In Memoriam: Max Kempner

A Stellar Man, Dean, Fundraiser, and Law School Leader

Former Vermont Law School Dean Maximilian Kempner with the newly-unveiled portrait by Kate Gridley, at left. (Herald / Bob Eddy) source:

I received word today that former Vermont Law School Dean, Maximiliam W. Kempner, passed away on February 23, 2021. He was for many, and remains for me, a bright light and guiding star. Here’s why…

Max Kempner was brought in as Dean in 1991, the year before I graduated from VLS. I really didn’t get to know Max until I applied for a fundraising job at the Law School in 1995, some years after I graduated. I had done some limited fundraising as a VLS student, volunteering for the annual phonathon to make calls to alumnae/i, but it was my background in law and also in marketing at IBM prior to law school that captured the School’s attention when I applied.

Dean Kempner - he encouraged me to call him Max - invited me into his office for my job interview. I was a bit nervous, but he was about as easy-going a person as I’d met, so I relaxed into a soft chair by a window overlooking the Old Schoolhouse Building on campus. He quickly moved to a computer monitor set on a rolling cart and turned on a video. As he did so, he told me to pay close attention to the video because he was going to quiz me on it once it was done.

I watched a 4-minute clip of a NY State Bar Association meeting where a panel of lawyers discussed the importance of fundraising. When the video ended, Max switched off the monitor, turned to me with a smile, and gently asked, “Ok, so what’s your main takeaway from that video?” I was stunned. I stumbled and blurted out something like, “Well, clearly fundraising is important to the Bar Association and they wanted to convey its crucial nature to its members as part of the overall effort to remain solvent.” Max looked at me squarely, pushed up his eyeglasses a bit higher on the bridge of his nose, smiled, and settled in behind his desk to reply firmly, “Good try, but, no. The main message is that the key factor in fundraising boils down to one simple thing - involvement. Now, if you remember that, you’ll be a great fundraiser.” [Everything in quotes is paraphrased only slightly. I recall my exchange that day with Max as if it was yesterday. His words set me up for a nearly 30-year professional career in fundraising.]

Since my interview with Max, oh yes, he hired me and I thrived at VLS, then at Dartmouth, then Tuck, then in a private fundraising consulting practice, and now at West Central Behavioral Health, I’ve had many reasons to recall and put into practice his direction and advice.

Involvement. It’s what makes people come together to form communities. It’s what drives organizations forward. It’s what creates enthusiasm and, in turn, momentum. When people are involved in the mission of an organization, when they know their voices are heard, when they feel joined together with others who pull at the same oars to drive the boat forward, when they give of their time, talents and treasure together to benefit a singular cause, that’s when real magic happens.

To Max Kempner I nod my head and recognize the passing of a great leader, educator, and fundraiser. He quintupled the Vermont Law School endowment during his tenure as Dean. But, more to the point, he set me on a track to raise many millions of dollars over my professional career, and as a volunteer, for organizations large and small. My memorial wish as Max moves to a new plateau is to preserve one tiny slice of his sage advice to me by recording it here: if you’re a fundraiser, or want to be a better one, get the people around you involved deeply in the organization whose mission you wish to champion. Forget engagement - that’s just a veneer, a fancy word, it’s temporary, a fleeting moment in time. Seek involvement. Deep, passionate involvement. Then, and only then will you develop the winning team and enthusiastic spirit that will change the culture of your non-profit organization for the better. You’ll watch donations pour in like you never could have imagined.

And the corollary to all this is your own involvement. Get deeply involved in the mission of your organization and everyone around you will feel it. Magnetized, they’ll be drawn closer and closer until they feel integral to the cause. It starts with you as a fundraiser, and it continues in a virtuous circle that involves everyone you touch. It’s like a smile on a phone call. It can’t be readily seen, but it can be felt. Use the power of your own involvement to turn the tide to incoming and all boats will rise.

Thank you, Max, for your wise words to me more then twenty-five years ago. I’ve never neglected to incorporate your advice into my work as a professional and volunteer fundraiser. Your involvement in my life’s vocation and avocation has made me a better person which, in turn, has garnered generous support for worthy organizations locally and globally. Forevermore, I’ll pull at the same oar as you and all those I encourage to get deeply involved with a mission dear to them.

Dave Celone (JD VLS Class of 1992) has been a professional fundraiser since 1995 when then-Dean Maximilian (Max) W. Kempner hired him as director of the Vermont Law School annual fund. Today, he works at West Central Behavioral Health in Lebanon, NH. Dave writes from Sharon, VT. He may be reached at An obituary for Max Kempner may be found at

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