Bernard Koteen ’40, a telecommunications expert who endowed Harvard Law School’s Office of Public Interest Advising, died Feb. 22 in Washington D.C., suffering a fatal heart attack just three days after the death of his wife of 70 years, Sherley Koteen.
“In losing Bernie and Sherley we in the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) have lost not just benefactors but friends,” said Alexa Shabecoff, assistant dean for public service and director of OPIA. “Bernie’s generosity has allowed OPIA to expand to serve the dramatically increasing numbers of students and graduates who use our office, and to tackle some important future projects.”
Koteen, 97, was a member of the Federal Communications Bar Association and a partner at the firm Holland and Knight. He secured his status as a premier lawyer in the field of telecommunications, spending decades in the field—a path which started in 1949, when he founded one of the first firms in the nation that focused on broadcasting.
He helped HLS students interested in public service fund and find careers: in addition to endowing OPIA, he helped establish the Law School’s Low Income Protection Plan, the pioneering loan forgiveness program for students working in the public interest.
“Bernard and Sherley Koteen each made such an enormous difference in the world—and at Harvard Law School,” said HLS Dean Martha Minow. “Their devotion to public service—manifested in their support and passion—has made the dreams and aspirations of generations of Harvard Law School students come true, and will continue to do so, bringing immeasurable benefit not just to the students but to the countless clients assisted by them.”
The Great Depression, Koteen said, inspired his strong support for public interest law; attending Harvard Law during those dark days, he learned the law as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt urged the importance of public service. This mindfulness of public benefit stuck with him throughout his career as a lawyer.
Originally from Patterson, N.J., Koteen attended Oberlin College and the University of Wisconsin, where he played varsity soccer and basketball as well as rowing crew.
Koteen graduated from college in 1937, and after graduating from Harvard Law in 1940, he worked for the Farm Credit Administration and served in the Navy during World War II.
Koteen’s wife, Sherley Koteen (née Heidenberg), died on Feb. 19 at age 94 after having a stroke. After graduating from Wellesley in 1940, the Louisville native went on to sit on the board of the National Council of Jewish Women, serve as president of the Women’s National Democratic Club and work as a special assistant in Vice President Mondale’s office during the Carter administration.
Shabecoff remembered the Koteens as a warm couple who donated time as well as money to the OPIA. “The Koteens were not remote donors, but enthusiastic members of the OPIA family,” she said. They met staff for lunch, attended OPIA events in Washington D.C., and welcomed staff in their home.
“They cared deeply about our work, and cared about us as well,” she said. “I will miss them a lot, as I know is true of all the OPIA staff who have met them. We hope to honor their legacy by continuing to use their support to send our incredible students out to do amazing public service work.”