Wednesday, July 24, 2024

S. Donald Gonson has died on Feb 18, 2023, following a long struggle with bladder cancer at 86. Don was a beloved member of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, community, where he remained after moving to attend Harvard Law School in the mid-1950s. In 1962, Don joined the law firm Hale and Dorr – now WilmerHale — as its 41st lawyer. He spent his career practicing international corporate law, with a special focus on corporate social governance.

Don was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1936, the son of working-class Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Poland. Don’s father owned a business that sold bedding products that he delivered in the first pickup truck in the Niagara Falls area. Don, a fine tenor, inherited his singing ability from his mother. Don’s love of music was carried on by both of his daughters, who went on to establish careers in the music business.

Don’s family often visited one another, from Winnipeg, Canada, to Cincinnati and New York. This devotion to family and friends remained until he died. Don gathered close friends ranging from his childhood in Buffalo through college, law school and adulthood. As the decades progressed, their families became interconnected. Visits to Europe, summers on the Cape and Islands and travels to India furthered these connections.

Don was able to secure a full New York state scholarship to attend Columbia University as an undergraduate. While at Columbia, Don was granted permission to spend his junior year studying at the London School of Economics. Following his time at Columbia, he attended Harvard Law School.

Don met Dorothy Rose (Dotty) while proctoring a Harvard dance. While he walked her home, he recited poetry; Dotty, who loved poetry, had found her match. The two married Aug. 28, 1960, and remained together for 62 years. In 1961, Don received a Fulbright to study international law in Mumbai, India. The couple lived there a year before returning to Cambridge, where they lived from then on.

Don showed great caring and compassion for others, in his work and in his personal life. As a young lawyer opposed to the Vietnam War, Don advised young men subject to the draft under the auspices of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Later, he was the government appeal agent attached to the Cambridge Draft Board and served in that position until President Richard Nixon abolished it. In the 1980s, Don was chair of the Massachusetts Community Development Finance Corp., advising on economic development legislation. Over the years, he was head of the Cambridge United Way campaign and a director of Cambridge Family and Children’s Services and other entities. Closest to his heart was the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, where he was president and sat on the board for more than 40 years. He was also on the board of the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was a founding member of their meditation and discussion group until his death.

Don took early retirement from Hale and Dorr in 2000; for the next 15 years, he was an adjunct professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. During this time, Don became a visiting scholar at Oxford, where he took intense satisfaction from his interactions with the faculty and students.

Outside of the law, Don was passionate about politics, economics, history, art and music. Don and Dotty traveled extensively to Europe, where they loved to attend the theater. Don could spend a long time in front of a painting or a sculpture, or examining the architecture of a courtyard or a building. He always had a deep curiosity and a desire to learn as much as he could about the world and about other people. Two decades ago, Don and Dotty opened their home to Harvard first-year students annually, providing meals for students arriving from other countries and many different backgrounds, to help these kids transition to undergraduate life.

Don is survived by his wife, Dotty,  their two children, Claudia and JJ and son-in-law Anthony, and three grandchildren, Oliver, Ruby and Eve. Funeral services will be private. A memorial celebration is being planned. Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to the Cambridge Center for Adult Educationor the Southern Poverty Law Center, organizations Don long supported.