On February 26th, Professor Charles E. Rice of the University of Notre Dame Law School died at the age of 83. He was a legend among Notre Dame students, and well-known among both jurists and Catholic thinkers for his writing, his advocacy on behalf of human life, and his sharp, incisive sense of humor. You can read more about his achievements in this press release from Notre Dame, but I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences of the man, as has my fellow Domer Diana von Glahn over on Patheos.
I was assigned to Professor Rice for Torts I my first semester of law school at Notre Dame. Being somewhat stubborn, I did not appreciate his teaching style, at first. Why was he so brusque? Why did he insist on our memorizing his outlines and repeating the exact terms that he would use in class? We weren’t primary school students learning our multiplication tables! To put it mildly, he got on my nerves.
When it came time to take the final for Torts I, I did not write down the answers the way Professor Rice had wanted us to. The inevitable then happened. He called me into his office, a few days before we went home for Christmas break, and said “Not only did you fail…you failed SPECTACULARLY. No one has EVER failed my exam as low as you have.”
He pointed out that he could make me repeat the course, or he could let me take the exam again, even though I wouldn’t get any quality points for it. I agreed to the latter, and he asked how long I would need to prepare for the exam. I told him a week. On the day, I retook the exam, and got an “A”.
Now, most people would have left well enough alone, at this point, having ruined their Quality Point Index. They would have switched into another section for Torts II in the Spring. However, I am not like most people.
So the first day of Spring Semester, Professor Rice walked into the classroom, and saw me sitting there. On the way out afterwards, he asked why I didn’t seek to transfer into another section, given my experience in Torts I. I told him I was happy to take the second half of Torts with him, since he was a good teacher, although I still disagreed with his teaching method. He seemed surprised, but I stayed.
You can guess what happened: I failed the final again.
We sat in his office that May and after telling me, “You’re a stubborn SOB”, Professor Rice asked how I wanted to handle the latest “F”. A week later, having memorized all the notes like everyone else had, I took the exam again. This time I believe I got either an A- or B+. Again, the issue wasn’t that I was incapable of understanding the material, but rather my refusal to give into the practice of rote memorization as being dispositive of one’s ability to practice law.
In time however, I came to realize that Professor Rice was right to teach the 1st year students the way he did. Most students who are not going to cut it as lawyers drop out after the 1st semester, and certainly by the end of 1st year. The amount of reading, memorization, and regurgitation that goes on is enormous. Frankly, as harsh as it is, if you cannot make it through that part of law school, then you should be doing something else.
After surviving first year, Professor Rice became my faculty advisor, my mentor, and my friend. I studied Jurisprudence with him my 3rd year, and also did a directed readings thesis with him. Sometimes I would drop by his office just to hang out and watch him smoke his pipe, while we would talk about things that mattered to both of us – like good books, weird court decisions, interesting saints and popes, and so on.
Later, Professor Rice wrote my recommendation for my Master’s program after law school, as well as for my first job out of graduate school. He was a character reference for my bar admission, as well as for my current job. When I moved back to DC after several years away, and had to build a network of contacts all over again, he introduced me to a friend of his who has over the years become one of the truest friends I’ve made in this town. In fact, said gentleman was the one who contacted me on Wednesday to let me know that Professor Rice had died.
I never saw Professor Rice in person again after I left South Bend, We stayed in touch via email, postcards, Christmas cards, and even the occasional phone call. Sometimes, he would drop me a note after reading one of my blog posts to tell me I’d done a good job, which would make my day. Whenever I would see him on television or in print, I would proudly point him out and tell people who he was, if they didn’t already know.
By no means was I Professor Rice’s prize student. However I think he took a shine to me because I was willing to be different, and to do what I believed needed to be done, even if it meant not being like or being liked by everyone else. That was something which he himself had to deal with at times in his own career, though obviously on a far more profound scale than my puny efforts to date. Yet just to be around him, to engage him in conversation, and to be encouraged by him, was to be persuaded that all is not lost – at least, not yet.
More than what he taught me in lecture halls or seminars or office hours, what I learned from Professor Rice over the years during which I have been privileged to know him is that being a Christian man in an anti-Christian age is not going to be easy. And you know what – who cares? We should go do it anyway.
God bless you, Charlie, and thanks, always.