Ben Stein's Diary

We’ve Lost a Great Teacher

Harry Wellington was one of life's great gentlemen and one of the Yale Law School's greatest professors.

By 10.24.11

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Saturday
Let me tell you about Professor Harry H. Wellington, who died on August 8, this year, 2011, of a brain tumor, and I only learned about it last night when my wife with tears in her eyes brought me a notice about his memorial service from Yale Law School. He was a great teacher.

I first entered Yale Law School in the fall of 1966. My contracts teacher then was a heavy-set man with a thick German accent. He took delight -- really great delight -- in mocking and belittling his students, especially his very few female students. I did not miss him when I left Yale after a couple of months to recuperate from colitis and some wild malpractice by physicians at the Yale health service.

I worked as an economist and a writer for a year, and then came back to Yale. My contracts teacher was exactly that -- a teacher. Not a tormentor. Not a mocker. A teacher. His name was Harry Wellington.

He taught us contracts with a kindly, understanding air, confident in his knowledge of the subject and his ability to get us new kids to understand. He patiently explained to us what it meant to have an agreement that the law would enforce. He explained when a contract became actionable -- something about "detrimental reliance" -- and he only mocked me once, when I suggested that a plaintiff might ask for exemplary damages upon a particularly egregious breach.

"Exemplary damages in a contracts case," said Professor Wellington. "I think you have that idea all to yourself."

He was so much a gentleman that years later, he wrote to me that now exemplary damages were a basic part of contract law. (Frankly, I don't know if it's true or not.)

I do not recall a single example of his making female students cry, which had been a specialty of his Germanic predecessor.

His was a relaxed, genuinely educational way of teaching, without the pointless "Socratic dialogue" hiding of the ball that marked the teasing way of teaching of so many law teachers in that day.

When class ended, Prof. Wellington and I stayed friends. I can still recall very well his office at the top of the first flight of stairs up towards the hated library. He was always available, with his pipe -- and sometimes a wicked cigarette -- burning. And always with a smile. He would talk about anything. He particularly smiled when I brought my beautiful wife, Alexandra, still my wife these many years later. He had a twinkle in his eye when he talked to her.

We often talked about the amazing mortality rate of Yale Law professors. "A lot of us think there's cancer in the walls here," he once said. It struck me as funny, since he was smoking as he said it.

In my second year, I took Labor Law from Prof. Wellington. Once again, he was explainer, educator, teacher -- not tormentor. I actually considered going into that field.

In that same second year, when I could not find a law firm job in New York, which I wanted for a reason I cannot even vaguely recall, Prof. Wellington got me a job at a medium-sized, well-regarded Wall Street firm called Reavis & McGrath. I hated it. Endless yelling and screaming and cursing and a high-tension atmosphere that was utterly wrong for me. If there is a word stronger than "hate," that's how I felt about it. I think my attitude showed through, and I am laid low to this day that I probably brought reproach upon this fine Harry Wellington who got me the job. However, I owe Prof. Wellington and Reavis & McGrath for making me sure I did not ever want to work in private law practice.

I think at this point I should say something else about Harry Wellington. He was incredibly handsome. Movie star handsome. Matinee idol handsome. With his pipe, and his tweed jacket, just a dream of what an Ivy League professor should look like. He had a beautiful wife, Sheila, and we all looked at them as the couple we would like to be when we were "old." I calculate that they were about 43 at the time.

Time passed. Prof. Wellington became Dean of the law school and did a fine job. He published major articles and books on law and legal reasoning. Along with Bob Bork and the late Alex Bickel, he made Yale a synonym for careful thought processes that lined up cases by "neutral principles" and sought to see if courts were following those principles.

But it was as teacher that he shines in my memory. When I think of great teachers, I think of Harry Wellington, Bob Bork, Larry Simon.

Yes, I know he was a stellar scholar and administrator at Yale and at New York Law School.

Still, I saw him as teacher: getting his students to think and reason and write with his love of them and of the law, and not fear of the lash of sarcasm. That was new forty years or more ago, and he was a pioneer in the kindly -- and vastly more effective -- teaching of law.

Not long ago, when I wrote a column for the New York Times, Harry Wellington sent me fan mail about something I had written. It brought tears to my eyes that he remembered me and was still so full of kindness and regard, just as it brings tears to my eyes to think that he is no longer with us. He was a superb teacher and a great friend to his students and to the law, and a shining, dashingly handsome example of Yale Law School at its best -- which is awfully good. We who knew him and had him teach us were blessed. To have him as both friend and teacher was to be doubly blessed. His loss is terrible. 

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.