Prof showed compassion

April 7, 2012

In the April 2 [Forefront] Thomas Sowell attacks the credentials and worthiness of Professor Derrick Bell to serve as a professor at Harvard Law School.

In April, 1977, I was a third-year student at Harvard Law School. I grew up in a rural Indiana community and graduated from Ball State, and while I had decent academic success, I have no doubt I was admitted to Harvard over other more qualified applicants because I added to their diversity, even though I am white. I tell people I was chosen to fill the small-town Indiana quota in the class.

Bell was the advisor on my third-year paper, a requirement for graduation. On April 9, 1977, I learned that my father had died unexpectedly that morning, and that afternoon I spoke to several professors and law school administrators, but the only conversation I remember was the one I had with Bell.

He got up from behind his desk, closed his office door and then sat in the chair next to me and said, “Tell me about your father.” Of all the people I talked to that afternoon, only Bell recognized that my problem was not the logistics around graduation but instead was the issue of a young man losing his father at an early age and trying to figure out what to do for his family. After talking about my father and family, and offering to do whatever he needed to do to deal with my personal situation, Bell told me he had read the draft of my paper and that if I did nothing else, I would have satisfied what I needed to do to graduate.

My wife and I went home to Indiana the next day, my son was born two weeks later and I did not return to law school until time for my final exams. At graduation, Bell came to the table where my wife, my mother and I were sitting, insisted on taking our picture together and spoke with my mother for several minutes, seeking to both congratulate and comfort her and remembering that she had recently suffered a great loss.

Perhaps Sowell is right and Bell was not worthy of being a Harvard Law School professor. But for me, during a time of personal need, Bell was the only member of the Harvard Law faculty who exhibited compassion and humanity to a person in need. I think these are qualities of a teacher and mentor that have importance in addition to academic scholarship.


David Day
Church Church Hittle & Antrim partner


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