John Burroughs, longtime West Marin lawyer, dies at 82

05/11/2017

John Burroughs, a gregarious West Marin lawyer with a knack for storytelling and a passion for civic engagement, died on April 10 in Bellingham, Wash. He was 82 years old.

Mr. Burroughs fashioned himself as a country lawyer, and would quote the Bible and Shakespeare in his briefs. He was also a gardener, mushroom-forager and one-time restaurateur. 

He and his wife, Jean, and their two children moved to Inverness from San Francisco in 1970. As a lawyer, he was responsible for incorporating the Dance Palace and West Marin Senior Services. He also served as president of the Inverness Ridge Association, commodore for the Inverness Yacht Club and director for the Tomales Bay
Association. 

Mr. Burroughs oversaw the construction of his law office on A Street in Point Reyes Station, now home to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. Alongside his partner, Henry Froneberger, the firm specialized in business law, insurance matters and probate litigation. 

“He called himself the ‘old country lawyer’ and wore a white straw fedora in his photograph for the American Bar Association,” Mr. Froneberger said. “But any lawyer he opposed in court would tell you that it was John’s way of setting you up—he was anything but an old country lawyer! He was a storyteller and his character was a large part of his success.”

Mr. Burroughs was born on July 15, 1934 in Mason City, Iowa to Virginia Joughin and John Bousfield II. (He was born John Dunwoody Bousfield III, but changed his last name to reflect his stepfather, Harold Burroughs, after his parents divorced.) 

He grew up in San Francisco and played football at Lowell High School. During summers, Mr. Burroughs visited relatives in Libby, Mont., where his uncle taught him to fish for trout, ride a horse and embrace the outdoors. “All of the things he did in Montana, he’d do for the rest of his life,” Ms. Burroughs said.

He spent one year at San Francisco State University, but quit to join the military to help cover tuition. After two years in the service, he followed a girlfriend to the University of Minnesota, where he studied political science, history and the humanities. 

While eating lunch at a food hall, Mr. Burroughs met Jean Madill, a student nurse. The two began dating, often taking long walks together through campus.

The couple wed on Sept. 7, 1957 and moved to San Francisco two years later. As a salesman for Mobil Oil, Mr. Burroughs watched with distaste as the company laid off employees before they could reach retirement. His wife said it inspired him to pursue a degree in law. He graduated from Hastings College of Law in 1963 with a Juris Doctor degree. 

While Ms. Burroughs was attending the University of San Francisco for a master’s degree in nursing, a faculty member invited the couple for a weekend in Inverness. They fell in love with the area and, after the birth of their son, Carlton, in 1968 and their daughter, Bonnie, in 1969, they decided to relocate.

At first, Mr. Burroughs had a home practice in Inverness; later, he moved into the building next to the post office, now the law offices of Martha Howard. Eventually he formed a firm with Mr. Froneberger, whom he’d met through family friends in San Francisco, and the duo set up shop above the Old Western Saloon. 

“The first time I walked into John’s office, I noticed a wooden name plate on his desk that said ‘Thy will be done,’ which had a double meaning: What you want will be done, or I’ll do your will,” Mr. Froneberger chuckled.

Mr. Burroughs had previously worked as counsel for an insurance company in San Francisco and, following the devastating 1982 flood, his firm took on multiple cases over insurance claims. They did “virtually anything,” from civil litigation to real estate, Mr. Froneberger said.

As a lawyer, Mr. Burroughs was “gregarious and demonstrative,” Mr. Froneberger recalled. He’d begin forming his opening and closing arguments immediately upon taking on a case and would include Shakespeare and Bible quotes in his briefs. Sometimes, during lunch, the pair would escape to the Inverness Ridge to hunt for mushrooms. 

Eventually the firm moved to its new building on A Street, where the partners worked until the 1995 Mount Vision Fire destroyed Mr. Burroughs’ home, along with 43 others houses. Mr. Froneberger said his partner ceased practicing law after the fire to focus on rebuilding his house. He retired in 1998.

Igor Sazevich, a longtime friend in Inverness, remembers teasing Mr. Burroughs for his large stature. “I’d tell him that I could get into his shoes and go across the Atlantic,” he said. The Burroughs, along with Mr. Sazevich and his wife at the time, Natasha, and Chuck and Kristi Edwards, opened Café Reyes in the early 1980s. 

“We weren’t very successful as restaurateurs, so we gave it up,” Ms. Burroughs said. The partners sold the restaurant to its current owner, Robert Harvell, about a decade later.

Mr. Burroughs suffered from hearing loss brought on by his days in the military, and his friend Bob Harris said the impairment sometimes led to humorous moments. “The thing about John was that he was hard of hearing,” Mr. Harris said. “As a result, a conversation would sometimes take a turn because he misheard what was said, and this usually led to something humorous.”

Mr. Harris shared his friend’s love of foraging for mushrooms, and the two took mushroom hunting trips to the Trinity Mountains. “He especially loved morels,” Mr. Harris said. “And he was always good at finding chanterelles and knew of a lot of good spots.”

He loved gardening, too. Martha Borge, whose son Jason is the same age as Carlton, said the two families became close and would often meet for dinner.

“He prided himself on his garden,” she said. “He’d make spaghetti sauces from scratch and would like to talk about the ingredients he put in the food.”

Once, the two families went to a restaurant in San Rafael, and Mr. Burroughs paid for the entire meal with a 13-pound bag of chanterelles.

In 2005, Mr. and Mrs. Burroughs moved to Bellingham to be closer to their children and grandchildren. They would celebrate the Fourth of July on Orcas Island and Mr. Burroughs enjoyed water aerobics classes at the local pool. 

Ms. Burroughs said her husband would often entertain her by asking hypothetical questions during their long walks together. “He was fun to talk to,” she said. “And for 60 years, he was never boring.”