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Walter Mervyn Rodgers, 1925 - 1994

by Alan Ritchie

Walter Mervyn Rodgers was the New Zealand Law Society’s Secretary-General from 1971, coming to Wellington from his legal practice in Invercargill. He served as Secretary-General under seven Presidents – Denis McGrath, Stanley Ton, Guy Smith, Lester Castle, Laurie Southwick QC, Tom Eichelbaum QC and Bruce Slane.

On his retirement in 1985, at the age of 60, he returned to the Society in a part-time role working principally in the areas of ethics and professional discipline.

Diagnosed with cancer early in 1993, he set an unforgettable example by working on with only very rare absences, but obviously in perilously bad health, to within a few days of his death.

Tributes to Mervyn’s contribution to the profession have flowed to the Society itself, to his widow Karen and to his children, Mark, Lesley and Alison.

Mervyn’s funeral was held at Old St Paul’s, Wellington, on 4 February 1994 and printed here is the eulogy given on the Society’s behalf by Executive Director Alan Ritchie.

The greatest privilege of Mervyn’s professional life was the opportunity to work alongside – and for nearly 23 years – so many leaders – and those who would become leaders – of the profession he loved so much. Considering the numbers of those people and their notable lives, it is daunting for me – but an honour nonetheless – to be asked to pay the lawyers’ tribute.

Not so difficult is to speak on behalf of his day-to-day work colleagues in the secretariat of the New Zealand Law Society. Many of us have been there for a long time now – back to 1981 and further. Like the majority of lawyers practising today, we have never known a Law Society without Mervyn, whether at the helm or later as someone to whom we could turn for wise counsel. It has been Mervyn’s Society for so long that we, as its current caretakers, feel a real sense of emptiness and loss. To be perfectly honest, we had always been convinced that Mervyn would survive us all.

Any new staff member observing Mervyn as Secretary-General soon learned that he set high standards for himself and expected high standards of his professional colleagues. I’m not sure that I lived up to his expectations. Particularly distasteful he thought, was the quaint habit I had brought with me from Ashburton of drinking beer direct from a can and not from a glass at the casual Friday night office drinks we often enjoyed together.

Very early in my time at the Society I asked Mervyn if it would be alright if I left a little early because Maurice O’Brien QC had invited me to have a drink at the Wellington Club. Mervyn generously agreed, noting with pleasure that I was getting to know Wellington practitioners and important ones at that. But it must have occurred to him that the Wellington Club did not have an Ashburton branch and that I would lack experience in such places because shortly later he knocked on my door and somewhat stutteringly said:

“Look Ritchie, these drinks with O’Brien at the Club – well put it this way – you won’t drink out of the can will you?”

Of course he wasn’t always too flash himself. Dare I mention the night we insisted he sing for us. We chose “Scotland the Brave”. I don’t think Mervyn liked “Scotland the Brave” but the fact that he sang it, accompanying himself on the piano accordion to the tune of “Danny Boy”, didn’t come as any particular surprise to us because that was what Mervyn was like sometimes – obstinate and determined.

I suppose the Wellington Club thing seemed silly at the time, but his concern of course, as ever, was for the Society and that I, nor any staff member, nor any practitioner, should do nothing to let the profession down.

And that was the golden thread that he brought to his contribution to the Law Society and to the law. Of all the subjects on which he concentrated, ethical standards was the one of which he was most fond. He loathed the old Code because to him it was no such thing. He promised himself the task of producing a new set of rules when he retired as Secretary-General in 1985. And in company with his friend, now Justice Peter Penlington, and with the Ethics Committee, he did precisely that.

It was his insistence and expertise that ensured the profession had a readable, modern, fluid set of rules. It gave him great satisfaction.

But there were many other things upon which his influence was so clearly evident – too numerous for this occasion but some people here will recall, for instance, the way in which the Society’s work was recognised by the Royal Commission on the Courts chaired by Sir David Beattie. Mervyn was responsible in no small measure. Likewise, in company amongst others, with our then President, now Sir Thomas Eichelbaum, he say through, by 1982, a complete rewriting of the Law Practitioners Act. Incidentally, and I know I shouldn’t be saying this, but I do remember Mervyn confiding in me at the time that our then President was likely to make quite a reasonable Judge if he stuck at it.

I have already said to Karen that I think I know better than most how thankless his mission must at times have appeared to her and to Mervyn himself. But I also said that I knew the profession would pause now to pay tribute to an unparalleled record of service:

· that members would recognise the way in which Mervyn kept to the principles of professionalism in which he had believed throughout his career;

· that they would recognise the dignity and integrity he brought to the office of Secretary-General;

· that they would note how forthright and uncompromising he could be when he felt it necessary, but at the same time that they would recall the unfailing courtesy and compassion with which he dealt with their myriad inquiries and problems.

Above all, I told Karen that they would acknowledge the hallmark of courage no more emphatically and inspirationally stamped on Mervyn’s character than over the last year.

All that is what the profession is doing. It is through their respect for Mervyn that I have been contacted by so many lawyers throughout the country. They were making sure that I knew they wished to be associated with this tribute.

This has come not only from our President, Judith Potter, and President-Elect, Austin Forbes, who are sorry that their attendance has proved impossible, but also from former Presidents, Law Society people, many other lawyers, and even children of lawyers now deceased. This has been a compelling demonstration of the respect lawyers have for Mervyn and his standing in their profession.

Mervyn would be content to regard it as a tribute to this Society.

Knowing his wayward Irish humour which, on his own admission, landed him in trouble from time to time, he would have enjoyed saying now: “Enough of this Ritchie – best get back to the office and put in a decent day’s work. You don’t want to lose your job. Remember, there are no surviving former Secretaries of the New Zealand Law Society.”

It is sad that I will not hear him say it. But now he is at peace having never once failed to do his best for his profession.

This tribute was first published in LawTalk 410, April 1994, page 5.

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Last updated on the 11th May 2012