Appreciating Our Professors: Thomas O’Toole

Posted on Categories Legal Education

It was over in the twinkling of an eye. The entire event took, at most, ten seconds, but in that incredibly brief time I learned that the study of law was the right thing for me. The time was mid-September, 1963. The place was the old Georgetown University Law Center at 5th and E Streets, N.W. The room was shaped like a bowling alley. One hundred and twenty-five part-time evening students were shoehorned into that room. At precisely 5:45 P.M., Professor Thomas O’Toole entered the room from the back. It was the only way in and out of the room in which Constitutional law was being taught. Professor O’Toole took one step, paused, and from the back of the room, spoke in a loud, clear voice, “Mr. Chase, why was the Court in Euclid concerned about the scope of the town’s zoning plan?” Before Mr. Chase could answer, the Professor took another step into the room, paused, and said, “Mr. Kossow, why did I ask that question ?”

A few seconds later, after I had choked on an answer that included the words “comprehensive plan,” the Professor walked to the front of the class and said, “Mr. Hubbard, do you agree with Mr. Kossow’s answer?”

Forty-five years later, I remember verbatim the incident. Professor O’Toole, in ten seconds, changed the direction of my life.

4 thoughts on “Appreciating Our Professors: Thomas O’Toole”

  1. Julian and I were classmates and members of a study group which Julian formed at the beginning of our first year. I also remember that day as clear as if it were yesterday. As a matter of interest, Julian’s choices for the study group graduated 1, 3, 6, 9, and 16!

  2. I believe the professor who asked that question of Mr. Antony Chase was Professor Dick Gordon, contracts professor, master of the paper chase, lover of the law, encourager of excellence and the best first year professor in that school to communicate to the men and women that they all could be dazzling in their other metiers (Chase was assistant comptroller of the currency of the whole United states and the youngest bank examiner in the country) but unless they wanted to study law with such longing that they could taste it, they would never do well. Antony Chase and Julian Kossow (my husband at the time) ate, slept and walked law. There never was a Sunday afternoon without barbecue on the grill, children in the pool, the women over to the side and arguments raging about the UCC or the Rule against Perpetuities. Professor Gordon presided over all the freshmen from the night school and told them time and again, you take all 4 years to study this stuff and you will out-perform all the day students for you bring to the study experience in the real world, the knowledge of decision making, the resentment if a sneak embezzles from a company which has been acting honorably, and the desire to get out there after graduation and put your old and new selves together to save the country. Or something like that. Gordon lived overlooking the Potomac in a modest house of which every wall was filled with books on every subject in the world. At the end of his life, I, only a wife of one of those young men, asked him, “Who is your TOP favorite philosopher?” He rubbed his half-beard and whispered, “To tell the truth they’re all bunkum after a while but Plato has such style when spreadin’ the news. He is by far the prettiest. Don’t tell the Vatican on me….” I promised not to tell… until he died, and unfortunately I am now free to say what I just did.

    PS I was a lyricist at the time, working with a fine composer. I had set the sequence of events in the Palsgraf case to a tune and Julian told me the case, just as the study group had anticipated, appeared on the torts exam. He said he looked around and all five guys were grinning, humming my little ditty and remembering how a passenger dropped a case with fireworks when a railroad employee tried to help him get on a departing train, the resulting explosions upended scales at the other end of the platform, a lady standing close to the scales was hit by a scale and in shock ever since… etc. It was the most expensive shaggy dog story up to that time but it certainly taught the young me where the buck stopped in that complicated case. They all passed that part by singing which dredged up all those facts in accurate chronological order. I got five student group kisses that day; one extra from my husband because it was such a lousy melody.

  3. Sounds like the Professor Thomas O’Toole who I had for first year Torts at Suffolk University School in the 1977-1978 school year. I found him rambling, disorganized, and prone to incivility. He used a text book that used poorly-decided tort cases, quite counter-intuitive and hard to follow. However, I worked in the law library for three years and he always cordial and polite. In addition my bar review class used his Torts tape lecture for the multistate exam — he was as excellent on the tape as he was poor in the class.

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