Howard Udell died last weekend, at 72. A 30-year Westporter, he was one of those quiet, unsung residents who made an enormous impact on all who knew him.
An attorney and general counsel to a pharmaceutical firm, he supported his sons’ and granchildren’s activities with pride and his presence. He devoted himself to causes he believed in, like the board of Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University.
He co-founded the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which provides free legal services to hundreds of veterans each year. At the time of his death he served on its board, and regularly counseled veterans.
Howard did it all despite astonishing, ongoing health problems. And he did it all with understated class and integrity.
At his service on Monday, Howard’s sons Jeff and Andy told stories: of how he added up restaurant bills and paid the difference if he was undercharged, and how he refused to park in the row of spaces reserved for his firm’s partners and officers.
His longtime friend and colleague Michael Friedman added these words:
My dear friend Howard was a great man. From the time I met him I wanted to be as smart, wise, honest, noble, endearing and funny as he was. But that was simply not possible. He was just a better man….
His courage was a lesson for all of us. I know that he lived with pain most of the time, and a kind of sword of Damocles for many years. Yet he approached each day with a positive attitude and as much vigor as any of us could muster….
Rather than complain, he took delight in life and its experiences. Just a week ago we all went to Broadway to see a show, which for him involved more than a few physical obstacles. Yet we never discussed that. The show ended, the applause woke him up, and he gave me his usual “wasn’t that fabulous?” He just would not allow his physical condition to rob him of the delight of his beautiful family and of sharing life to the fullest extent possible with Judy, who we all know he respected and adored more than anything. …
We met at Purdue Pharma, where he defined everything that a great general counsel and chief legal officer should be, and more. For 25 years I watched his integrity, brilliance, and stamina on display. But before that he was a defense attorney….
I once asked him why he chose to be a defense attorney. He said that when someone is prosecuted by the state, they face almost unlimited power. In a society where we are presumed to be innocent, defendants simply cannot match the other side. He wanted to help these people, the underdogs, with the best possible defense, in the face of this overwhelming power….
Even after moving from defense to corporate law, he never stopped caring for people. When I asked him what he wanted to do when he retired, he said he dreamed of having a desk at Bridgeport Legal Services and simply provide free legal services to all comers.
As it turns out, this is almost exactly what he did. Howard and I volunteered at a special part of the Veterans Administration that helps homeless and mentally ill veterans, where he established the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
Howard sat at a desk taking all comers. Before long he had an extensive caseload of 30 veterans…. He was joined by a creative young lawyer named Margaret, and before long they had 4 full-time lawyers, a panel of more than 100 volunteer lawyers and an ongoing case load of more than 350 veterans, all receiving legal help for free….
Jewish folklore tells us that there are 36 righteous men upon whose merit the world rests. I suspect that there was a scramble for an opening in that group on Friday because Howard was as righteous a man as I could imagine. His fundamental belief and practice was to always do the right thing.
When we talked about taxes, I said they were too high. He said he was privileged to be able to pay, and hoped his contribution would help others…. When he saw someone in need, his first question was “what can I do to help?” When he was faced with a client with a legal problem, he always took it personally…. His caring and compassion for those less fortunate and in need was absolutely boundless.
I will continue to try to be as good a man as Howard. He was one of the most extraordinary people I have known. A light has been extinguished, and my world will never be quite as bright as before.