Class Day Tribute by Alexander Rabb

There is so much to say about Gary Bellow as an activist and a lawyer, but it seems most appropriate to spend this time at class day reflecting on his role as a teacher.

Most of us knew Professor Bellow only after illness had slowed him down a little.  As I was preparing these comments, I talked to some people who knew him for a long time who said it was a shame I didn’t see him in action years ago, when his intense classroom teaching and clinical supervision filled rooms and people with unbelievable energy.  One student from his 1971 Legal Profession class told me about a lecture on lawyer’s strategic decision making that brought to life the complexities of poverty law practice.  That single class session was so exciting that everyone applauded at the end, and that student still remembers it to this day.

Well, I don’t know what we missed out on, but I know what an incredible teacher Professor Bellow was even in the last two years of his life.  Soon after his heart transplant, he was back at the Harvard legal services clinic he had founded, reviewing cases and grilling students on the way they were handling them.  One of my first interactions with him was after he had read over one of my cases and stopped by my desk out of the blue to question me on my strategy.

Meanwhile, in his classes, Professor Bellow’s intense and beautiful stories, drawn from his long career in legal services, brought such depth to the principles we were learning.  He remembered everything about his clients, even where they lived and the names of their children.  

One of the things that made Gary so special as a teacher was his closeness to and care for his students.  It is especially telling that he died after collapsing on his way to teach a class.

Just a week before he died, Gary wrote a note to the members of his seminar telling us that he hoped he would see us again.  He just had to beat his illness, but he had done that before, and he would do it again.

I don’t know if Gary can see us now, but I know we can see him.  We can see him in the classroom, when professors who thirty years ago would have simply socratically grilled their classes on case holdings now run complex role plays about how those principles would apply in litigation or negotiation.  We can see him in the clinical program he developed, a program which teaches hundreds of students every year about the intricacies of practice and exposes them to the communities outside of the Cambridge campus, while giving countless low-income clients access to fair treatment that they would not otherwise have.  When we graduate, we will see Gary Bellow in public interest and pro bono programs that treat low income clients with dignity and provide them with the high quality service they deserve.  Hopefully, we will also see him when we ourselves work to help people to achieve justice in a difficult and often unfriendly world.  We’ll see him in all these things, and in this way, Professor Bellow will have beaten his illness yet again.


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