I taught my last class of the semester this afternoon. For several of the students it was their last class of law school, and they were more than a bit giddy with relief — demob happy. But we had a good class anyway, or because of it.
The end today for graduating students is really just a beginning of something bigger and longer and likely more important, which is why we call that ceremony coming up “Commencement”. The end today for me is just a turning of a wheel: I expect to do it all again next year.
But for one of my colleagues today, it was the final turn of this particular wheel. After 56 years on our faculty, here since September, 1951, Minnette Massey taught her last class today. It is very hard for me to imagine our University of Miami School of Law without this indomitable, outspoken, adorable, sometimes irascible, deeply decent, icon and pioneer of the Florida bar—one of the first women to do innumerable things in the Florida legal world. Minnette was Acting Dean for three years in the '60s; I have to suspect sexism kept her from ever being appointed as 'Dean'. She was a mentor to two generations of state legal luminaries, and the go-to person for local federal judges who needed special masters in complex cases, particularly before they had Magistrate Judges to do some of those jobs. Among Minnette's many achievements is decades of work to fully integrate the bar, not least by mentoring students and young professionals. She's not young, but no one who knows her thinks she had to retire. Minnette made it clear, however, that she didn't want to be one of those people who waited until she had to be forced out: her leave-taking, like so much else in her life, would be her own decision on her own time on her own rules.
Everyone has a Minnette story or three. Here's one of my earliest: back when I was in my first year of law teaching, with a full three months under my belt, I attended the AALS winter conference for the first time. I was teaching Civ Pro I in those days, so of course I went the to the meeting of the Civil Procedure Section, which happened to be a joint section meeting with the Admiralty section that year — the big case was Carnival Cruise Line, which was about the enforcement of forum selection clauses on cruise tickets. On the way into the room, I bumped into Minnette. I had planned to lurk in the back. Minnette steered me to the front row, greeting everyone in the room on the way, which left us craning our necks up at a panel on a raised dias. The talk began. The admiralty speaker was, from a civil procedure standpoint, somewhat obvious. And he was not brief. I was thinking how much better off I would have been in the back, but here I was in the front, with a senior colleague I didn't know very well, she had said hello to everyone, we were very visible, there was no escape, we'd just have to look interested. “ISN'T THIS BORING?” Minnette said to me in a stage whisper loud enough to be heard next door. (I later learned that was her regular voice.) I wanted to crawl under my seat. But no one else seemed to mind. I suspect that everyone in the room just knew she was being herself: you always know where you stand with Minnette — she doesn't play games, and no, she won't suffer fools in silence, but you cannot be around her long without seeing how much she cares about people and about justice. Minnette doesn't brag (much), so it takes somewhat longer to learn just how much she has given to others and to our law school. I will miss Minnette enormously — unless we are lucky and she again blazes a new trail, this time in retirement, and makes Emeritus status something that involves greater involvement in the law school community than has commonly been the case in the past.
Several of us snuck in at the end of her class this afternoon to join the standing ovation in Room 109, and formed an impromptu receiving line in the aisle as she left the room. When she came to Charlton Copeland, currently our most junior faculty member, she said, “It's up to you now.”