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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Funny Law Professors

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Professor Kingsfield of "The Paper Chase"



Of course law professors are a superior breed, with tons of favorable adjectives applicable to them ("intelligent," "handsome," "wonderful," "charismatic," etc.), but a large number are truly funny people, and this post is about five of my favorites.



Arthur Greenbaum.  The first example is my best friend on the Ohio State Moritz College of Law faculty, Arthur Greenbaum.  I've known him since the fall of 1979 and he and his family are part of the chosen family we've created here in Columbus, Ohio.  Among his many admirable talents is his facile sense of humor (too often, alas, laced with puns that should have died aborning).  One favorite story:

In 2001, attorney Michael E. Moritz donated the amazing sum of $30 million to the Ohio State Law School if the school would henceforth be named after him.  As you can well imagine, that happened immediately.  Shortly thereafter a reception in downtown Columbus combined the law school's faculty with many local attorneys.  I was standing talking to Art when one of the attorneys stopped to ask us why the law school had recently changed its name.  We explained, at which point the attorney looked annoyed.  "You'd really rename of the school just for $30 million?" he asked.  "For that amount we'd rename the faculty," I assured him.  Without pause, Art stuck his hand out to me.  "Hello," he said, "my name is Michael E. Moritz."  I laughed and shook his hand, replying, "Glad to meet you—I'm Michael E. Moritz too."



Stanley Johanson.  When I was a student at the University of Texas Law School (1965-68) the faculty had many great characters in their number, but one of my favorites was Stanley Johanson.  His is a much heralded name in the field of Wills and Estates, and that was the course that I took under him.  Always a delight in the classroom, Stanley could also pull off major surprises.  In law school there is typically only one exam: a major essay test at the very end of the course.  Consequently, it was no small surprise to his upper-class Wills students when one day he announced shortly after class began and we were all settled in our seats, that we should take out a pen and piece of paper, number it from 1 to 10, and get ready for a pop quiz!  This was outrageous, and unheard of in law school!  What were we?  Fourth graders?  Nonplussed, but unwilling to say anything, we dutifully obeyed, wrote down our answers to the ten questions he read off, and then, as instructed by Professor Johanson, exchanged papers with someone sitting near us for grading as instructed by him.  Not quite anger, but something approaching rebellion was brewing, but then he announced the correct answers, smiled, and said, "Just kidding—let's get on with class." 

I was somehow dragooned by the editor of the school newspaper, Joseph Armstrong, into interviewing faculty members as to what they thought about President Lyndon Johnson nominating the first black to the United States Supreme Court: the legal giant Thurgood Marshall.  When I knocked on Professor Johanson's door and he invited me into his office, I asked him whether he thought this appointment would create a "black seat" on the Court.  He replied, "No more than there is a Jewish seat."  That puzzled me since there had been a Jewish seat since Lewis Brandeis was appointed to the Court way back in 1916 (currently, in 2011, three members of the Court are Jewish, with the rest being Catholics).  Stanley paused, reconsidered, and then straight-forwardly told me, "Frankly, Mr. Whaley, I'm waiting for the Norwegian seat to open up."




Robert J. Lynn.  When I joined the Ohio State law faculty in 1976, I became very fond of one of the older professors, the wonderful Robert J. Lynn.  Bob was laidback, soft-spoken, and quick of wit, with a very dry sense of humor.  He had wonderful instincts for what would work and what would not, and, in faculty meetings, if things suddenly came to a vote and I hadn't been paying attention to the minutia of the issue at hand, I would just wait to see how Bob voted, and then go along with him.  I hated faculty meetings (see "Related Posts" below), and so did he.  He would sometimes joke about a mythical school called the "Robert J. Lynn Fascist Law School" where there were no faculty meetings, and all law school administrative issues were decided by a benevolent dictator named Robert J. Lynn.  "Sign me right up," I told him on learning of this forward-thinking institution.

When I first joined the faculty in January of 1976, I was a Visiting Professor.  Since at the last faculty meeting I'd attended at my home school I had made a motion to censor the dean for outrageous conduct (and thereby made myself persona non grata), I was certainly hoping that Ohio State would make me a permanent offer.  To that end, the hiring committee scheduled a series of meetings and lunches with various senior faculty members so we could get to know each other.  One of these was with Bob, about whom I knew nothing at all.  We went to lunch.  A hot issue of the day at the law school was the students' recent demand that they be allowed to "self schedule" their exams (meaning they could choose when to take them).  Bob was furious about this student grab of power, and over lunch he explained his position in detail.  Having unloaded his very persuasive reasons why it was a bad idea, he then realize he sounded fanatical, and laughed at himself.  "Actually, Doug," he informed me in a confidential voice, "now that I think about it perhaps I'm wrong.  The idea could spread in beneficial ways.  How about 'self-scheduled teaching'?  I'm not always 'up' for class at the scheduled hour, and I would be much more effective as a teacher if I could choose the best time for me to call my students together and impart wisdom.  After all, we still have an antiquated bell system in the school that we never use.  We could activate it so that when it sounded, an announcement could be made: 'Professor Lynn is ready for his class,' and they could all scurry to get there before I started the lecture.  It would even have the additional advantage of training the students to become volunteer firemen at the same time as they master law!"




Donald Weidner today
Donald Weidner.  I have to go sort of slowly here, since Don is still the Dean of the Florida State Law School, and I wouldn't want to suggest in any way that he is anything other than the outstanding leader that his reputation leads me to believe he is.  From what I hear from those who would know, he has been a stellar Dean, good with faculty, students, the legislature, the alums, and, all in all, a prince among men.


Donald Weidner in 1968
I met him when he was a year behind me in law school at the University of Texas back in the late 1960s.  Then he was an outrageous, over-the-top, sometimes vulgar but always hysterically funny law student.  Ever smart, he was on the law review, but a year younger than Jay Westbrook, my roommate, and me, and since one of us (I don't remember which one) was in charge of helping Don write his first article for the law review, he started coming over to our apartment, originally for help on that article, but then because he fit in with the nuttiness that was always going on there (see "The Exploding Alarm Clock" below).  He became a good friend for that last year of law school, but then I lost track of him until I was myself a law professor.  At the annual law professors' convention, the University of Texas always throws a very impressive cocktail party, and at one of these (probably about 1979), I noticed my old Property professor from Texas standing talking to people across the room.  I joined them, planning on introducing myself and complimenting my old professor on his splendid teaching style.  He was talking to a man and woman, and when I could easily do so I said, "Excuse me, Professor, but I'd like to introduce myself.  I'm Douglas Whaley of the Ohio State faculty."  "THE HELL YOU ARE!" the man talking to the professor said in an overly loud voice.  It was Don Weidner (and his wife), and I hadn't recognized this older version of the kid I'd once known (nor had he recognized me).  That led to a lot of laughter and talking, and we briefly renewed our friendship.

Thereafter I heard stories about Don being very eccentric in faculty meetings and his classroom, which didn't surprise me at all.  But when I learned he'd become a dean, I was floored.  Making Don Weidner dean would be like electing a heretic Pope.  But, as I said, he's become a highly respected Dean at Florida State.  About ten years ago he called me and offered me the chance to come to his school as a Visiting Professor.  Busy with other commitments, I regretfully turned down that chance, though I confessed to him that I'd love to see what kind of deanship the Don Weidner I knew offered.  "What do you mean?" he asked, defensively.  "As dean, I do things by the book."  "Well," I told him, "I heard you once mooned the faculty."  He was outraged at the thought.  "NOT SINCE I'VE BEEN DEAN!" he thundered.



Corinne Cooper.  Some time ago I was invited to make a presentation at the University of Missouri Kansas City Law School, where I became friends with the incredible Professor Corinne Cooper, who taught the same areas of law that I do.  Corinne is one of those people who loves a dare and is unafraid of doing things in completely new ways.  She has since retired from teaching and runs a number of projects involving communication consulting. 

We once put on a seminar together that I organized, but the story I want to tell you involves us both being presenters at a Cleveland Bar Association function about twenty years ago.  The other professor on the panel was the famous James J. White of the Michigan Law School (himself one of the most fascinating people on the planet), but this tale is about my reunion with Corinne, who I had not seen in a couple of years before the Cleveland meeting.  I was checking into the Cleveland hotel when I was greeted at the counter by a former student of mine who was the lawyer running this event for the Cleveland Bar Association.  She welcomed me to Cleveland and reminded me of the courses I'd once taught her.  As we were talking, Corinne Cooper came sweeping into the lobby, and my former student waved her over.  Seeing me, Corinne smiled broadly, but before she could say a word, my former student grandly introduced me to Professor Corinne Cooper.  I don't know what came over me, but I couldn't resist saying, "Oh, but I know Professor Cooper well—we once had a mad and passionate love affair!" I took her proffered hand, and Corinne didn't miss a beat.  She immediately squeezed my hand tightly while cooing, "And now our Love Child has finished college, and we're both so proud of him!  How are you, Doug?"  She kissed me on the cheek and we both laughed.

My former student was horrified.

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Related Posts:
"How I Became a Law Professor," January 27, 2010
"The Exploding Alarm Clock," February 19, 2011
"Adventures in the Law School Classroom," September 10, 2011
"I Hate Meetings," October 31, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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