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Earle Cooley, skilled litigator, chairman of BU trustees

Stories about Earle Cooley’s work ethic were legendary. Stories about Earle Cooley’s work ethic were legendary. (Janet Knott/ Globe Staff)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 21, 2009

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A much-abbreviated list of Earle Cooley’s law clients might read like this: Boston University, the Celtics, and the Church of Scientology, along with divorce cases, patent infringement challenges for Fortune 500 companies, and criminal defendants who included those accused of drug dealing or murder.

“He said to me: ‘Look, when you have skills as a trial lawyer, you can try anything. The rules may change from venue to venue, but show me the rules, and I’ll play,’ ’’ said his son Edward, who followed his father into the legal profession.

“There was no case he couldn’t win, either,’’ said John Silber, a longtime friend and the former president of Boston University, where Mr. Cooley served as chairman of the board of trustees. “Earle was formidable. if you had him in your corner, you were well represented. He was a very great lawyer.’’

Widely respected for his trial skills and, inevitably, criticized by those who did not like the people and institutions he represented, he was at ease in courtrooms from Portland, Ore., to Boston. Mr. Cooley died of heart failure Friday in Epoch Rehabilitation in Brewster. He was 77 and had lived in Osterville the past 20 years, keeping a residence in Boston for much of that time.

“He could try, and was known to be able to try brilliantly and effectively, any kind of case,’’ said Harry Manion, who founded the Boston firm Cooley Manion Jones with Mr. Cooley. “Everyone knew he had a great voice and was a great phrase maker; juries loved that. But Earle was also a towering intellect.’’

His caseload was just as imposing. Among the memorable moments was the day in September 1981 when he questioned Danny Ainge on the witness stand as the Celtics tried to wrest him from a contract to play baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Mr. Cooley asked, “Do you want to be a baseball player or a basketball player, Mr. Ainge?’’

“Basketball,’’ Ainge replied.

Less popular with the public were many of the criminal defendants Mr. Cooley represented, but few assignments drew as much ire as his work for the Church of Scientology, where he was a top lawyer and handled arrangements for L. Ron Hubbard to be cremated after the Scientology founder died in 1986.

Known for aggressively pursuing in court those who took on the church, Scientology found in Mr. Cooley a litigator who played to win every time he stepped into a courtroom.

“The Scientology church litigates hard, and I’m not ashamed of being part of that,’’ he told the Boston Phoenix in 1996. “That goes with the territory. But I have never abused the legal system on behalf of the Church of Scientology or any other client.’’

Mr. Cooley was just as firm when it came to inquiries about whether he was a Scientologist.

“I have taken the position that I’m not going to answer that question at any time because I’ve come to view it as a vicious question that one would not ask of anyone else,’’ he told the Phoenix.

For Mr. Cooley, legal principles took precedent, whether they involved First Amendment issues with Scientology or obscure case law in a civil lawsuit.

“The search for truth was a big thing for him,’’ said his son Christopher of Marstons Mills. “Justice in its purest form - that’s what he strove for. He knew that laws changed through interpretation. He’d say, ‘What is right now, could be wrong tomorrow, and we have to defend those who are being unfairly prosecuted.’ ’’

Earle C. Cooley Jr. was born in Hartford and grew up nearby in Southington, Conn. Looking back, he would tell stories about picking tobacco to earn money and going to the University of Connecticut, where he received a bachelor’s degree. In 1957, he graduated from the Boston University School of Law, where he was editor-in-chief of the Law Review and was chosen by faculty as the outstanding member of his class.

Mr. Cooley remained loyal to BU, teaching at the law school, serving as president of its Alumni Association, and becoming a member of the university’s Board of Trustees in 1971. He was on the board until 2004 and was chairman from 1994 onward.

“Earle was absolutely magnificent,’’ Silber said. “He was such a clear-headed lawyer and was excellent at keeping the university out of trouble. He recognized in very effective ways if there were going to be problems and then saw to it that we wouldn’t have any problems.’’

Right after law school, Mr. Cooley began working at the Boston firm Hale & Dorr, where he became one of the city’s top criminal defense lawyers before leaving to open his own firm in 1984.

Stories about his work ethic were the stuff of legend. Once Mr. Cooley handled two trials simultaneously, a criminal case in the morning at one court, a contested divorce in the afternoon at another, said Edward, who lives in Hingham. Another time, he said, dental work threatened to shorten Mr. Cooley’s day. The judge recommended a specialist nearby. Mr. Cooley had a root canal during the lunch break and was back in court that afternoon.

Mr. Cooley was married to Irene Moustakas of Boston for 27 years before they divorced in the mid-1980s. He then married Jean Gallagher.

“Someone said to me, ‘You know, as great a lawyer as your dad is, he’s an even better friend and father,’ and that’s true,’’ Edward said.

Prowling the courtroom with his bearish physique, questioning witnesses with his gravelly voice, Mr. Cooley could appear intimidating, his sons said, but those traits masked the man inside.

“A lot of people used to say they were afraid to approach him,’’ Christopher said. “They didn’t realize my father was one of the most approachable people you could ever meet. And once you approached him and were within his reach, you never wanted to leave, because it was the safest place to be.’’

In addition to his wife, two sons, and former wife, Mr. Cooley leaves four daughters, Sandra Earley of Scituate, Pamela Cooley of Boston, Diane Pires of Washington, D.C., and Cynthia Cooley of New York City; two stepsons, Dennis Hart of Plymouth and James Hart of Wakefield; two stepdaughters, Kathleen DeFabio of Hingham and Anne Creed of Duxbury; a stepsister, Claudia Hopkins of Connecticut; four grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren.

Services and burial will be private.