On May second, the Marquette community lost one of its most interesting, wonderfully eccentric, and beloved members, Professor Gordon Hylton, who died of complications from cancer. Academics by and large are an enthusiastic group of people with extraordinary jobs that give them a privileged opportunity to study and share their passions with colleagues and students. No one more thoroughly enjoyed and reveled in being part of that world than Gordon Hylton. He was a devoted teacher, a relentless, careful, and thorough scholar, and a cherished colleague.
I personally found Gordon to be one of the most interesting people of my acquaintance largely because he had so many interests, found so many things fascinating, and, aided by a legendary memory, pursued them with passion and rigor and a remarkable urge to synthesize, to explain everything. And he was generous. He enjoyed nothing so much as chatting with his students and his colleagues about baseball, country music, the odd personalities who sat on the Supreme Court, the reasonableness of property doctrines, the early history of Christianity, and always with great enthusiasm and courtesy, as if knowledge and insight were both important and the most fun.
Professor Hylton was a native of Pearisburg, a small town (population, 2,699 in 2016) in Giles County in the SW corner of Virginia near the border with West Virginia. He began his college and university career at Oberlin College in Ohio, where, he often explained, he enrolled because they let him play baseball. In the course of his four years at Oberlin, the student radio station also let him host a country music program in the late night, early early morning hours. Oberlin nurtured a pronounced competitive streak. His roommates recall Gordon organizing them to enter a team in every intramural sport including inner tube water polo despite the fact that Gordon did not know how to swim, something his teammates discovered only well into the water polo season.
Following Oberlin, Gordon attended the University of Virginia Law School where, among other things, he and a group of friends founded what would become the North Grounds Softball League, the North Grounds referring to the part of the UVA campus, removed from the central campus, that included the law school and the Darden School of Business. Gordon also served as an editor on the Virginia Law Weekly, a publication of the students of the UVA law school. It was while he was a law student that Gordon also began a masters degree in history.
Upon graduating from law school, Gordon clerked for Justice Albertis S. Harrison and Chief Justice Lawrence I’Anson of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and worked briefly for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Gordon was also able to finish his master’s thesis in history while clerking.
It was only then that Gordon finally was able to pursue a cherished goal – a PhD from Harvard. Gordon once admitted that had he been accepted into graduate school at Harvard straight out of Oberlin, he might never have gone to law school. He was among the earliest students in Harvard’s interdisciplinary graduate program in American culture with a particular interest in history and literature. Gordon’s dissertation was on the admission of African-American lawyers into the Virginia bar, a subject he pursued with an ever broader focus his entire scholarly career. While in graduate school, Gordon was one of the assistant senior tutors of Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate residential houses, a house that counts among its illustrious alumni Al Gore along with his then roommate Tommy Lee Jones, Norman Mailer, and Caspar Weinberger. For a short while, and with a fierce devotion, as his fellow tutors recall, Gordon dominated the little-known pin ball game in the Dunster House basement.
Gordon arrived at Marquette in the Fall of 1995 after teaching at Chicago-Kent College of Law in Chicago, where three times he was named professor of the year, and Washington University Law School in St. Louis where he was the only visiting professor to be named professor of the year. At Marquette, Gordon continued to distinguish himself as a teacher. Early on, he received the Ghiardi Award for Excellence in Teaching as well as the teaching award presented by the Phi Delta Phi Legal Fraternity.
Gordon never regarded law teaching as merely preparing students for a job in the law. Education generally for Gordon was always more, it was about preparing students for a critically reflective life and, especially for law students, wise leadership in their communities. He saw himself preparing tomorrow’s senators and chief justices and the heads of corporations and non-profits. He never just taught doctrines; he always asked if the law on the books was coherent and made good moral sense.
But Gordon also took a deeply personal interest in his students and was generous with his time. Michael Mazza, among Professor Hylton’s first students at Marquette, remembers a class that Gordon team taught with Professor Dan Blinka. “That was an unforgettable class. It was an honor and a delight for my classmates and me to sit at the feet of a professor with such a great mind as his, listening to him wax poetic about everything from Wisconsin’s defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Fugitive Slave Act in In Re: Booth to the internecine conflict between Wisconsin’s two law schools, including the story of how the Marquette Law School was once chastised in 1915 by the dean of UW-Madison Law School for helping ‘immigrants and sons of immigrants’ gain access to the bar.” Mr. Mazza also remarked of Gordon, “But Gordon was more than a teacher; he was also a kind friend and a trusted mentor – to me and to many others. I had gone to law school later in life, after my wife and I already had four children, and Gordon very kindly reached out to me early on to help me navigate the waters of going through law school as an older student.”
Melissa (Greipp) Love Koenig, who later joined the faculty of the law school, also remembers Gordon as an extraordinary teacher. “Gordon was one of the smartest and nicest people I have known. But Gordon was also a creative problem solver who enthusiastically supported new initiatives and ideas in legal education and lawyering, about which he cared deeply. On more than one occasion, both when I was a student and faculty colleague, Gordon stopped me in the hall, or sent an email, encouraging me to follow up with an idea or concept that we had earlier discussed.”
With his colleagues, Gordon was equally generous. His broad network of friends from everywhere he went served the law school well. He participated in ever aspect of the life of the law school; he taught in every one of its foreign programs, enjoyed a Fulbright Fellowship to the Ukraine; he was a constant presence in every workshop, seminar, conference, lunch or dinner, always contributing with courtesy and a marvelously encyclopedic, and legendary long-term memory, a true miracle of nature. He had an uncanny recollection of not only supreme court decisions but also the quirky personalities and personal histories of the justices. To the delight of many, his memory and interests ran the gamut of popular culture. Early in our acquaintance Gordon solved the perplexing mystery of the huge physical differences among Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe, Ben Cartwright’s three sons on Bonanza. He explained that the sons had three different mothers, each succumbing on the long trek west out to the Ponderosa. I’m pretty sure that Gordon even recalled the names of each wife and where she and Ben met.
His short-term memory was also legendary but for other reasons. His secretary, Sharon Hill, remembers him regularly losing coats, cell phones, books, and even his glasses. At one point, Professor Hylton finally decided that if he were to travel anyplace in the course of a day other than between house and school, he would provide Ms. Hill with his itinerary. She became adept at retracing his steps to recover lost coats and cell phones. Gordon himself liked to tell the story of the time that he called his research assistant with a request for some work only to be reminded gently by the student, “I’m happy to do the research, but you do remember that I graduated last year.”
Gordon had an endless passion for baseball and even for someone like me, who has no interest in baseball, we could talk for hours about baseball because those conversations were never about just baseball. They were about the place of baseball in the history of American culture and the growth of sport as an aspect of the country’s response to capitalism and industrialization. Baseball, Gordon explained, provided a safer alternative to boxing and horse racing for factory workers and at the same time created an esprit among coworkers and management. This was typical of Gordon’s approach to all of his passions: to synthesize and find the patterns and relationships, how everything related to everything else, the grand unified field theory of everything.
There are some scholars in the academy who, wholly apart from their scholarly output, are regarded as enormous resources because of their learning and insight but also their generosity in sharing their insights with others. Gordon was of that extraordinary class. Professor Michael McChrystal remembers Gordon as “a world class raconteur. It was such a pleasure to hear the stories he had uncovered. He was so curious, so interested in the context and texture of the persons and events he described.” Professor David Papke similarly remembers Gordon as an extraordinary colleague. “I treasured Gordon not only as a trusted friend but also as a thoughtful conversationalist, a person who amiably exchanged information regarding an extraordinarily wide range of subjects. What led to his remarkable conversational ability? It was not that Gordon was a mere collector of trivia, but rather that he deeply respected humankind and loved reflecting on noteworthy things that humans do – play sports, perform music, write books, teach students, act in plays and movies, and, most generally, make history.”
Professor Tom Hammer summarized a common sentiment. “One of the great things about being an academic is working with a lot of interesting people and having interesting conversations. But Gordon was by far the most interesting person I’d ever met.”
No memorial to Professor Hylton would be complete without mentioning his devotion to and pride in his family, his four children, Veronica, Joseph, Elizabeth, and Caroline, each of whom, following in their father’s footsteps, has enjoyed a distinguished academic career. For the last few of his twenty years at Marquette, Professor Hylton was commuting weekly from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Marquette. It was very common to drop into his office and find him on the phone conferring with one or another of his kids about school projects or applications to college. Gordon finally retired from Marquette in 2015 to return to teaching at the University of Virginia Law School where he could be closer to his family. In what had to be one of the most joyous days of Professor Hylton’s life, he was able to witness his oldest daughter Veronica’s wedding in his hospital room surrounded by his children, family, and close friends.
The Marquette Law Faculty Blog contains a compilation of Professor Hylton’s posts that offers a delightful insight into the range of his interests: https://law.marquette.edu/facultyblog/author/gordon-hylton/ , is a special delight to read.
Professor Melissa Love Koenig also published a warm and insightful interview with Professor Hylton on the same Blog in 2012.