By Kirsten Williams, Staff Writer
Vermont Law School celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jan. 19 with a free web event featuring illustrious trial lawyer Willie Gary.
Associate Dean for Student Affairs Shirley Jefferson opened the program and dedicated this year’s event to Michele LaRose, who announced her retirement earlier this month after serving as a VLS librarian for 13 years. “I dedicate this program to her,” said Jefferson, “for her committed service to our students and to our institution.” VLS President and Dean Emeritus Thomas McHenry then welcomed local students from White Valley Middle and High School and spoke about Dr. King’s lifelong passion for education, leadership, and racial justice.
VLS Alum Ricky Armand JD’12 introduced his “mentor, partner, and boss,” Mr. Gary. Armand spoke about his experiences in South Royalton, his love for the campus, and the powerful friendships he formed during his time at VLS. “[Mr. Gary] has broken down barriers and has opened doors for young attorneys of color like me to do the same,” said Armand. “Over 40 years ago, no law firm would hire Willie Gary because of his race…today, his law firm embraces diversity and provides the opportunities that he was once denied.”
After a short video introduction, Mr. Gary took the virtual stage. He stressed the importance of education as a tool for success. Addressing the younger students in the audience, Mr. Gary said, “Dr. King gave his life for you to have the opportunity to be all you can be. And you don’t have the right to let him and all those who marched down.” He also challenged the law students not to “catch amnesia when you make it, and don’t forget where you came from.”
“Dr. King stood for us all, he fought for something…I encourage all of you to fight for something larger than just you. And we must do this together…all of us. If there was ever a time that our people needed us to reach back, to give back, that time is now. Don’t ever look down on somebody unless you’re helping them up.”Willie Gary
VLS student Fito Andre JD’22 interned with Mr. Gary during the summer of 2016 as a rising senior in college. He worked as a file clerk and gained first-hand knowledge helping Mr. Gary prepare for trial. Speaking to Mr. Gary’s character and “passion for people,” Andre said, “Mr. Gary has such a caring spirit and wants to make everyone feel important, from the more experienced and seasoned attorney, to the maintenance workers.”
Andre also says his time working with Mr. Gary “elevated [his] level of enthusiasm and respect for the law.” He said his dream of being a lawyer seemed far-fetched, not knowing of any Black attorneys except for “some of the famous ones” like Johnnie Cochran, Thurgood Marshall, and President Barack Obama. “But after spending time in the presence of Mr. Gary—a man who did not grow up with a lot but a heart for people and an unrelenting passion for success—it has truly impacted my legal aspirations,” Andre said.
“For Dr. King, justice was more than a racial issue, more than a legal or moral issue,” said Andre. “Mr. Gary challenges us all to use the power of the law to fight for something, be driven, and bring people along in that for justice for all, no matter which sector of law we end up in.”
The event also included two performances by VLS student Arielle King JD’21, who sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome.”