Oregon State Bar Bulletin — AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2008
Profiles in the Law
Handing the Baton of Learning
Ron Lansing Retires
By Mark Lansing

Ron Lansing, with his wife, Jewel.

As he takes the short stroll from his tiny office to a large classroom this month, Professor Ronald B. Lansing begins the final quarter of his 42-year career teaching with Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College.

Estimates indicate that close to 2,000 of the 12,000 practicing Oregon lawyers were once his pupils. A class of 35 awaits, unaware of Lansing’s humble beginnings in a lower-class Depression Era family, his self-propelled climb to the top of legal academics, and their fresh status as the last of a breed.

Born on the south side of Chicago in 1932, Lansing often dined on ketchup sandwiches without any filling. His father, an uneducated laborer, moved with wife and three children regularly as work availability changed. Bouncing around Northern Illinois and Indiana during those hard-scrabble times, Lansing’s earliest scholastic memory is of playground brawls at every new grade school he attended, where the new kid’s (i.e., his) mettle was systematically tested.

His parents encouraged him to go to college, and he worked union jobs in steel mills and oil refineries while he attended Valparaiso University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy in 1954.

That same year the U.S. military drafted him and, after boot camp, sent Lansing to a post in Neu Ulm, germany, where he met USO worker Jewel Beck. Romance blossomed, and in June 1956 they married. Upon obtaining his military discharge (honorable, for the record), Lansing enrolled at Willamette Law School in Salem, courtesy of the G.I. Bill.

In 1959 professors picked Lansing as one of the two initial head editors of the fledging Willamette Law Journal. Soon after accepting that honor, he began clerking at the Oregon Supreme Court for Justice William McAllister. Four years later he moved to Portland and replaced Sid Lezak at the the firm of Bailey, Swink, Haas, Seagraves and Lansing.

But in his heart Lansing preferred the purity of legal theory to the murkier waters of a client- and circumstance-driven lawyer’s labor. While many if not most attorneys might share that preference, Lansing aggressively pursued his.

By 1966 he had been hired as one of the five full-time faculty members at the long-standing but still unaccredited Northwestern School of Law. Northwestern, in existence since 1884, had recently moved its location from a downtown office building (where space was rented and often in flux) to the campus of Lewis & Clark College seven miles away.

Perhaps Lansing’s proudest accomplishment is his hand in the rise of Northwestern. Once a small, unsanctioned school with no permanent home, Lansing played a key role in its transformation to a fully accredited institution that annually graduates the most potential Oregon lawyers and which operates from a separate, beautiful facility completed in 1970. Artistically inclined, Lansing has drawn caricatures of every full-time professor since 1966 (along with assorted staff members), and all 90 of those cartoon portraits still hang in Northwestern’s faculty hallway.

Asked to describe himself, Lansing uses the word "maieutic" — not just because of his fondness for language (this word being notable for both its four consecutive vowels and also its roots — originally "maieutic" referred to the midwife in medieval birthing deliveries, but now more generally means the quality of eliciting and molding the ideas of others). Translation: this man loves to teach, and does so by prodding pupils to see how the things they already know fit with what they are learning.

Former students characterize him as knowledgeable, engaging and well prepared. Larry Wobbrock, who recently obtained a $150 million jury verdict against the tobacco industry, recalls his first exposure to tort law in Lansing’s classroom. Arriving at law school after a five-year stint as a high school civics teacher, Wobbrock enjoyed Lansing’s blend of techniques, which included Socratic questioning, guest speakers and war stories from Lansing’s days in private practice.

Wobbrock himself now teaches periodically at Northwestern and still uses an article Lansing wrote in 1995 about a then-new Oregon statute governing joint and several liability. "He predicted that it would discourage settlements," Wobbrock says, "and that is exactly what has happened."

Another top personal injury attorney, Jan Baisch, took torts and evidence from Lansing in the 1970s. He remembers one class where several men entered the back, exchanged words and began to fight. Unknown to the observers, Lansing had staged the incident, and later asked them to write down what they saw and heard. Each version varied, illustrating how witnesses to the same event can perceive it differently.

Since graduating, Baisch has taught and stayed involved at Northwestern, where Lansing’s dedication to the school made a strong impression. "I admire him a lot," Baisch says.

Like Baisch, Josephine County Circuit Judge Pat Wolke recalls games of basketball with Lansing, while most other staffers didn’t mingle with students. "In addition to being a good teacher, he was nice and approachable," Wolke says, "not intimidating like some of the professors."

Lansing’s three children describe him as a humorous, persistent and motivated figure who drew them into dinner-table debates about the hearsay rule. An avid hiker and backpacker, Lansing has twice climbed Mount Hood. As an adult, he taught himself to play piano and guitar.

Also an accomplished painter and wood craftsman, he once bought an unstained wooden roll-top desk and spent eight years of spare time hand-carving outdoor scenes and intricate patterns onto almost every inch of exterior space. While most people prefer dogs and cats, Lansing’s backyard pets are llamas and sheep. He and Jewel celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary two years ago.

In addition to his many legal writings, Lansing is the author of three published books. The most recent, Nimrod, looks at Oregon’s first appealed murder conviction, the pre-statehood case of Oregon Territory v. O’Kelly, 1 Or 59 (1854), in its broader historical context. Lansing’s exhaustive research is evident throughout; the acknowledgments section credits 20 different libraries, museums and resource centers in four different states, and thousands of documents are cited in the text.

For the retirement of a fellow professor years ago, Lansing penned a tribute that today encapsules his own 42 years of teaching:

I set the sails to the ship of knowledge

I keep the flame of school

I champion quest

I toll a summons to curiosity

I plan the pursuit of why

I see adventure in persuasion and boredom in being convinced

My joy is rooted to growing minds

I hand the baton of learning and then step aside.

The author is a Grants Pass attorney and Professor Lansing’s son.

© 2008 Mark Lansing

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