Remembering the 1912 Law School Commencement

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Category: Marquette Law School History, Public
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As the members of the Class of 2012 make their way into the legal profession, and memories of this past May’s Commencement ceremony begin to fade, it is an interesting historical exercise to look back at the Law School’s 4th Commencement in June of 1912.

In 1912, there were two commencement ceremonies at Marquette University: one for the Colleges of Arts & Sciences, Engineering, Law, Music, and Economics and the other for Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, and Nursing. (In 1913, the two ceremonies would be combined into a single event held at the Milwaukee Auditorium.)

The 1912 Commencement for the College of Law was held on Friday evening, June 21, at the Pabst Theatre [sic].

Music was supplied by the Marquette University Orchestra, which performed Franz Von Suppe’s overture “Poet and Peasant,” as well as selections from Aida and the Mikado, and then closed the ceremony with John Philip Sousa’s “Manhattan Beach March” (which was also played at the 2012 Commencement).

A total of 48 degrees and diplomas were awarded that evening. The College of Arts and Sciences awarded 18 degrees, including 5 Master of Arts degrees; the Law School awarded 15 Bachelor of Laws degrees; the College of Engineering presented nine Bachelor of Science degrees in civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering; the Business School awarded one Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and two Diplomas in Business Administration, while the Music School awarded a single Bachelor’s Degree. In addition, two students received Diplomas in Journalism.

All the degree recipients were male, although there were likely a number of female graduates at the “medical” commencement. (In 1913, for example, women received degrees from all four of the “medical” colleges.)

Candidates for the Bachelor of Laws degree were presented by the dean of the law school, retired United States Circuit Court Judge James G. Jenkins. All were listed as Wisconsin residents except for David Haley, who was from Hibbing, Minnesota. The degrees were formally awarded by Rev. Joseph Grimmelsman, S.J., the university president. The sole Commencement speaker was the Hon. Paul D. Carpenter, who was the Assistant United States Attorney in Milwaukee as well as a former Milwaukee County Judge and a former Lecturer at the College of Law. (He was also the son of the noted Wisconsin United States Senator, Matthew Hale Carpenter.)

Fourteen of the 15 recipients of the Bachelor of Laws degrees received regular degrees, but one received what was designated an “Honorary Degree, Bachelor of Laws.” This was a carryover from a decision made in 1908 in conjunction with the takeover of the independent Milwaukee Law School. The Milwaukee Law School never bothered to apply for degree granting authority (presumably because all that Wisconsin required as a prerequisite for taking the bar examination was three years of law study). In taking control of the law school, Marquette agreed to award Marquette University Bachelor of Laws degrees to any former student of the Milwaukee Law School who had passed the Wisconsin bar examination.

While this created an instant pool of law alumni, the decision turned out to be ill-advised, and by 1912 the university was being criticized, probably unfairly, for selling law degrees. (There was a $10 graduation fee that had to be paid by anyone seeking a degree.) By 1910, the title of the degree had been changed to “Honorary Degree,” and by 1911, the number of such degrees awarded was only nine. The university clearly discouraged any suggestion that current night students could be awarded degrees under the original agreement, and in 1912, 1913, and 1914, only one honorary degree was awarded at each commencement. In 1915, there were none.

The 14 recipients of the regular Bachelor of Laws degree were the winners in a war of attrition. Thirty-three students had begun as full-time students in the College of Law’s day division in the fall of 1909. Their number declined to 26 the following fall, and to 24 in the fall of 1911. Although the class picture, which hangs outside the #253 Faculty Office Complex in Eckstein Hall, shows 24 class members, only 14 met the requirements for graduation in the spring of 1912. To graduate, students were required to pass 72 semester credit hours with a grade of at least 70 (on a 100 point scale) in each course.

However, the rules of the College of Law allowed students to continue in the law course, even if they had no realistic chance of graduating, so long as they met certain minimal standards. All a student had to do to remain eligible to continue was to pass half of his (or her) courses each semester. In theory, at least, one could make it to the end of the three-year law course with barely half the credits necessary to graduate.

While this seems oddly lax by modern standards, it made sense because graduation from law school was not a prerequisite for admission to the bar in Wisconsin (or any other state) in 1912. Whether or not a student passed, or even took, law school examinations was irrelevant for bar examination eligibility, so long as he or she had devoted the requisite amount of time to law study (which in 1912 Wisconsin was three years.) Moreover, since the Wisconsin diploma privilege was not extended to Marquette Law School graduates until 1934, those who received the law degree had to take the same examination as those who did not.

Actual receipt of the law degree may have conveyed a measure of prestige upon the recipient but it did not confer any formal benefit in regard to bar admission. Nor is there any evidence in 1912 that the lack of a degree was a substantial impediment to a successful career as a lawyer, so long as the student could pass the bar examination.

Few of those who did complete the degree actually excelled on their examinations. Of the 14 law graduates in 1912, only two, Leo W. Bruemmer of Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and Oliver L. O’Boyle of Milwaukee, achieved a cumulative average of over 90, which was required to graduate cum laude. O’Boyle, who would later serve as Corporation Counsel for Milwaukee County from 1931 to 1956, was clearly the star of the 1912 Commencement. Not only was he one of two students to receive his law degree with honors, he also simultaneously received a degree of Master of Arts, an accomplishment achieved by only four other students.

Also receiving the degree of Master of Arts that day was Milwaukee native and first-year law student, Francis X. Swietlik. Swietlik had begun work on the Master of Arts degree after receiving his B.A. degree from Marquette in 1910, and he apparently finished the requirements during his first year of law school.

Swietlik, of course, later became an important leader of the American Polish community, and was closely connected to the Law School for more than 50 years. He became a part-time faculty member in 1916, joined the permanent faculty in the 1920’s, served as dean from 1934 to 1952, and then continued to teach at the law school while serving as a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge until his retirement in the 1960’s.

More on Swietlik’s Marquette career can be found here.

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