Ted Vaill '65: Inclined to Give Back
Edward E. (Ted) Vaill, JD’65, has impeccable timing, amazing luck, or a combination of both. Even before graduating from the Law School, he was reclassified 1A for the draft. “I couldn’t get a job in the legal community with that classification, and I still needed to pass the bar.” But hours before he was to be drafted into the Army and probably deployed to Vietnam, in one day he managed to be sworn into the District of Columbia bar, and be sworn into Navy JAG. “The look on my Army induction center sergeant’s face when I shared the news was one I’ll never forget.”
A native of Hartford, Connecticut, Vaill majored in political science at Colgate University, and following graduation from the University of Chicago Law School in 1965 spent a year as the Legislative Assistant to a liberal Republican Congressman. It was there where he became a strong opponent of the Vietnam War. “It was the Johnson administration, and the experience really gave me a strong interest in law and politics, as well as international relations.”
In Washington, on a Colgate political science honors study group in 1962, Ted received a call from Colgate, offering to designate him as its National Honor scholarship recipient to the University of Chicago Law School. “The scholarship covered all of my tuition and fees. While I had another scholarship offer to consider, the decision to attend Chicago led me on a certain path in life that I don’t regret at all. It was a tremendously intellectually challenging experience, arguably the most arduous legal education in the country then and now.”
Together with influences from torts expert Harry Kalven Jr, AB’35, JD’38, and constitutional law professor Philip Kurland, Vaill’s favorite teacher was Malcolm Sharp, who taught contracts—Ted’s strongest course in law school and strongest area in law practice. Sharp’s students described the class as an “hour of mystery,” claiming they didn’t understand what he was saying. “I was intrigued, so I went up into the stacks and pulled Sharp’s law review articles and other pieces he had authored.” That background reading and the insights they provided into Sharp’s thinking eventually scored him the highest grade in the class.
Had it not been for the scholarship, Vaill says, he could not have afforded law school. “Essentially, the bequest arrangement I’ve made to benefit the Law School is payback for giving me a free legal education and will be used to provide scholarship help for others in the same situation.“
Vaill first put that legal education to use at Camp Pendleton, CA, in 1966 to 1967 when he defended Marines who, like him, opposed the war. “I had rationalized that I was going to be a defense counsel in the Navy.” He reviewed cases that were not appealable beyond his decision and loved to throw out convictions where legally justified. “I ended up going to Guam as part of a trial team. It turned out to be a seminal event in my life because I tried a lot of important cases there.” He even got to Vietnam a couple of times as defense counsel in a few cases.
It was not until 1969, when he was released from active duty on Guam, that he thought, “OK, now I’ll try to practice corporate law [in the traditional sense].” But first Vaill, a mountain climber since his early teens, traveled to Nepal to join some Americans planning to climb Mount Dhaulagiri, an 8,000-meter peak. Arriving several weeks ahead of the group, he set out on an 18,000-foot training climb, but caught dysentery on the way back. Days later he was still much too weak to make the Dhaulagiri climb. “Bailing on the expedition turned out to be one of the most fortunate things of my life because except for three friends of mine—Jim Morrissey, Lou Reichardt, and Al Reid— all of the members of the expedition were killed in a massive avalanche.” In all, seven climbers died: at the time it was the worst disaster in American climbing history.
Upon his safe arrival back in the US, Dana Lenahan, whom he had met during his days at Camp Pendleton, picked him up at the airport in Los Angeles. “That same year, I proposed to her on the summit of a 13,000 foot pinnacle in the Sierras.” They married, and in 1972 their family doubled with the birth of identical twin daughters. Dana passed away in 2003. Vaill’s daughters still reside in the L.A. area.
After several years with a large downtown L.A. law firm, Ted was invited by a Colgate fraternity brother to join the litigation department at Litton Industries, where Vaill made a name for himself after winning a major antitrust case. “Suddenly I had a reputation as an antitrust lawyer and after that, was snapped up by Atlantic Ritchfield Company [ARCO] in 1975,” he says. “I did all of the mergers-acquisitions work for ARCO, making 23 separate Hart-Scott Rodino filings and negotiating with the FTC and the Department of Justice. It was a very intense time for oil companies.” In the early 1980s he was ARCO’s lead counsel in a bid-rigging case against J. Ray McDermott & Co. of Louisiana and Houston’s Brown & Root Inc, now part of Halliburton. Vaill and his team eventually won a multimillion-dollar settlement for ARCO, and in 1985 he took a lucrative retirement package from ARCO and then immediately landed at Occidental Petroleum, run by Armand Hammer. He handled insurance and litigation matters and negotiated contracts in China for Occidental, providing an opportunity for him to explore his passion for international relations and international law. In the mid-1990s, after taking another retirement package from Occidental, he joined an intellectual property law firm in Brentwood, CA, as a partner. He remains “Of Counsel” to the firm today.
Vaill is also a local activist. An elected delegate to the California Democratic Party Convention since early 2009, he is a past member of the Planning Commission of the City of Malibu, where he has lived since 1974. Earlier this year he helped derail the California Coastal Commission’s ill-advised plans to bulldoze the Malibu Lagoon, near Surfrider beach—a historic site where surfing first began in the continental U.S. Since 1974, he has chaired the American Alpine Club’s Legal Committee and counts writing and documentary filmmaking among his other interests. Along with his girlfriend, Joan Yang, he enjoys international travel.
Vaill thrives on the unordinary. Sidestepping the Army didn’t eliminate other white knuckle moments. In the summer of 1960, after studying at the University of Oslo, he took a group trip to the Soviet Union during the Francis Gary Powers U-2 spy trial. Masquerading as a Russian, he decided to sneak into the proceedings. “Luckily they didn’t catch me or I’d still be in a gulag,” he says. Luck persisted in 1962 when Vaill, a summer Park Ranger in the Tetons in Wyoming, was climbing a new route on Mt. Moran: "A refrigerator-sized rock broke off above me, barely missing as it bounded by."
Another close call came in 1989 when Vaill was in Beijing for Occidental until shortly before the Tiananmen Massacre. “All of the windows of our office were shot out by the PLA, with our people in them.”
“More important than making a lot of money, he says, “I always wanted to live an interesting life.”