NEW SCOTLAND — A man of principle and passion, Peter Henner worked for causes he believed in with the same logic and commitment he used when playing chess. He tackled his legal work as he tackled mountains on climbs with his wife — with a sense of adventure.
“He always told everything straight,” said Nancy Lawson, his wife.
Mr. Henner died at his Clarksville home on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. He was 64.
The pages of The Enterprise over the last two decades were filled with news of his work as an attorney: representing Save the Pine Bush as the Rapp Road landfill was set to expand, opposing Albany County redistricting that would have left minority communities underrepresented, successfully fighting to keep the Clarksville Post Office open, and at the time of his death suing for broadband equity in rural areas like Clarksville where he lived.
Mr. Henner was born and raised in New York City. He was an only child. His father, who had a doctoral degree in history, was a public-school administrator. His mother taught English literature.
He was graduated from Hunter College Elementary School, Robert F. Wagner Junior High School, and Brandies High School in Manhattan. “He liked to be active. He walked to school — it was a long walk — instead of taking the subway,” said his wife.
Coming of age in the 1960s, Mr. Henner was keenly aware of the way courts had reworked society and promoted change, he told the Enterprise two years ago.
Mr. Henner was active in the anti-war movement as the United States fought in Vietnam. “Society was not living up to the ideals America was founded on,” he said. “We were the bad boy of the world. Law was a way of challenging it.”
So Mr. Henner, who had a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Rutger’s Livingston College, went to law school at Rutgers University in Newark, which he described as a “hotbed of radical lawyers.”
At law school, he worked on school-finance litigation, suing the state to change how schools were financed, which Henner described as “using the law for social change.” New Jersey has an income tax because of that litigation, he said of the way schools there are funded.
Mr. Henner went directly from taking, and passing, the bar exam to working for the New York State Assembly. He went on to work for Council 82 for prison guards. “You don’t think of corrections officers as the vanguard of the labor movement,” he said, but he had a chance to build a legal department representing “good union people,” and working for “morally upright, honorable, really principled, good union leaders.”
At the time of his death, Mr. Henner was writing a novel, giving a fictional account of that time in his life.
In 1984, Mr. Henner launched a solo practice. Learning environmental law on his own, Mr. Henner got involved in looking at monitoring records for companies that were violating discharge limits. “You could force these guys to pay penalties,” he said. Mr. Henner developed a specialty handling State Environmental Quality Review cases.
In 1995, he and his wife, an associate professor in the School of Math and Sciences at The College of Saint Rose, purchased 130 acres in Clarksville, from where he then practiced law.
“As a lawyer, he was almost always on the good guy’s side where he didn’t make a lot of money,” said Dr. Lawson. “When you’re fighting corporations, it’s the corporations that make the money.”
Mr. Henner involved himself in many local causes over the years. In 2003, as the United States was gearing up for war in Iraq, after there had been an arrest of a man at Crossgates Mall wearing a T-shirt supporting peace, Mr. Henner, his then 14-year-old son, Eli Wexler, and Dr. Lawson showed up in support, wearing their own T-shirts. The fronts of Mr. Henner’s and Dr. Lawson’s shirts each said, “Peace on Earth,” the back of Mr. Henner’s shirt said, “Free Speech in Corporate Malls.” The back of Dr. Lawson’s shirt said, “Please don’t arrest me.”
“We feel it’s important to make a statement,” Mr. Henner said at the time. “First, we don’t want [then-President George W.] Bush to start a war for oil. Second, people have a right to wear shirts…Malls are the only public place left….I’d like to see municipalities use their powers to make sure malls do the right thing…Crossgates has access roads, town services, and tax breaks. The town also keeps a police substation here…The town can say, if you want cooperation from us, you need to do certain things for us.”
From 2004 on, Mr. Henner represented Save the Pine Bush, a not-for-profit environmental organization, in legal efforts to preserve the Pine Bush habitat, including suits against Pyramid Crossgates, and against Albany’s planned landfill expansion.
In 2011, the United States Postal Service announced it would close its Clarksville office. Mr. Henner filed a petition to review the closure, arguing that the Postal Service acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner, failing to consider the impact of the closure in the community. The Clarksville Post Office remains open.
Most recently, Mr. Henner filed suit against the state to release public records from the governor’s broadband program in time to allow rural areas to apply for funds for broadband access. The Alliance for Environmental Renewal, led by Henner as its president, filed a lawsuit on May 5 against Empire State Development to challenge the guidelines of distribution for $500 million appropriated by the New York State Legislature to improve broadband access. His wife said another lawyer will carry on that work. “Peter already made a difference in allocations,” Dr. Lawson said.
While Mr. Henner’s local efforts had resonance with Albany County residents, he was also involved in issues of national import; many times, he wrote commentaries for The Enterprise on his adventures. In November 2004, for example, he filed an account — “A poll-patroller’s journal” — from the Baltimore Washington International Airport on his way home from being a witness to balloting in Florida for the presidential election.
He also wrote a 2006 account on a case he saw argued at the United States Supreme Court with the potential to reshape the Clean Water Act.
Mr. Henner did not distinguish between paying and pro bono clients, considering his fee arrangements private. He felt it would stigmatize clients by referring to them as “pro bono.”
Toward the end of his career, he “became discouraged about law in general,” said his wife. Mr. Henner wrote a stunning commentary for The Enterprise as he stepped away from his legal practice in 2013. “The mire of legal process has completely triumphed over any concept of substantive justice,” Mr. Henner wrote.
He then took some time to pursue personal goals like trying to become a chess master, running, and writing. He frequently ran half-marathons, including the Hairy Gorilla run in Thacher State Park last fall. He always strove for the pinnacle, for example, earning a black belt in karate.
Over the years, he published articles in legal publications, ranging from “International Law News” to “New York Environmental Lawyers.” His areas of expertise were labor, civil rights, and environmental law.
In 2009, Mr. Henner’s book about the Alien Tort Statute was published. Genocide, slavery, and torture can be prosecuted using the statute, he wrote, since they are now violations of international law, although that wasn’t the intent of its passage in 1789.
After the respite from his practice, Mr. Henner returned to the law on his own terms. “I felt my practice had gotten away from fighting against corporate greed and environmental pollution, and for worker rights and community empowerment,” he stated as he announced his return to his practice.
He pledged, “I will never again be focused on doing useless and mindless things just because I am generating billable hours, and I will never again take a case unless I believe that the client deserves to have something done and that I can do something useful for the client.”
“Soul mates” Mr. Henner met the woman who would become his wife in 1989 — rock-climbing. “We met at a cliff in Grafton,” she said. “I was climbing with the RPI Outing Club and he showed up.”
That was the first of their many adventures in the 27 years they were together; they married in 1992.
On their honeymoon, they hiked a lot of the Colorado peaks over 14,000 feet.
Later, they climbed in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, Mount Whitney in California, all of the peaks over 4,000 feet in the Northeast, and a few years ago followed the Chilkoot Trail “where the gold miners went” in Alaska, said Dr. Lawson.
The couple also hiked in places around the globe, trekking in Nepal and following an Inca trail in Peru.
Every Christmas, including last Christmas, the couple climbed at the Joshua Tree National Park in California.
“Outdoor stuff was a big part of his life,” said Dr. Lawson. “We were always doing some adventure.”
Reflecting on the rock-climbing belay that ropes two climbers together for protection in case one of them falls, Dr. Lawson said, “I was mostly the belay slave. He would lead at first. But then I did some leading.”
She also said, “We were always soul mates. When we went someplace, people thought we were newlyweds, always with our arms around each other.”
In June, when Mr. Henner had thought he was healthy, he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.
“He was short of breath going up hills,” his wife recalled. “They found a tumor on his lung…there were tumors all over the place. Nothing could be done. It was very aggressive,” she said of the cancer.
Dr. Lawson said that she and her husband became even closer in recent months. “I was always with him in the hospital,” she said.
“I just asked him last week, ‘Of all of our trips, which did you like best?’ He was starting to not think very well and just grinned. He said, ‘I’m thinking.’ I never got an answer.”
Chess Mr. Henner wrote a chess column for The Enterprise for four years, giving it up in 2013 when he decided to devote himself more fully to the game.
“I was, by the standards of the day, a top nationally rated player under 16,” he said in 2014, noting that chess players are stronger now than 50 years ago.
For Mr. Henner, the game transcended normal barriers. He played long distance with inmates he had never met; he played with Mongolians who didn’t speak his language when he went there to do volunteer work; and he played online against opponents about whom he knew noting — not age, not gender, not even a name.
“It’s not just ritualized combat,” he said. “The appeal is international and at all kinds of levels.”
Mr. Henner “hung out at chess clubs” in Cuba and Mexico to play impromptu games, and he competed in a tournament in Iceland, which he described as “a chess center.”
Explaining why he loved the game, Mr. Henner said, “Chess is a very logical discipline.” The title for his Enterprise column was, “Chess: The last frontier of the mind.”
His columns won top awards from the Chess Journalists of America. One prize-winner, called “Chess in ‘the Box,’” described prisoners playing chess for postage stamps while living in extreme confinement. Mr. Henner would play correspondence games with clients he represented and their inmate friends.
He ended each of his columns with a chess problem because he liked to make reading interactive.
“You have to concentrate, allocate your time, focus, know when to take risks, and when not to take risks,” said Mr. Henner, describing the challenge of chess. “Because you are in control of an army, it appeals to people who are competitive, logical, able to think things out.”
He said, of playing across cultures or closer to home, “You know what moves mean. It becomes a way of making a social statement. It’s a way of telling what kind of person you are.”
Summing up her husband’s personality, Dr. Lawson said, “He was very bright and very serious about a lot of things. His life was totally an adventure.”
She concluded, “He really, really loved life and he really didn’t want to die. Once he got sick, he appreciated life more…He looked back at his life and saw it was amazing.”
A memorial service will be held on Sunday, Oct. 9, at 2 p.m. at the First Albany Unitarian Universalist Church at 405 Washington Ave. in Albany. Anyone wishing to speak briefly at the service may contact Nancy Lawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arrangements are by Reilly & Son Funeral Home of Voorheesville.
Dr. Lawson wrote that her husband, after being diagnosed with metastatic melanoma three-and-a-half months ago “fought through several nearly fatal episodes before finally succumbing. The doctors and other medical staff at Dana Farber and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston made a valiant effort to save him.”
Memorial contributions may be made to the Adirondack Mountain Club, (adk.org) or to Dana Farber Cancer Institute (danafarbergiving.org).
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Save the Pine Bush volunteers and members extends our deepest sympathies to the family of Peter Henner.
Published in October 2016
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