Former Merton College Charitable Corporation President, John Joseph Kirby, Died on October 2, 2019 at the age of 79

June 29, 2020

John Joseph Kirby, Jr. died on 2 October 2019 a little shy of his 80th birthday later that month. John had been battling myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood cancer, with grace, courage and the loving tireless support of his wife Susan Cullman and children. Despite difficult circumstances he continued to engage with his family, many friends and interests including his beloved Merton. John even somehow managed to attend and speak at the Merton Washington D.C. April 2019 reunion. During the reunion, several months before the outbreak of COVID-19, he was an early adaptor and prescient exemplar of masking and the social distancing which has become so prevalent. Although John was cancer free for almost a year he ultimately succumbed to complications linked to a failure of his immune system.

John Kirby led an extraordinary almost impossibly kaleidoscopic long life of achievement and service. All of the biographical details likely were not fully appreciated by many people outside his immediate family. Even those who justifiably felt they knew him well often were not completely aware of the complex gem of a human being he was beyond the sparkling facets of his life that they touched. Yet we are more fortunate than those six blind men in the well-known ancient story who encountered an elephant at a crossroad. In that old parable they were so close that each could only sense the different part of the elephant that they happened to feel. They were unable to comprehend the entire nature of the enormous animal without listening to each other’s’ experiences. Our reflections and shared, poignant and often hilarious stories by John Kirby’s classmates and children since his passing afford us a greater appreciation of his rich life. In a sense we are getting to know and see all of John even better at a distance. On a personal note it is a privilege and heavy responsibility to attempt here to encapsulate on behalf of so many others the highlights of what we all should remember and can celebrate. For me, on top of everything else, more than being my long time law partner, mentor, friend and fellow Mertonian, John was a big brother I never had. Albeit a warmly respected older brother with whom a frank discussion of each other’s imperfections was possible and not rare, and who never quite got out of the habit of acting as if I was the junior law associate I once was long ago.

John was born in Washington D.C., the eldest of five children, to John Sr., a lawyer with the federal government, and Rose, a homemaker. John spent his childhood in Falls Church, Virginia, attending Gonzaga College High School before heading to Fordham University in New York City. He was proud to note that Fordham awarded him a full scholarship including room and board. There he distinguished himself with exceptional academic achievement, notable leadership initiatives including winning election as student government president, and considerable epic hijinks. John graduated in 1961 with scholarship offers from 11 law schools and chose to return home to the University of Virginia. After his first year he was selected as a Rhodes Scholar and spent two years at Merton before returning to Virginia to finish his J.D. Upon graduation John became the youngest law professor in the history of his alma mater since its founding by Thomas Jefferson.

John had a storied legal career including exceptional public service. Working on voting rights issues at the United States Department of Justice in the tumultuous 1960s as a 21 year old aid to Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Doar, John uncovered and documented insidious discriminatory techniques in so-called literacy aptitude tests that had been used to disenfranchise African Americans. This work helped form the basis of the historic breakthrough Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and earned John commendations from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Later, as Special Assistant to then Assistant Attorney General John Doar, he personally escorted African American children into newly desegregated schools, surrounded by federal marshals in circumstances of great physical peril. On one occasion John asked a small black child he was escorting what desegregation meant to him? John was moved beyond measure when the young boy told him he hoped that at last he would be able to eat a hamburger at the popular Bob’s Big Boy fast food chain restaurant just like other children. After leaving Justice, John was called back to serve as Deputy Director of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest created in the aftermath of the infamous killings of four students at Kent State.

In private practice John Kirby soared. His clients ranged from the video game maker Nintendo to Pepsi and America Online. John argued before the United States Supreme Court, served as chairman of the historic Wall Street law firm Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander & Ferdon, and headed the New York litigation department of Latham & Watkins where this writer first met him. His successful defense of Nintendo in a copy infringement suit concerning Nintendo’s Donkey Kong arcade game was, as he noted, a career highlight for his own children as well as video game fans around the world. John represented Nintendo for many years, and the company honored him by naming its popular video game character “Kirby” (which John was a bit self-conscious about because the pinkish character was rather rotund). Nintendo also gave John a sailboat aptly named the Donkey Kong which he captained with great pleasure on outings with his family in the waters by his homes in Westhampton Beach, New York and later Shippan Point, Connecticut.

In his spare time, John served on the boards of directors of Georgetown University, Fordham University, the Legal Aid Society of New York, the Fund for Modern Courts, and for many years as President of the Merton College Charitable Corporation. In that role he was a talented administrative leader and friend to all Mertonians. He and his wife Susan made all Mertonians feel welcome and embraced including those participating at their first event. The Kirby-Cullman Sunday morning brunches at their beautiful triplex penthouse Park Avenue home during reunions in New York City were always well attended and thoroughly enjoyed. As one of his fellow trustees said, “they will always be remembered as the genial heart of the organization [MC3]. “ Upon John’s death Acting Warden of the College, Stephen Gunn, described John as a “loyal friend to the college and to many generations of North American Mertonians.” Warden Gunn ordered the College flag flown at half-staff in his honor. A few days later during her historic installation observations, Merton’s 51st Warden Professor Irene Tracy, who had earlier opportunities to get to know the Kirby-Cullmans, embraced and expanded upon these remarks. During John’s 15 November, 2019 beautiful memorial program held in Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus Duane Library, after tributes by leading academics, dignitaries, judges and family, Merton’s 50th Warden Sir Martin Taylor offered a warm and heartfelt concluding remembrance on behalf of the College, his wife Lady Taylor and himself.

John’s passions extended to voracious reading, often of an entire book at one sitting, vigorous travel including hiking expeditions with Susan at the most dramatic and scenic locations around the world, the cultural offerings and best restaurants in the leading cities on the planet, enjoying family and friends at their home in Jamaica’s Tryall community, and especially attending performances, sporting events, and sharing milestones of each and all his children and grandchildren.

Thinking of the powerful simple words of fictional Sergeant Lewis, as he bent over and kissed the forehead of his recently departed iconic boss Inspector Morse, we say: Goodbye John Kirby.

Nicholas W. Allard 1974