Appreciating Our Professors: Robert F. Boden

Posted on Categories Legal Education, Marquette Law School

When I applied for admission to Marquette Law School in the fall of 1971, my application was denied because over half of my undergraduate coursework was ungraded, a consequence of the policy at the Residential College of the University of Michigan from which I graduated.  Upon being admitted to the Law School when my application was reconsidered, the lowest grade I received was in Professional Responsibility.

That I am a Professor of Law at Marquette University with particular expertise in legal ethics is due in large part to Dean Robert F. Boden, who caused my application for admission to be reconsidered, who hired me during my third year of law school, and who assigned me as a junior faculty member to teach Professional Responsibility even though he gave me my lowest grade in law school when I took that course from him. 

Marquette had some great law teachers in my era as a student (1972-1975). 

Ray Aiken’s barely bridled passion for the law — for its intricacy and its grandeur — spoke powerfully of law (and law teaching) as a vocation, a true calling.  One of the legends about Ray was that, as he was leaning back in his chair while lecturing some poor soul in his office about a finer point of civil procedure, Ray’s chair fell backward and he found himself on his back on the floor.  Ray did not stop; he did not acknowledge his predicament; he finished his point.

Jim Ghiardi was masterful at inspiring a great many of his students to perform at their highest level.  With first-year students in torts — 160 students at a time — the atmosphere could be thick with dread, for unpreparedness was intolerable and muddled thinking could be humiliating.  With third-year students in advanced torts or casualty insurance, the atmosphere could not have been more different, as Jim attracted a cohort of 30 serious students who dared to think and act and look like skilled lawyers, as was the common theme in Jim’s upper-level courses.  There was no dread in advanced torts, but there was plenty of excellence.

Ken Luce, Leo Leary, Chuck Clausen (whose excellence is elsewhere noted on this blog), Ray Klitzke, and Pat Hetrick were all outstanding law teachers in their own right.  

But Bob Boden stood out, not only because of his authority as dean, but because of his surpassing vision of the legal profession and what excellence as a lawyer required. As a leader in the legal community and as a scholar, Bob likened the profession to a public utility, and he always insisted that public service was its core mission. As a lawyer and law teacher, Bob cared deeply about the facts and details of the law and legal problems, but philosophy also came naturally to him, and he instinctively sought the wider understanding of the issues he encountered.

His courses were very much his own creations, largely using his own materials, and including “practice tips” for his bankruptcy students and “ethical dilemmas” for his professional responsibility students.  But much of his teaching happened in his office, counseling and helping students in need, students in trouble, and students who sought the dean’s special resources to achieve some goal or other. And true to form, Bob usually delivered both a practical result and a lesson for life.

Consider this assessment by Chuck Clausen, another of Bob’s students and colleagues, in “Uncle Bob”: Introductory Remarks to the Inaugural Robert F. Boden Lecture, 81 Marq. L. Rev. 5 (1997):

Bob Boden was a born teacher. Regardless of the role he was in–professor, dean, writer, law reformer, advocate, counselor–Bob was a teacher.

So, I devote these few minutes to speaking about what Bob Boden taught his students and his faculty not about Law, but about Life–what he taught us, not by lecture, article, or book, but by living example.

Bob Boden taught us compassion and generosity and service of others, and he taught gently and by example. He taught us pride in our profession, and he taught gently and by example. He taught us, gently and by example, about humility and the value of a sense of humor. And he taught us, always gently and always by example, that these virtues can be united and can co-exist in a person with power and prestige and high status, even in a lawyer, even in a law professor, even in a university dean.

Dean Boden had three nicknames. All of them were affectionate, two of them were humorous and one was the most revealing. He was called “Dean Bodeen,” a simple rhyming play on his name and title. He was called “Dean the Dream,” after the Marquette basketball star Dean Meminger. And he was called “Uncle Bob.” Uncle Bob. What a wonderful nickname. It suggested family, affection, approachability, and a caring relationship. It was a perfect nickname for Bob Boden.

When law students had serious troubles with grades, or with finances, or with other personal problems, they usually ended up in the Dean’s office — not always seeking, but always receiving, help. Sometimes the help was money, sometimes from his own pocket. Sometimes the help was becoming one of the legion of Dean Boden’s last-semester-of-law-school research assistants who needed a couple of credits with a high grade in order to graduate with their classmates. Always the help included patient listening, caring, and compassionate counseling. He was the same way with faculty members, who were experiencing hard times: death of loved ones, serious illnesses, divorce, all the various kinds of heartaches that Life brings to people over many years. We will never know how many people over his seventeen years as Dean sat in his office needing help of some kind — and getting it. He would not talk about it; he was a great respecter of confidences. We know about it from the people he helped. I hear such stories to this day, talking to alumni. Uncle Bob.

Bob Boden had many loves: Marquette, trains, the law, Wisconsin cities and towns, history, teaching, cigarettes and spirits, his Irish heritage, and especially his wife Pat. He was a large man in ever so many ways, and the mark he left on Marquette Law School is very large indeed. As is, to be sure, the mark he left on me and many other Marquette lawyers.

3 thoughts on “Appreciating Our Professors: Robert F. Boden”

  1. Mike —

    Thank you for taking the time to write this fine reflection on Dean Boden’s life and work. I deeply regret that I did not know Dean Boden, but I think of him often, sitting where he once sat. And I feel that over the years I have gained a sense of him not only from his writings but from his former students, including both those such as you who are on the faculty and other alumni. It is on this basis that at commencement this weekend, as has become my custom, I will mention Dean Boden, pointing to him as someone who for me embodies the principle that the law is a learned profession — this principle being one of only two things that I ask students to remember from graduation. I will express as well the hope for the graduating students that they have found for themselves some examples on our faculty today that they will recall from time to time. I do not much doubt that they have (and will). Thus through our work as his heirs and successors does Dean Boden live on.

    Thank you again for taking the time to enrich our community through this reflection. — JDK

  2. Michael –

    I am delighted and honored that you quoted from my “Uncle Bob” piece. As I read it, especially the part about his affectionate nicknames (Dean Bodeen and Dean the Dream), I was reminded of a humorous bit of law school lore from the early days of Bob’s deanship. In those day, the law school had its own dedicated building custodian, a quiet and gentle fellow known simply as “Ed the Janitor,” clearly a precursor of Joe the Plumber. Ed and Bob bore some resemblance to each other. They were the same height and build and even had somewhat similar facial features. Most notably, however, each of them had precisely the same gait: slow and rather waddling, a bit like a strolling mallard. If one were on the sidewalk walking behind Bob or Ed, the only way to know that the person ahead was the law school’s dean rather than its building custodian was by the clothing worn by the walker. Bob always wore a suit and Ed never wore a suit. Thus, the legend developed within the law school that actually Bob and Ed were twin brothers and, not only that, they switched jobs every year!!! I don’t know whether Ed knew of this urban legend, but Bob most certainly did and he enjoyed it immensely, a tribute not only to his great sense of humor but also to his essential humility.

    A truer measure of the man, however, was his struggle with the conflict between his profound respect for the law and the rule of law and the demands of conscience, of personal morality. In his first year as dean, Bob “non-renewed” a young untenured professor who was very publicly involved in a high visibility school boycott protest in Milwaukee, designed to bring an end to de facto school segregation in Milwaukee. School truancy was illegal and encouraging it, as the professor had, was encouraging illegal acts, something unbefitting a lawyer and a law professor. The firing of the professor was of course controversial, but Bob believed it was not only justified but required. Years later, after much classroom work with law students on the “ethical dilemmas” to which you advert in your blog, Bob concluded that he was wrong in firing that young professor, and said so whenever the subject came up. “I was wrong; I shouldn’t have done it.” How candid, how open, how essentially humble, how like Bob Boden. Requiescat in pace.

  3. Thank you all very much for the kind words about my “Uncle Bob.” My mother, is Bob’s sister, and the two were very close. My four brothers and I have many memories of family get togethers and outings. If you are interested in any details I would happy to share them with you.

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