve and Jim was fourteen. I tried my best,” Gina said. “He never let us know. He was sick. It’s a sickness.”

Thirty years later, my grandmother still summers at Joe’s Pond, in the camp she and Bob bought together. She works as a physical education and health teacher, and is always at her grandchildren’s sporting events.

“It hurts so much inside that he can’t see his grandkids or what his children have done with their lives,” she said. “He can’t see what he’s missed- what he’s missing.”

The closest I’ll ever get to understanding my grandfather’s thoughts is through his letter. The letter is made up of four pages. Dying from carbon monoxide poisoning, his penmanship becomes messier. On the first page, he apologizes to his family.

“We have had many good times together and your love for me and my love for you has always been true… Whatever pain I bring to my children, I am truly sorry for,” he wrote. “I love you all- Gina, Karen and Jimmy.”

On the second page, he lists the family’s assets– his IRA, his office building, house and more.

But his possessions never defined who he was.    

In forty-four years, my grandfather really lived. He traveled around the world. Everywhere he took his family, his first stop was to the local courthouse, to see how different countries upheld their laws. While visiting in London, he followed an entire case in the paper and took his family to hear a part of the trial.

He believed in the law. On the third page of his letter, Bob entrusted his remaining work with Rob Halpert, the young lawyer he had mentored.

“He is a fine person and will be an exceptional lawyer,” he wrote. “If Rob wants to continue the law practice, it can be worked out.”

And on the final page he listed a dozen cases he was handling that summer, with clear instructions for each:

“Need to file suit- Meeting with Rusty on Tuesday.”

“Made motion at last meeting that could affect appeal.”

“This is a good case.”

Even as the room filled with exhaust, even as he was dying, my grandfather was still committed to his clients.

“He needs a second lawyer to help out,” Bob suggested to Gina, as he abandoned his life’s work. “Whatever you decide is fine.”