Faculty Tribute

“He imbued in us respect for the majesty of the law”

A recollection of Ben Kaplan from a former student

Of the many legal greats who graced the halls of Harvard Law School and brought fame and acclaim to Cambridge, one stood out above the rest—the late Ben Kaplan, former justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (1972-1981) and Royall Professor of Law Emeritus at HLS.

At Ben’s recent funeral in Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard, the eulogies were more a glowing tribute to the man, his wit, his wisdom and the universality of his greatness, than a lamentation of his passing.

The burial service took place under cloudy, sodden skies. Many of those present to pay respect to Ben were accommodated under a hastily erected tent. Midway through the service, the skies darkened and heavy rain came. It was as though the legal heavens were shedding tears for a truly beloved colleague.

My own association with Ben Kaplan began as a timid first-year student at Harvard Law School. Ben was our contracts teacher. But he taught us much more than that which could be gleaned from Lon Fuller’s casebook. He imbued in us respect for the majesty of the law and shared with us the mysteries and mystique of the judicial process. More than that, he instilled in each of us his abounding enthusiasm for teaching and learning law.

No doubt he left some of us (myself included) questioning whether we would ever be able to comprehend and appreciate the message he was delivering to us—not on a silver platter—but rather in a form we had to reach for.

His favorite question during class, one which I unabashedly adopted during my own 26-year law school teaching career, was “What’s my next question?”

Toward the end of what was likely the last class of a yearlong course, Professor Kaplan asked if there were any questions. It was his style to place a mark next to the name of each student on the seating chart to indicate the number of times that person was called upon or spoke during the year. The space next to my name was as clear and pristine as it was the first day of class. When I raised my hand, it was with a rather quizzical tone that Professor Kaplan asked if I had a question. In a very meek voice, giving vent to my fears and trepidation, I asked: “Is it too late to drop the course.”

He responded without missing a beat, “I’ll tell you after I grade your exam.”

I was fortunate enough to have a summer house near Ben’s home on the Vineyard. Over the course of the next 30-some years, I was able to spend many hours with him. I relished each minute. My appreciation, respect and unabashed admiration grew with each visit. I join the throng who will miss him terribly.

Fortunately, my sadness will be overcome by the joy of his friendship and the memories of our time together.

Albert L. Cohn ‘51
Sept. 9, 2010

Next: Leadership Profile: Kenneth I. Chenault ’76