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Fred Upton dies at 94

December 5, 2013

Fred Upton in his office. (Courtesy)
By MEGAN DOYLE Concord Monitor staff
Thursday, December 5, 2013
(Published in print: Thursday, December 5, 2013)

Fred Upton practiced law in New Hampshire for nearly 50 years, served as the state Bar Association’s first president in the 1970s and won a high-profile case to block the construction of a four-lane highway through the Franconia Notch.

Even though he never actually passed the bar exam.

The prominent Concord lawyer died of cancer Monday, just two weeks shy of his 95th birthday. World War II pulled Upton out of Harvard Law School just before he was to complete his degree, but the state Supreme Court waived his exam and admitted the U.S. Navy veteran with two Bronze Star medals to the New Hampshire Bar Association in 1943.

The longtime lawyer used to joke about that free pass into the Bar, but Upton is remembered now as a skilled attorney and a tireless advocate for his clients, for others in his profession and for New Hampshire residents.

His son, Rob Upton, continues to practice at the family firm, Upton & Hatfield.

“Lawyers in New Hampshire don’t make tons of money, but they make a good living and that’s the end,” Rob Upton, 69, said. “(Fred) didn’t care about the money. He did it because he loved it. He was a horrible businessman, he just loved the practice of law.”

Upton was born in Bow in 1918 and moved into a colonial South Street house in Concord when he was a boy. He graduated from Concord High School at 16 years old in 1935, and he was captain of the cross country team at Dartmouth College before he went to Harvard Law School.

As a young trainee in naval officer school, Upton met his first wife, Jean, through another trainee – “Somebody yelled down the hall, would (anyone) be interested in a blind date, and he said, ‘Yes,’ ” his son John Upton said. After three years of sinking German U-boats in the North Atlantic, he moved back to Concord with Jean, and they raised five children in their home on Dunklee Street.

In 1945, Upton joined a firm run by his father, Robert Upton, who began practicing law in the city in 1908 and served a brief term in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s. Also a member of that firm was Richard Upton, his brother. As speaker of the New Hampshire House, Richard Upton drafted a law providing for a more populist primary, one that allowed voters to mark their preference for a presidential candidate on the ballots that used to determine only the state’s delegates for nominating conventions.

That law changed the presidential primary in New Hampshire and the United States forever, earning the Granite State its reputation as a make-or-break stop early on the campaign trail – and the Uptons were right in the middle of it. A profile of Richard Upton in the Monitor’s “The New Hampshire Century” turns the spotlight on his brother during a visit from Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, who was running for the Republican nomination in 1952.

“A local campaign aide, Fred Upton, took the mike and told the crowd, ‘Please, everyone, don’t leave yet. The senator just told me he wants to shake hands with every last one of you before you leave!’ ” the profile reads. “The notoriously aloof Taft pounced on Upton. ‘I never said any such thing!’ he muttered under his breath.”

Rob Upton had never heard that story about his father as a younger man, but he said he wasn’t surprised his always demanding father would push candidates to walk directly into the New Hampshire crowds.

“That would be typical of my father,” Rob Upton said. “He would want the candidates to mix it up with people.”

When John Upton, 60, remembers his father, he remembers an avid newspaper reader with a curious, intellectual mind. John is also now a lawyer and practices in Portland, Maine.

“We found that sitting around the dinner table, there was always a real debate, with my father taking the lead, on the issues of the day. . . . You couldn’t hide at our dinner table,” he said.

The lawyer expected his children to work hard, Rob Upton said.

“I remember him saying, ‘I don’t care if you get a D as long as you’re working as hard as you can to get that D,’ ” Rob Upton said. “I got an A- in Latin in the ninth grade, and the teacher wrote a note that I wasn’t working up to my full capacity, and you would have thought the world was coming to an end. . . . You were expected to work hard.”

And Upton set the tone for that work ethic. He earned a reputation as both a tenacious trial lawyer in court, attorney Russ Hilliard said, and a skilled transactional lawyer who handled litigation for bank acquisitions and mergers in the later years of his career.

Hilliard joined Upton & Hatfield 33 years ago, when Upton was in his early 60s.

“(Fred) was going 100 miles an hour at that time and for another 20 years after that,” said Hilliard, now 62.

In one of his most high-profile cases, Upton represented the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests when it fought the construction of a four-lane Interstate 93 through Franconia Notch in the late 1960s. He argued a full-blown highway would be destructive to the Old Man of the Mountain and won, and then he helped negotiate the construction of the existing two-lane parkway.

And in 2004, the 84-year-old Upton came out of retirement to lead a challenge against legislation that would have de-unified the New Hampshire Bar Association he had helped unite 30 years before. He won.

“He was so proud to be a lawyer, just so proud to be a lawyer and to be able to work with clients, Hilliard said.

About nine years ago, when Upton was first diagnosed with liver cancer, Rob Upton said his father faced a surgery that would mean a long and difficult recovery. But when he asked his father if he was sure he wanted to go through with the procedure, Upton was indignant.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Are you kidding me? They tell me if this operation is successful, they guarantee me five years,’ and he stuck his hand with all five fingers out in my face,” Rob Upton said.

“He had an enormous will to live.”

He lived five years, and then four more, but he couldn’t fight the cancer when it returned just a few weeks ago. He was arguing about politics and reading his newspaper at his Exeter home until his last days, his sons said. Upton’s wife, Jean, died in 1996, and he married Beth Shoup Upton in 1997. She died in 2010.

The family has planned a memorial service in Upton’s honor at St. Paul’s Church in Concord on Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. Friends may make donations to the Frederic K. Upton Justice Fund of the New Hampshire Bar Foundation in lieu of flowers.

As he remembered a father who taught him to fish and a law partner who was his colleague in the courtroom, Rob Upton said the man would be “a hard act to follow.”

“He was probably, in my experience, the finest all-around lawyer I ever got to see,” Rob Upton said.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

About Jan Stearns

I've been living in and loving New Hampshire's White Mountains for most of my life. I moved to Waterville Valley in 1981 and quickly realized why it was dubbed a Yankee Shangri-la. Once you’ve experienced Waterville Valley, you’ll want to call it yours. The great team of Realtors at Waterville Valley Realty can help you find a Waterville Valley home that fits your lifestyle and budget.

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