Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The law professor’s law professor

don marshall Until I read Jon Tevlin’s column today, I was unaware that the University of Minnesota Law School’s Professor Don (Donald C., if I remember correctly) Marshall died from a head injury he suffered in a fall at his home last Friday.

The last time I had Professor Marshall – I cannot call him “Don” – as a professor was 1973, but I used to see him at the grocery store once in a while in recent years; he always remembered who I was. Believe me, that says a lot more about Professor Marshall than it does about me. I even called him Professor Marshall in the grocery store check out line thirty-five years after being in his class. I drove past his house this weekend and wondered how he was doing.

I’ve encountered maybe a dozen people in my life who were at the absolute top of their game and without peer, people who could inform your understanding about the essence of some subject in a way that others simply could not match. Professor Marshall was one of those people. And if you had any sense at all, you were greedy for the experience of being in the presence of his intellect — and his intellectual generosity.

Professor Marshall — along, in my case, with Professor Jack Cound — was my first inkling that this lawyering business was harder than it looked. He’d ask you a question in class, and you’d make what you really thought — you callow fellow, you — was a brilliant answer. Then Professor Marshall would ask a couple of simple, disarming questions that revealed you for the intellectual lightweight you were. But he never made fun of anybody (we did plenty of that outside of class), and people left encounters like that — I know I did — resolved to kick it up a notch and get on a plane somewhere near the one the Professor inhabited.

There wasn’t anybody who bested the Professor in a Socratic dialog — he did get to ask the questions, which was the home court advantage, but still — but by the end of that first year, some students had gained enough skill and confidence to fence with him a little, a fact that gave him obvious satisfaction.

So, today is a sad day for me, made sadder by the fact I’ll never have the chance to take Professor Marshall aside in the grocery story and tell him what a great prof he was and how much he influenced my education as a lawyer. I meant to.

My advice is, if there is a Professor Marshall in your life, please don’t miss the opportunity to tell him or her what they meant to you.

The photograph is from Jon Tevlin’s column.

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