What Lured the Nation’s Chief Justice to Greensboro


A gentle breeze blew through the screened windows on the porch where I sat with United States Chief Justice William Rehnquist, talking about the summers of contentment he had spent here in his Greensboro vacation home. The leaves on a branch of the maple tree next to the porch blazed forth with shades of orange.

“I see you have a hint of what’s to come up here,” I commented. Yes, and that is a regret I have that I am never able to be up here in foliage time,” the Chief Justice said.“That’s when the court gets underway.”

The time was 1998, a few days after I had attended a meeting at Highland Lodge with my husband where the Justice gave an informal talk to lawyers and judges from the area. The obvious delight he took in Vermont prompted me to ask if  I could  interview him sometime about what had attracted him to the Northeast Kingdom.

Justice Rehnquist greeted me the day we had agreed upon with a warm smile as I walked up his driveway. He introduced me to his oldest friend, Bob Brachman, who was visiting him from Wisconsin. They had attended kindergarten together in Shorewood, a Milwaukee suburb, and had kept up their friendship over the years.

“Bob complains that my croquet course has a bit of a tilt,” he laughed.“It’s not an orthodox course -- more of a pitch and putt course.” He pointed to the sloping lawn. Spirited croquet games were very much a part of recreation for the Rehnquist family and their guests, young and old.

I placed my tape recorder on a footstool close to the justice with my notes on my lap as we talked on his porch. My first question was what had drawn him to faraway Greensboro from the nation’s capital. He had bought his Vermont retreat back in 1974, two years after he had been confirmed as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

 “We began to look around for something either in the North Carolina mountains or northern New England where it would be cool in the summertime,” he said. Before the family moved to Washington, they had lived in hot Phoenix from 1953 to 1969 where he practiced law. Always looking for a cool summer home back then, they had owned a forest cabin in northern Arizona, and at one time a small farm on a western Colorado mountain slope.

“We saw an ad in a Vermont brochure for Highland Lodge, and it said they had a tennis court.”

He glanced at me with a grin. The Justice’s love of tennis was legendary in this part of the Northeast Kingdom.“And, of course, Dave and Carol Smith were running it then (parents of David Smith, who now manages the business with his wife, Willie). My son was in college but my wife and two daughters came up with me. Dave and Carol were so nice. They saw that the girls met some of the summer people’s children.”

Then the Rehnquists found the home that was to become their vacation retreat.“Having grown up in Wisconsin, I was interested in being close to an inland lake where it would be quiet and restful, but still have enough activity so you could stay here for weeks at a time and not feel totally isolated. We wanted a place that was not a‘see and be seen’ place,’” said this man who is known for his unpretentious manner.“This seemed to fill the bill.”

What delighted the Rehnquists was the space that Greensboro people naturally gave them.“I never had to bring up the subject of our need for privacy. People here just seemed to know it instinctively. It shows how thoughtful they are,” he recalled.

He added that Caspian Lake reminded him of“some of the nicest lakes in Wisconsin. And Vermont has Willoughby, too, with those spectacular fjords.”      

When his three grown children and the eight Rehnquist grandchildren came throughout the summer for their vacations, the lakefront kept the happily occupied.“The property came with deeded rights to the Lodge’s beach and dock. I pay them a certain amount a year for the use of their towels, canoes, paddleboats, rowboats, chairs and things like that. It works out beautifully.”

His son James had four children.“When they’d come, instead of visiting me, I’d visit them. I’d give them some money and they’d cook things they thought I’d want. We’d play croquet with the kids, then they’d go to the beach and we played cards at night.’ His daughters, Janet and  Nancy had two children each,“so I won’t say I cooked for them, but I do a lot more of the planning and shopping.”

One of the first places the Rehnquists discovered was Willey’s Store, the quintessential general store.“It’s a great social mixer,” the Justice explained.“Lots of invitations for dinner are given and accepted at Willey’s. Some people go in a couple times a day. The other day Connie, the bakery lady who lives on the road to Hardwick, made an anniversary cake for Donna who had worked at Willey’s for 20 years.”

Phyllis Hurst, managing the store with her sons Tom and Rob, spoke of how everybody missed Mrs. Rehnquist, who had died a few years ago after a long illness.“She had such a warm personality,” Mrs. Hurst commented.“She was famous for her multi-bean salad.”

The Rehnquists met at Stanford University where he had enrolled in law school in 1946 after serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II for three years. Nan Rehnquist was an undergraduate majoring in political science, which had also been her future husband’s undergraduate major. After their marriage in 1953, she became a tireless volunteer in civic activities, particularly the National Lutheran Home for the Aged in Washington, D.C.

I had heard that when the Rehnquists settled in their Greensboro home, the Justice had applied for membership in the Mountainview Country Club and had to wait his turn to join.“That’s one great difference up here. Nobody is treated with any special favor. It’s a very nice change from Washington,” the Justice said.

Known as“Bill” by his Greensboro neighbors, the broad-shouldered, six-foot-two-inch Justice became a familiar sight on the tennis court, playing doubles at different times with Lacey Smith, Alfred Fuller, Alan Lukens, Kim Igleheart and Joe Nicely.“When my sister comes to visit, we have a standing tennis date, men against women, with Roe and Betty Howell,” he said. I asked if the women occasionally won, remembering what I had heard about the Justice’s smash hits at the net, he answered,“No. We just psych them out. Actually, I think they are better tennis players.”

Justice Rehnquist spoke of how he treasured quiet moments, too, when he enjoyed reading biographies, history and mysteries.“I like the old school whodunits, too– particularly Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.”          

The Justice was an author himself.“In the course of about 15 years I have written only three books. After all, as someone has said,‘I do have a day job.’”

Every other summer he enjoyed a gathering of Vermont authors at the home of Lewis and Nancy Hill in Greensboro, prolific writers about gardening in the North Country.“I bought my apple trees from Lewis,” he said.“He came and planted them. Not only that, but afterwards he would come and spray them in the springtime. That just would never happen at all in a big city.”

Wednesday noons Justice Rehnquist met with a group of men who called themselves,“The Romeos” (Retired Old Men Eating Out.)“We go to somebody’s house for an hour and have a drink, then  have lunch at the Lodge. I look forward to it. It’s a chance to talk things over.”

I had heard that the Justice had taken painting lessons in the years before he was sworn in as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1986, and wondered if he still found time for that hobby. He confided,“I don’t paint now, and it’s been no loss to the world of art that I stopped. I thought I would keep right on after I became Chief Justice, even though I didn’t have time for the classes. But I found that I needed the discipline of the class.”

There was a sense of a deep contentment in this man, relaxing in the invigorating climate of this lakeside community. It was obvious that he practiced what he preached at a law school commencement when he counseled the graduates:“Do not let the law be too jealous a mistress. You must give yourself time not only to do a variety of things, but also to allow yourself time to appreciate and enjoy what you are doing.”

As we ended our talk, the Chief Justice pointed west at the billowy clouds in the bright blue sky over Caspian Lake.“Just look at those clouds!” he exclaimed.“What a perfect Vermont summer day.”

Those words come to mind every time foliage time returns to Vermont. I think of the inspiration the colors would have given Justice Rehnquist, who regretted leaving Vermont for his“day job” in Washington before the autumn colors returned.

The Chief Justice died in his home at Arlington, Virginia, on Sept. 4, 2005.