Preserving the Past, Informing the Future
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Christopher Lester Avery lived for the most of his life in Groton, Connecticut, where he was born September 4, 1872, and died May 6, 1956. He came of a distinguished line of ancestors, many of whom have played a prominent part in the history of New London County and of the state of Connecticut since the first Christopher came to America over three hundred years ago. Judge Avery, like a number of his forefathers, was recognized as long the first citizen of his native town. He was the fifth of six children born to Christopher Lester Avery and Ellen Barber Copp, and it is said that he acquired his unusual powers of concentration very early in life by studying in the midst of a large and distracting family. He received his elementary education in the grammar schools of Groton and was graduated from the Norwich Free Academy in 1889, from Yale College in 1893, and, after teaching history for a year in a small Kentucky college, from the Yale Law School in 1897. In college, scholastically he ranked among the leaders in his class and in athletics was middleweight wrestling champion. In another undergraduate activity, debating, he was particularly effective by virtue of his quick and incisive mind, qualities which proved of increasing significance in connection with his law school course and later throughout his career in practice and on the bench.
Upon graduation from law school, he was admitted to the New York bar and began practice with the firm now well known as Cravath, Swaine and Moore. This was interrupted by a term of service in the United States navy during the Spanish-American War as quartermaster on the U.S.S. Jason. After his return to civilian life, in 1903 he moved back to Groton, became a member of the New London County bar and was associated with his lifelong friend Charles B. Waller in the firm of Waller, Waller, Avery and Gallup, having offices in New London. For the ensuing seventeen years he practiced law in New London with the vigor and energy characteristic of all his activities, and during this period became increasingly active in civic affairs. While his practice had steadily grown and prospered, it was in 1920 that the course of his legal career took its final and deepest channel when he went on the bench of the Superior Court after nomination by Governor Marcus H. Holcomb. Ten years later, in 1930, he became an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Errors. He served as a member of that court until he reached the constitutional retirement age of seventy in 1942.
In addition to his distinguished judicial career of twenty-two years, Judge Avery rendered public and community service of unusual scope. In 1911 he was warden of the borough of Groton and a colonel on the staff of Governor Simeon F. Baldwin. In 1913 he was a representative of the town of Groton in the General Assembly, and during World War I, in 1915, he became chairman of the New London draft board. In 1917 he was elected a trustee of the Connecticut College for Women, and he served in that capacity thirty-nine years, until his death. For many years he was a member of the commission on uniform laws and was its chairman at his death. Also, in more recent years, he was chairman of the commission for the construction of the huge new Thames River state highway bridge between New London and Groton. A lifelong member of the Groton Congregational Church, he was one of its most liberal contributors, and for many years served on its board of deacons. From 1946 until his death he was chairman of the Groton board of finance. After having served as a director of two other of the local banks, in 1939 he was elected chairman of the board of the Savings Bank of New London, where, after retiring from the bench, he was regularly in his office until the last day but one before he died.
Judge Avery was thrice married, his first and second wives having predeceased him. Six children in all, and his widow, Ethel Gray Bailey Avery, survive. He never permitted the exacting demands of his professional or other duties to interfere with his family life. He was always a devoted husband and father. One of his daughters, in a tribute to him, after referring to his family's dependence upon his counsel and understanding, and to his primary concern for their interest and welfare, further well said: "God in his goodness gave him the energy, character and strength to live according to the high principles that guided his life. His love and guidance cannot be replaced. But the deeds, the thoughts and the devotion with which he served his family and his community are a living testament of his character."
These high principles were dominant and manifest throughout Judge Avery's life. His faithful adherence to them constituted a conspicuously vital attribute of his career as a judge. By reason of his integrity, his keen sense of justice, his deep and well-grounded learning in the law, his sound common sense and his unhesitating courage, he came to be regarded as one of our strongest judges. In the Supreme Court work, he concentrated primarily on the adoption of opinions clearly stating the material facts, the controlling principles of law and the court's conclusion, rather than upon such less vital matters as phraseology and verbal form. Characteristically, he endeavored to make his own opinions concise, logical and free from any ambiguity or equivocation. He was faithful in the discharge of all of his judicial duties and did not miss a day of court during his twenty-two years upon the bench.
Judge Avery was conservative in his views and inclined to be laconic in speech, but he was genial withal in his associations with his fellow men. As well may be inferred from his ancestry and his dominant characteristics, above recited, he could be described as "a typical Yankee." His final service incident to his judicial career was as state referee from 1942 to 1956, terminated by his death at the ripe age of eighty-three years.[footer.htm]