By Ronald B. Lansing
It was Jan. 19, 1945, and there were no lectures now. The classroom was quiet except for the scratching of pens, and an occasional cough, sigh or groan. The hiss of steam heat from the radiators shushed for silence. It was exam time at Northwestern College of Law — six decades ago.
The dark outside made mirrors of the classroom windows, thus reflecting the bowed heads and muffled intensity indoors. Beneath the glow of incandescent bulbs, some 20 law students at the threshold of their law careers were busy with a Torts final — their first experience at law school testing. They struggled, not just to know tort law, but also to know how to parade it. What exactly was expected of them on a typical law school, three-hour, multi-issue essay test? It was an eyebrow crunching, hand-cramping, anxiety-ridden task, especially when they were unsure of the test method.
To make matters worse, it was a Friday evening. Outside the classroom, through a dingy hallway lined with shelves of law books and down four flights of stairs from the top floor of the Sherlock Building, were the bright lights and gaiety of Third and Oak Streets in downtown Portland, Oregon, where ordinary folks were using their Friday evening the way it was supposed be used: to put toil aside and to relax after a long work week. But not so on the fifth floor of the Sherlock where brain noise was packaged in working silence.
At a desk in front of the classroom sat Alice. She too was writing, but hers was a letter to her husband John overseas. Global circumstances put her and John a world apart. For the last three years, America had been in a war that circled the earth.
Three months before the start of World War II, enrollment at the law school at the start of the 1941-42 academic year included approximately 50 seniors, 35 juniors, 45 sophomores, and as many as 55 first-year students. Alice herself had been one of those 1941- 42 enrollees. But the declaration of war in the middle of that year had a drastic effect on student-body size. Whereas in June 1941, six months before the war, the school graduated 45 seniors, it graduated only 12 in June 1942, seven in June 1943, three in June 1944 and four in June 1945. At one time during those war years, there were only 16 students in the whole school.
Accordingly, in 1943, some of the school’s proprietors sought to put away the books and close the doors. But John Flint Gantenbein would not let that happen. He and his brothers and sisters were among the proprietors. The school had been a family enterprise since 1915, when John’s father, Calvin, rescued the school (then 30 years in operation) from abandonment and named it "Northwestern College of Law." Now another 30 years later the Gantenbeins once again resisted abandonment; John and Alice mortgaged their home and bought out the non-Gantenbein partners, who wanted to cease operations.
The job of keeping legal education in Portland alive now fell to John Gantenbein. But then, just before the start of the 1944-45 academic year, he was called to military duty. With the loss of his leadership, school closure was ominous. But the 1944-45 school "Announcements" read differently:
In spite of war-time restrictions and loss of many students to the armed forces, [we have] … seen fit to maintain a night school program.… Course of instruction is now limited to beginners and second year students.
Thus committed, there was but one course to steer: operations were left to John’s wife, Alice Gantenbein. While a limited faculty of nine judges and practicing lawyers would carry the central task of teaching law, Alice would carry out all administrative functions: registrar, librarian, book seller, accountant, secretary, caretaker, paymaster and the bringer of wherewithal to all things in need of tending — including the monitoring of final exams.
Alice was not a lawyer. Her only experience in law or legal education at any level had been a year or so of law school beginning in the 1940-41 academic year. That enrollment was a wedding present from her husband. She would have graduated in June 1944, but instead she joined the work of building warships at the Portland shipyards. Now in January 1945, instead of being a customer of the law school, she found herself running it.
And so, on that Friday evening in January 1945 at a desk in front of a classroom on the fifth floor of the Sherlock Building, Alice sat monitoring lawyer Herbert Hardy’s two exams — one in first year Torts and another in second year Sales in an adjacent classroom. The 20 heads now bent over their Torts papers and 20 more in the Sales room represented the forward echelons of returning military and civilian personnel as they straggled back to career plans from a war that was nearing an end — just two months away in Europe and seven months away in the South Pacific.
Schoolmaster Alice’s letter to her husband — still the faraway soldier in a war yet to be undone — began with "Johnny darling" and then:
Right now the students are very busy [with] Torts and Sales exams. I had decided to devote my evening to writing you, and then...
She was interrupted by a borrower — a frantic Sales student.
…one of the student’s had lost his pen — consequently my pen is busy on a Sales exam.
She found a pencil and continued her letter:
I’m sitting in the first year classroom now. You’d recognize that tense, hushed silence.
The memory of writing her first year law exams four years ago still cut deep. Now, as a monitor of those exams, she was a commiserator.
It’s funny, even though I’m not taking any examination, I still have that strained feel for every exam. I guess it’s contagious.
Putting sympathy and "contagion" aside, she tried to be the administrator — informative and business-like.
Since my last letter was entirely sentiment, I’ll try to make this a little more practical and give some school news.
But again she was interrupted. The first Tort exam paper was turned in at her desk. It was far too early.
Oh golly, these first year students! At 7:40 one of our young veterans handed in his paper on Torts!
It was not just this veteran’s early finish that troubled Alice. She peeked at the answers, and they were a calamity.
I glanced at his paper and his results were O.K. — but all he had were the results, with no reasoning or analyzing at all. He’s really a smart kid.
And so, contrary to customary exam procedures, Alice took an unusually generous course — a motherly attention. Tender heart sent tenderfoot back to his table to re-write the exam and give explanations.
I think that now he’s re-writing it, he’ll do all right. You know how there are always some of the students who just don’t write enough.
She tried again to give her husband a report of the business, but found herself unfocused.
Oh darling — this is probably going to be the most incoherent letter I [have] written yet I can’t concentrate on anything but the students tonight.
Then, to her desk came another shining face with finished exam in hand. Once again she could not resist a peek.
Wow — I just read a paper that Hardy will have apoplexy over.
Procedure called for Alice, the monitor, to turn over to Herbert Hardy, the teacher, all of the exam answers for him to evaluate and gradate. Like most teachers, Hardy would dote over the students, labor over the posing of questions to students, and agonize over student answers. Alice wrote down her prediction for why this particular paper would give the teacher-grader extra agony.
It’s beautifully written and correctly punctuated and spelled — but not one law is even mentioned, let alone defined! It’s Mrs. Staples paper — and the poor woman approaches each question the way a social worker would.
Alice knew the mind of a social case worker. She too had been one and had experienced the difficulty in adjusting to lawyer problem-solving. Lawyers and case workers are both counselors and, therefore, have a bit of each in the other. But there the similarity ends, because the lawyer attends to trouble (whether existent or potential), whereas the case worker attends to the troubled — the difference between minding a flaw and minding the flawed.
More exams began to file into Alice’s desk.
Oh Johnny darling, this is awful... You should have been here to give a little lecture..., on how to write an examination. After I received four papers with nothing but conclusions — no law — no reasoning, I sent each back.
Again, the maternal monitor after a peek gave pity. Four examinees were given a chance at re-write — something she had not done apparently for Mrs. Staples, the social worker. Alice was 31 years old; the returning war veterans were younger. Although aged by war, they were to her waifs at law’s doorstep. She called them "kids" and took another most unusual action.
I interrupted the class to tell them more of what was expected of them.
While conceding that she was not the best person to explain law exam methodology, she was, nevertheless, on that fifth floor and Friday evening, the only envoy of law schooling. Having instructed as best she was able, she returned to her desk to tell her husband of her exasperation.
Believe me! Tomorrow I’m going up to . . . Randall Kester’s office and get him to write out instructions so that I can read them to the students. The poor kids were at a loss tonight.
Kester was one of the nine lecturers on the faculty. He was the Real Property teacher, not the Torts teacher; but it was from him that Alice sought counsel. Her irritation found relief, however, as subsequent exams reached her desk.
The papers coming in now are very good, so I feel better.
She could now get back to the crux of her letter.
Oh, darling, I had so much I wanted to tell you and all I’ve been able to write about is what’s happening right now. Yesterday, I did something of which I hope you will approve.
Although Alice’s initiative showed through when she allowed exam re-writing and when she instructed on exam-writing method, those were the least of her leading actions. "Yesterday’s something" was even more momentous — so much so that it took consultation.
I asked Bob first and he gave his approval. You see, I’ve dreaded telling the Judge and Spack.
"Bob" was undoubtedly Robert Miller, practicing lawyer and acting dean of the law school. But who were "the Judge and Spack"? Prior to and in the first years of the war Judge J. Hunt Hendrickson and Charles R. Spackman had been for two decades the school’s chief administrators — dean and registrar, respectively —albeit the Gantenbein family were the principle owners. Hendrickson and Spackman also had proprietary shares in the school. It was most likely those two who sought to close the school during wartime. That’s when a partnership schism developed between operators and owners — Dean Hendrickson and Registrar Spackman on one side, the Gantenbein family led by Assistant Registrar John Gantenbein on the other — a rift that ended with Hendrickson and Spackman selling out. Whatever friendly or unfriendly disagreement may have existed between the two sides, the differences stemmed from seeing the school as a commitment versus seeing it as a business. With the drastic reduction in enrollments, the school was no longer profitable and, therefore, not good business. But for some, business was not always value taken for what is owned, but rather, honor given to what is owed. Some property is not just an asset, it’s a responsibility.
All of which may explain why Alice "dreaded telling the Judge and Spack." What she did not want to tell was: she "was taking Sabbatical Leave." The departure of the remaining operator of the business would have been just one more signal that school closure was correct, that "the Judge and Spack" had been right. The business itself should depart —just like its caretakers, one overseas and the other seeking leave.
No doubt, Alice’s leave would create a crucial gap in operations. There was tuition to collect, books to sell, rent to pay, grades to record, averages to compile, petitions to resolve, courses to arrange, teachers to assign, degrees to award, ceremonies to arrange, announcements and bulletins to publish, and most of all, wrinkles to iron — those unpredictable, day-to-day calls, like replenishing pens and approving re-writes. Then too, there was now the last chore of all: plugging the gap made by finding her own replacement.
Even though Dick Klosterman is an extremely capable young man and will probably be much more efficient than I it seemed that we should have an official registrar who is a member of the bar...
Klosterman was one of the few senior law students, who was scheduled to graduate in June 1946 and who had been giving Alice some assistance around the school.
I asked Dave [Patullo] if he would accept the position. He seemed very flattered and said he would be very happy to act as registrar in your absence. He volunteered to work this year without pay — I didn’‘t name any amount — I felt that you should have the final word in that.
Alice made a good choice. Patullo, a CPA and practicing tax lawyer, was voluntary, vulnerable, visible and valuable — as Alice was quick to point out to her husband.
The reason I asked him was that he is the one member of the faculty who has consistently offered his services — and who has actually helped the school out voluntarily. He ran for the school board this year. . . . He really has a fine reputation with the lawyers in town, especially lately because he’s been lecturing at their meetings and has several articles and write-ups in the bar bulletin.
With Patullo on line, Alice then ventured to approach Judge Hendrickson with the transition, and he "seemed quite duly impressed." Her case now having been neatly presented, she put the matter to the father of the law school, her overseas husband.
Please write me what you think . . . I do hope it’s satisfactory with you.
It would be. Far off in the South Pacific, a soldier-husband-registrar for those letter-moments was transported home to what he loved: a school, the students, his wife. As for his wife’s reasons in wanting to leave the school and students, he knew well. Nevertheless, she explained.
It’s getting so that I am more and more anxious to quit making appearances — especially in a business capacity. You see, I didn’t dream that it would be obvious for at least another month...
What could be the show that shied her? The fret was no more than a modesty indicative of the times.
Here I am at 4 months wearing these damned maternity dresses. My waist measurement has gone from 24" to 29" in the last few weeks, so you can see how impossible it would be for me to wear the clothes I wore before.
Schoolmaster Alice was pregnant — a word, let alone an appearance, that in 1945 was eschewed in polite company. With the classroom now empty and another school night ended, her letter closed with:
I hope you are getting my letters regularly now. It makes me sick when I think of your not hearing from me. I love you, darling. Alice.
Indeed, the examinations of law are inked in dull logic upon pages of cold experience. But the life of Law is filled with interruptions — of war, of careers, of business, of lost pens, and ah yes, of darlings.
Alice Ruth Gantenbein died on Nov. 27, 2003. John Flint Gantenbein died Dec. 7, 1976, exactly thirty-five years after the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II. Their law school lives on. No matter what its future and no matter what its name today, it would be nothing without the maternal and paternal nurturing of its past.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronald B. Lansing is a professor of law at Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College. His book, "Nimrod," about Oregon’s first reported murderer, is due to be published in March 2005.