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After 40 years at Northeastern, former general counsel retires

Vincent J. Lembo, vice president and senior counsel, poses for a portrait on Aug. 2, 2017. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Look across Northeastern’s campus, and you’ll notice that Vin Lembo’s impact is everywhere—from the physical buildings resulting from the relationships he’s developed and real estate deals he’s negotiated, to the countless members of the university community he’s counseled, mentored, and befriended.

Lembo, a Double Husky with two degrees from Northeastern, has worked at the university for nearly 40 years, the majority of which was spent leading and serving in the Office of the General Counsel. Lembo said he’s “handled everything under the sun” throughout his career, during which his colleagues say he’s played a vital role in Northeastern’s moves to build a number of facilities, including West Village, International Village, East Village, and the university’s boathouse on the Charles River, and acquire others, such as Renaissance Park and Matthews Arena.

These major accomplishments represent the foundation of the legacy Lembo has built at Northeastern, but his impact stretches far beyond. He worked on the university’s master plans, organized three Northeastern presidential searches, and planned President Richard Freeland’s weeklong inauguration celebration. There were also countless days when he’d be sitting in his office at 7 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a copy of The Boston Globe, and faculty and staff members would pop in for guidance on myriad matters, professional and personal.

“Half the time I could just sit and decompress, and the other half people would come in with problems because they knew I was in there that early,” he chuckled. But for Lembo, those moments represented some of his most meaningful at Northeastern, as he forged relationships with colleagues and helped them address any number of issues they faced. As he puts it, the general counsel office’s job “was to solve problems before they became problems.”

Lembo, 66, retired on Thursday, Aug. 3. In an interview with News@Northeastern a day earlier, he reflected on his more than four decades of experience at Northeastern, during which he’s seen the university grow in size and prestige. “It was a great movie to watch, and we’re still getting better,” he said.

Lisa Sinclair, the university’s vice president and deputy general counsel who has worked with Lembo for nearly two decades, underscored his ability to develop strong relationships both at Northeastern and in the Boston community. She also pointed to Lembo’s longstanding commitment to mentoring and guiding students through their Northeastern careers, from student-athletes, to Torch Scholars, to the law students working on co-op in the general counsel’s office. She said he was seen last Wednesday meeting with a prospective law student, whom he invited up to his office and introduced to current co-op students. “Right up to his last day, he’s still invested in students of Northeastern University,” she said.

His student days

Lembo arrived at Northeastern as a freshman in fall 1968, commuting from Norwood, Massachusetts. He spent all five years involved in student government—including one year as president—and studied political science as an undergraduate. He worked five co-ops at the Massachusetts Statehouse, experience that would later lead to his landing back at Northeastern in a professional capacity after graduation.

Lembo had long aspired to attend law school—an interest, he said, that grew in part from sitting glued to the tube as a child watching Perry Mason. After graduating magna cum laude in 1973, Lembo attended Northeastern’s School of Law. In his third year, Lembo served as chief teaching assistant for legal writing and one of his students was Senior Vice President Ralph Martin II—who later went on to succeed him as the university’s general counsel.

Martin recalled Lembo as a calm and approachable figure who inspired confidence in him to get through his first year at Northeastern law school, and he said that relationship carried over to their professional careers. “He’s completely unflappable,” Martin said of Lembo. “He projects a degree of confidence and capability where you feel everything will work out just fine. He’s a great leader and cheerleader for the university, because he takes a lot of satisfaction in the accomplishments of others. He built a terrific team here that I was proud to inherit.”

‘When they made me the general counsel’

Lembo earned his law degree in 1976 and then served for a year as law clerk to Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice John F. Doris. He then practiced law for another year in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, before returning to Northeastern in 1979 to work in the law school’s development office and the university’s Government Relations office.

Lembo said in 1982 President Kenneth Ryder pulled him into a meeting in his office with Vice President Danny Roberts and Executive Vice President Jack Curry. Lembo’s immediate reaction was, “Oh no. What have I done?” He feared the worst. Instead, they told him he was being appointed general counsel—a position he’d hold for the next 28 years.

Despite feeling overwhelmed—due in part to the fact that he’d continue serving as the university’s state lobbyist for another five years—he seized the role by the reins. His first orders of business: to ensure that all the university’s legal business came through him and that every contract would have his name on it before it went to a senior administrator. He also insisted on taking the title of university counsel. “I always had an open door policy,” he said, “and when they made me general counsel I wanted everyone to know that I was the lawyer for the entire institution.”

Vin Lembo meets with law fellow Ayla Geller in the Office of the General Counsel on Aug. 2, 2017. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Over the years, Lembo spent many days working on campus and evenings up at the Statehouse. Weekends would bring some reprieve, between coming into the office on Saturdays and spending many Sunday mornings sitting on his living room floor, going through a sea of paperwork he’d spread out before him. He takes great pride in the role he played in acquiring property and forging deals that benefitted the university and its students, faculty, and staff. But he’s also quick to credit his colleagues, with whom he shares these accomplishments. In particular, he said, “Ralph and Lisa have done a terrific job. They’ve taken the office to a whole other level.”

Lembo’s colleagues said that he’s also established important relationships outside the university that have played a big part in Northeastern’s master planning and acquiring property to grow its physical infrastructure.

What’s more, he also spearheaded Northeastern’s writing of an amicus brief in support of the University of Michigan in a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2003, the court ruled 5-4 to uphold Michigan law school’s affirmative action admissions policy, saying the school had a compelling interest to promote class diversity. When the case arose, Lembo saw an opportunity for Northeastern to argue on Michigan’s behalf that universities play a vital role in preparing and providing a diverse workforce. Northeastern’s emphasis on experiential education, he said, made the university uniquely positioned to make this argument, and his office even compiled reflections from co-op employers on the benefits from increased workforce diversity. “I think we produced a terrific brief,” Lembo said. “I’d like to think that helped Michigan in its case. I felt very good about making the argument. It was the right thing to do.”

Martin described Lembo as a zealous guardian of the university’s assets and principles, and a “wise avuncular counselor” whose judgment and discretion many at the university counted on. But Martin said that above all Lembo knew the university was always his ultimate client. He said he’ll miss those moments when he’d wander into his good friend’s office and throw any number of questions his way, whether it be a legal inquiry or a query about a song or a band name he couldn’t remember.

‘The best three minutes of my career at Northeastern’

Music is one of Lembo’s many passions—Martin called him a musicologist—and it’s the driving force behind one of his fondest memories at Northeastern. He has met many famous musicians over the years; his twin brother, Peter, who is now the recycling manager for Northeastern’s Facilities division, worked for many years in the music industry. Through those connections he became friendly with the former music director for Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson.

Not only did Lembo put the wheels in motion for Northeastern to bestow Wilson with an honorary degree at commencement in 2003, but he also helped cook up a surprise for graduates and their families that day when Wilson and his traveling band performed “Graduation Day,”—a song by the band The Four Freshmen—to a raucous crowd at the old Boston Garden. “It was just awesome,” Lembo recalled. “Maybe just the best three minutes of my career at Northeastern.”

‘He was always interested in making Northeastern better’

Coaching sports and reading history books are among Lembo’s other favorite pastimes. He started coaching youth baseball in Norwood in 1968, a tenure that concluded last month when he managed his final game. He’s also a passionate fan and supporter of Northeastern Athletics.

In fact, Peter Roby said he was and remains grateful to Lembo for advocating on his behalf to become the university’s athletic director. Roby took over the role on an interim basis in April 2007, and at that time the athletic director position reported directly to Lembo. Roby said over the years he’s often sought out Lembo for his perspective on myriad matters due to his substantial institutional knowledge and knack for giving sage advice. “I always looked forward to our meetings,” Roby said. “He always had a great outlook, he loved athletics, and he was always interested in making Northeastern better.”

Sinclair, for her part, said Lembo’s collaborative and collegial leadership style has played a significant role in her own career at the university—beginning with her meeting with Lembo when she first interviewed with Northeastern.

“I remember just having a very comfortable conversation about all the university has to offer its students, faculty, staff, and the Boston community,” Sinclair said. “Based on that conversation, I wanted to become a part of it and serve the same mission. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege to work with Vin.”

She added: “He’s the best of the best—great lawyer, great leader, great advisor, great friend.”

Lembo plans to spend the month of August on Cape Cod in Mashpee, Massachusetts, “thinking about the next chapter” of his life post retirement. He acknowledged that it will feel a bit strange waking up each morning as a retiree, and that he’s going to miss working at Northeastern a great deal.

“It’s been a great run,” he said, “I loved to be here. I’d always tell people there were only five days I haven’t wanted to be here, but when people asked me what those days were, I could never think of them.”

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