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Salem High School Class of 1959 - Latest News

05-12-2010 - New Obituary for Bob Potter
Obituary: Robert Lincoln Potter / Lawyer, professor who broke ground in case law

Jan. 9, 1942 - May 8, 2010
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Robert Lincoln Potter was often first -- in his 1959 class at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio; at Cornell University in 1963; and at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1972.

Brilliant, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, the Pittsburgh native sounded like an oracle.

One of his landmark cases helped change the way the National Institutes of Health funds medical research.

'He talked like a computer but he had the heart of an angel,' said David A. Strassburger, a law partner who tried valiantly to keep up with his mentor.

'He always ended up knowing the science or subject matter better than the expert on the other side, whether it was municipal bonds or anatomy of the spleen or trust administration,' Mr. Strassburger added.

Mr. Potter, 68, of Shaler, died Saturday in North Hills Passavant Hospital after a heart attack. He had had leukemia for nearly five years.

Even at his desk, he loved to fly.

'He had installed on his computer this extremely sophisticated aviation game. He could actually pretend he was flying an airplane,' Mr. Strassburger said, adding that the controls were like those in a cockpit.

'You could walk into his office and say, 'What are you doing, Bob?' He'd say, 'I'm flying to San Francisco. You want to take the yoke?' '
For young associates, working with him was an extreme form of legal boot camp.

'He expected you to have the kind of energy and intellect that was comparable to his, which very few people had. He wore out a lot of associates,' Mr. Strassburger said. 'I can't think of anybody I would rather have learned from.'

Mr. Potter was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Salem, Ohio, the son of an engineer. In high school, he broke school records in pole vaulting and competed in that sport at Cornell.

After earning a bachelor's degree in chemistry, he spent the next six years as an officer in the Marine Corps to fulfill ROTC requirements. He set the course record in the obstacle course at Quantico, Va., during officer candidate school.

In 1966, he graduated from Naval Flight Training. In 1968, he was sent to Vietnam, where he spent 13 months and flew almost daily, logging more than 300 combat missions with Attack Squadron 323, the legendary 'Death Rattlers.' He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Naval Commendation Medal and 23 air medals.

After law school, Mr. Potter clerked for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Pomeroy and befriended another clerk, E.J. Strassburger. From 1973 to 1975, he was an associate at Reed Smith Shaw & McClay, then began teaching contracts, torts, civil procedure, evidence and ethics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

In 1980, he resumed practicing law with Titus & Marcus, Downtown.

'No matter how fierce the battle, he was always a gentleman. He didn't rely on trickery. He just outlawyered you,' said E.J. Strassburger, who is David Strassburger's uncle.

The elder Strassburger began practicing with Mr. Potter in 1986 at the firm of Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Potter. Mr. Potter was a partner there until 2007 but rejoined in 2009 as of counsel and remained in that position until his death.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Potter, on behalf of a client, chased a defendant in a lawsuit all over the country to collect a debt, finally succeeding in seizing $200,000 from the man's Florida bank account.

'The guy he collected from said he wanted to meet him,' David Strassburger said, adding that Mr. Potter later told him, 'The guy had all the outward earmarks of being a member of organized crime.'

Two days later, in May 1983, Mr. Potter and his first wife, Linda, were awakened by the smell of smoke in their Mt. Lebanon home. Along with their sons, Jason and Christopher, the couple jumped to safety from a second-story window. The fire marshal believed a faulty wire caused the blaze, but Mr. Potter always suspected it was set by the man whose bank account he had successfully seized. Following renovations, the family returned to that address a year and a half later.

By 1985, Mr. Potter and his first wife had separated. In 1986, Mr. Potter married his paralegal, Ruth Jesse Potter.

Mr. Potter represented Pitt researcher Erdem Cantekin in his 1991 lawsuit against his boss and fellow researcher, Charles Bluestone, the University of Pittsburgh and Children's Hospital.

Mr. Cantekin accused Mr. Bluestone of manipulating test results to benefit drug companies that partially funded their research into the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating children's ear infections.

The bulk of the study was paid for with $17.4 million from the National Institutes of Health.

The case lasted more than a decade before it settled, prompting several university investigations and battles over publication of articles in prestigious medical journals.

The crux of the case was the need for researchers to disclose potential conflicts of interest when they received federal grant money.

The NIH issued a report on the case in 1990, finding that Mr. Bluestone was lax in data collection, organization and analysis.

'It totally changed the landscape for this kind of thing at the NIH,' David Strassburger said.

In addition to his eldest son and wife, he is survived by two sons, Christopher of Burlington, Vt., and Ben of Shaler; three daughters, Carrie of Oakmont, Catherine and Margaret of Shaler; and four grandchildren. Also surviving are his 98-year-old mother, Elizabeth Potter, and a sister, Helen Hayes, both of Salem, Ohio, and another sister, Carolyn Funk of Youngstown, Ohio.

Visitation is today from 7 to 9 p.m. and tomorrow from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. at Neely's, 2208 Mount Royal Blvd., Shaler. A Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Friday in St. Bonaventure Church in Shaler.

The Pittsnurgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania
May 12, 2010

CHECK THIS OUT: The obituary from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has been posted under POTTER in the "Contact Classmates" section of this website.

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