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Susan Estrich
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Remembering Charlie Whitebread

Comment

He filled the room with laughter and learning. A light went on when he came in. He taught thousands and thousands of students each year: law students at USC Law; undergrads who filled his class on Law and Society; and legions of would-be lawyers on the bar review circuit, where he was a living legend.

There was only one Charlie, and we lost him on Tuesday.

Charles Whitebread was a distinguished legal scholar, author of multiple casebooks and a truckload of commentary.

He was a valued colleague, a leader in the community and a loyal friend. He was brilliant and erudite and articulate, that rare and wonderful combination of funny and smart.

But most important of all, he was a teacher.

He loved his students, and they loved him.

There's an old joke that goes something like this: What's the first thing you do when you get tenure? Answer: Kill the mice. Meaning, you stop. You stop researching and writing and lecturing. You stop reading your colleagues' papers and offering incisive comments. And perhaps most common, and worst of all, you stop caring about teaching and students.

In academic circles, teaching is undervalued, at best. The people who are celebrated in academia are celebrated for what they write, for the research they do, for their participation in highfalutin seminars and retreats with equally highfalutin people. They are not celebrated for teaching students. They are not celebrated for inspiring them, mentoring them, lighting a fire inside of them.

Charlie was very, very smart — which is to say, he could slice the legal bologna with the best of them. He knew how to analyze cases and criticize doctrine; he knew how to mix law with other academic disciplines, how to talk theory and policy. He wrote and lectured and seminared.

And he taught. And taught. And taught.

Being a tenured law professor is a pretty nice job, if that's all you do. Charlie taught an extra course every year. And then, just when everyone else was going on summer vacation (what are the three best things about being a professor? June, July and August), Charlie went on the road, from city to city, giving bar review lectures day after day, and night after night.

It's a grueling routine.

You live like a candidate, but there's no higher office at the end and no staff to carry your bags. Most people do it for the money. Charlie didn't need the money. He just loved to teach. He wanted everyone to love the law as much as he did. In the fall, he did a tour teaching first years how to take law school exams. He said it was fun.

We found out last May that he had lung cancer. Lung cancer is a bad one, not only because it can be so merciless, so difficult to detect and quick to kill, but because of the first question everyone asks when they hear that diagnosis. Did he smoke? (Do we ask heart patients if they liked butter?)

No, he never smoked. But both his parents died of lung cancer, so Charlie was careful. When he got that bad cough last semester, the first thing the doctors did was to look for a mass. They didn't find one. Pneumonia, they thought. Good news.

Then his lungs filled with fluid, and they drained the fluid, and it was lung cancer after all. It was just before graduation. The new dean, a sensitive and caring man, said perhaps we should keep it quiet, not tell the students, give Charlie his privacy.

That's not Charlie, we told him. The students were his family. Of course he would want them to know. And he did.

I sat next to him at graduation. No one applauded with greater joy or enthusiasm. He hugged the students he'd taught. He's a great one, he'd say as one name was called. Another great one, he said of the next student. He had taught almost all of them. They were all great. But Charlie was the greatest of them all.

I told him I would fill in for him in the fall if he needed me. He so wanted to keep teaching. It's your class, I said — and it is. I have inherited his students and his syllabus and his teaching assistants. But the magic of it belonged to him.

If there is a Heaven, he is there now, smiling down on us in Mudd Hall, where I struggle to fill his very large shoes. And here on earth, in law offices and courtrooms and government building across the country, the students whom Charlie taught are practicing law.

I like to think that they are better lawyers — smarter and also more compassionate, better advocates and better people — because they carry some of what Charlie taught, and who he was, within them. Charlie lives on in all of us who learned from him, lives on in the love for the law and the passion for justice that he inspired.

And in our laughter.

To find out more about Susan Estrich, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.



Comments

9 Comments | Post Comment
Well said. I got an email from the USC alumni network and felt really sad that he had passed. He was such a great teacher. I had him for Gifts, Wills, and Trusts at USC in the late 80s. He was such an effective teacher - he would present the material in such a memorable and humorous way, I could easily understand and remember not only the black letter law but the legal concepts behind the law. I also had you as a teacher your first semester at USC and the students are lucky to have you as his replacement.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Gorr
Fri Sep 19, 2008 9:40 AM
Palin paraded her 17 year old, pregnant, unmarried daughter, Bristol, around the stage at the RNC. (In fact, Sarah Palin's first child, Track, was born when she had been married about seven months). The abuse of office charges against Sarah Palin. The distortions and deception in her speeches.

John McCain, fifth from the bottom of his Naval Academy class of 899 members, and widely known as an adulterer, married Cindy one month after he divorced his first family. Cindy's admitted drug addiction and drug thefts. McCain has not told the truth and has flip-flopped on issue after issue.

This pair in the White House and their families would provide much fodder for the tabloids .

Such a terrible example for our young people.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Jewel Mathias
Fri Sep 19, 2008 11:15 AM
I saw excerpts from your First Dude piece on Newsbusters. It is not often I encounter such honest writing. The following is eloquent and true:
"There may be only one truly regular guy, a guy regular enough that he doesn't begin to have the arrogance to believe he speaks for anyone other than himself, in this race. And therefore, of course, he does."
I went to your website to read the entire column and happened to see Charlie Whitebread's name. He and I
were classmates at Princeton. We were not friends but I remember him very clearly. Charlie always had a smile on his face - always.
You and I agree on nothing politically but I am going to put your column on my Favorites.
Thank you.
Comment: #3
Posted by: George Christy
Sat Sep 20, 2008 8:29 AM
I had the privilege of taking Professor Whitebread's final Criminal Procedure class. On the first day of class he told us his mantra, passed on to him by one of his former professors at Yale: "Charlie, socratic method is a great way to teach if you've got nothing to say. Well, kiddies, I've got a lot say."

This man was not only a shining beacon of what law professors should strive to be (brilliant, interesting, funny, engaging, concise..) he was a caring, wonderful human being. When a friend of mine, a law student, was dealing with her own bout with cancer, Whitebread took note. This man came up to her on her graduation day this past May, on a day where he was being honored by everyone and was in high demand for photo ops and gratuitous glad-handed interactions, quietly pulled her aside, gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, "I'm too young for this, and you're definitely too young for this. We're going to be ok." Show me another law professor in this school or elsewhere that would check their own sense of self-importance long enough to do something that human.

In the increasingly "competitive enterprise of legal education" (to paraphrase one of the Professor's favorite Justice Jackson quotes), this man was a true anomaly: he realized that the true calling of a professor was to enrich the lives of students, not to engage in worthless-but-all-too-common intellectual hazing that "separates the wheat from the chaff." He cared about his students and his students cared about him.

It's not just that Charlie Whitebread will be missed; he will never be replaced. RIP Uncle Chuck.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Ryan McMonagle
Sun Sep 21, 2008 1:17 AM
I had the privilege of taking Professor Whitebread's final Criminal Procedure class. On the first day of class he told us his mantra, passed on to him by one of his former professors at Yale: "Charlie, socratic method is a great way to teach if you've got nothing to say. Well, kiddies, I've got a lot say."

This man was not only a shining beacon of what law professors should strive to be (brilliant, interesting, funny, engaging, concise..) he was a caring, wonderful human being. When a friend of mine, a law student, was dealing with her own bout with cancer, Whitebread took note. This man came up to her on her graduation day this past May, on a day where he was being honored by everyone and was in high demand for photo ops and gratuitous glad-handed interactions, quietly pulled her aside, gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, "I'm too young for this, and you're definitely too young for this. We're going to be ok." Show me another law professor in this school or elsewhere that would check their own sense of self-importance long enough to do something that human.

In the increasingly "competitive enterprise of legal education" (to paraphrase one of the Professor's favorite Justice Jackson quotes), this man was a true anomaly: he realized that the true calling of a professor was to enrich the lives of students, not to engage in worthless-but-all-too-common intellectual hazing that "separates the wheat from the chaff." He cared about his students and his students cared about him.

It's not just that Charlie Whitebread will be missed; he will never be replaced. RIP Uncle Chuck.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Ryan McMonagle
Sun Sep 21, 2008 1:17 AM
Another light dimmed. What big shoes you have to fill and what a very difficult time to try to fill them. Some people truly are one of a kind, sounds like your Charlie was one of those people. Sorry for your loss, you have the best wishes of all those who love to hold you up as you grieve and move forward. Best of luck.
Comment: #6
Posted by: liz
Sun Sep 21, 2008 4:58 PM
Your eulogy for Charlie Whitebread is such a moving tribute. One rarely knows the impact he or she has on the people around him. Charlie was the best kind of teacher: one who loved what he was doing, loved his subject and wanted to share it. Pray that more teachers are like Charlie. It's not only in academic circles that teaching is undervalued. Our entertainment based culture and sports minded society seem to value and esteem only those who make a fortune, not the importance of shaping minds and directing lives. Thank you for sharing Charlie with millions who never knew him.
Comment: #7
Posted by: EDIE LINDLEY
Mon Sep 22, 2008 1:41 PM
Ms Estrich-I don't always agree with you but I do respect you. I do believe you are "real" and that is quite an accomplishment these days.

Thank you for your integrity.

Bill
Comment: #8
Posted by: Bill Robberson
Tue Sep 23, 2008 1:34 PM
Susan Estrich, Your article on Charles Whitebread was a sterling example of what more of us should do--show appreciation for those who have taught us well in our way through life. I regret that I did not do this. I moved far away from home immediately after my education, and got wrapped up in my aerospace work, sending men to the moon and other things. By the time I got a breather, I had lost the opportunity to reach back to those wonderful teachers who had guided me through life. They had passed away by that time. I've heard that the biggest regrets that one has, as he approaches the end of his life, are the things he DID NOT DO! It's true! How I now wish I had been more sensitive to the need and attended to it in time. Thank you for your article. It refreshed my intentions to advise younger people to do what I did not do--"Tell your teachers you appreciated their fine work!"
Roy Logston
Retired Rocket Engineer
Huntsville, AL
Comment: #9
Posted by: Roy Logston
Sat Sep 27, 2008 8:30 PM
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