Remembering Charlie Whitebread
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.
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.
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