March 14, 2018

IN MEMORIAM: From the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden to the U.S. Senate: Remembering Dennis I. Belcher

Dennis Belcher, former chair of the RPTE Section and co-chair of McGuireWoods’ Private Wealth Services Industry Team, died unexpectedly during a medical procedure on April 27. He was 65.

Dennis’s career started in a small, stuffy room at the University of Richmond Law School in 1975, as a law student interviewing for a job with McGuireWoods. Dennis and his interviewer (and soon-to-be mentor and trusted advisor), Tom Word, covered the hour and never mentioned law. Dennis had grown up on a farm outside Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Tom had done the same outside Christiansburg. They talked of birthing lambs, dehorning calves, and bailing hay. Dennis got an offer and, thank goodness, accepted it. From that time on, for Dennis, it was all inside work, with no heavy lifting, as he was fond of saying.

Among his early assignments was representing First & Merchants National Bank as trustee in a suit by the heirs of Grace Arents, niece of Lewis Ginter, a Gilded Age tycoon, a developer of Richmond neighborhoods, and a co-founder of American Tobacco Company, seeking to declare failed a provision in Arents’s will dedicating Bloemendaal Farm to be a botanical garden for the city of Richmond following a life estate for Grace’s companion, who died at 100 in 1968. 

The land, by that time part of a neighboring county, had lain fallow since the life tenant died. The heirs asserted that the garden idea had failed. The city had no money to develop the garden, and the competing jurisdictions and budgets fated Arents’s vision of a grand botanical garden to failure. Dennis discovered that the judge, Willard Walker, a former partner at McGuireWoods, was an avid gardener. Dennis sought the aid of wealthy Virginians with an interest in horticulture and convinced the court to allow the creation of a foundation to carry out the mission with donated private funds. 

Dennis had the vision for what has become the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, one of America’s top botanical gardens. Without his imagination, ingenuity, dedication, and leadership, it would not exist today. Dennis served as its general counsel from its inception until his death.

Dennis had a strong commitment for service to the bar and focused his early efforts on the RPTE Section. He joined as a member in 1976. He worked through the ranks of leadership, both in substantive committees and leadership committees, eventually serving as chair of the Section from 2002 to 2003. Dennis was a frequent and vibrant speaker at the CLE programs hosted by the Section. One of his lasting contributions was the development of the successful RPTE-Tax Joint Fall CLE Meeting. Together with the leadership of the RPTE and Tax Sections, Dennis envisioned the annual gathering that brings the two sections together for rigorous collaboration.

Even after his time in active leadership of the Section, Dennis frequently joined substantive group calls, providing wisdom and perspective on any topic he was asked to cover. He served as the Committee on Government Submissions reviewer for the RPTE comments on the proposed regulations under IRC § 2704.

As a mentor to many young lawyers, Dennis encouraged new practitioners in the field to join the ABA and become active in Section activities. He believed in the training provided by the substantive programs and delighted in the collegiality of the lawyers. He recruited many new members to RPTE, including current and future leaders of the Section.

As a national leader at the bar, Dennis led a task force of bankers, accountants, insurance professionals, and lawyers who advised the Senate Finance Committee on reforms to the estate tax law. He testified several times before Congress and provided technical expertise and practical wisdom that found their way into reforms.

Dennis’s friend, partner, and co-counsel on a contested and complex fiduciary litigation matter, Anne Marie Whittemore, offered this tribute: “Let us remember that infectious grin, the hearty laugh, the sense of humor and wonder at human foibles, and the uncanny ability to muddle through any complex situation with excellent judgment and a touch of cleverness.”

Dennis’s character, judgment, and cleverness led to a remarkable career with true impact on the lives of his clients, his community, the lawyers with whom he practiced, the practice of law, and the rules that govern our practice area.