As day turns to night, Duffield Hall begins to fill for Reunion 2013’s All-Class Reunion Cocktail Reception and Dinner Dance, with Law School alumni gathering after a weekend of celebration. The oldest are in their eighties, and the youngest are in their twenties, but the years in between matter less than all the things they have in common, sharing stories about professors, trading jokes over glasses of wine, and watching as new faces enter the hall.
“This is not my year, as you can see,” says Emeritus Associate Dean Albert Neimeth, ’52, pointing to his reunion badge as he walks into the atrium. “I was invited by the Class of 1968 to speak at their dinner. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll come, because I love you guys.’ And I guess they feel the same, right? Because they asked me back.”
He jokes about not being remembered, but on a night like this, that’s unlikely to happen. Neimeth only has to take a few steps before a member of the Class of 1973 comes over to shake his hand. They talk for a few minutes, recapping the past forty years, and by the time they’re finished, there is another alum waiting in line, and another alum after that.
A few steps away, David Silverstein ’73, and his wife, Leslie Roth Silverstein, are talking about how lucky they feel to be in Ithaca with their two sons, one who’s celebrating his fifth reunion and the other who’s begun a master’s program in the School of Hotel Administration. “To have the whole family as Cornellians is a real treat, a dream come true,” says David, as Leslie nods in agreement. Taking his seat at the VIP table, Hon. Stephen Robinson ’84 is thinking about the speech he’s about to give, a tribute to Faust Rossi ’60, Samuel S. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques, whose retirement after forty-seven years at Cornell is the centerpiece of the night’s program.
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Sitting next to him, E.F. Roberts, the Edwin H. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emeritus, is visiting with some former students. “Just seeing people who came back, and were happy to see me, that’s the highlight,” says Roberts. Lemuel Hinton ’78, who’s currently in private practice in North Carolina, scans the room for familiar faces, taking in all the changes he’s seen over the weekend. Back in Ithaca for the first time in decades, he’s glad to spend this last night surrounded by classmates before heading home in the morning.
If it feels as though the weekend has gone by in a flash, that’s because it has. The celebrations started Thursday with a sneak peak at the new academic wing off of the Purcell Courtyard, where work continues on schedule and under budget. On Friday, early risers were treated to a guided bird walk at the Lab of Ornithology, a CLE course providing an “Overview of the American Bar Association’s Ethics 20/20 Commission,” presented by David Dunn ’78, Partner at Hogan Lovells, and Richard Rifkin, Special Counsel at the New York State Bar Association, and moderated by W. Bradley Wendel, professor of law, in addition to a Law School Open House in the Gould Reading Room.
After enjoying dinner and drinks at the Friday class dinners, alumni rolled out of bed Saturday for a celebration breakfast in Hughes Hall, a talk on “Training Lawyers for Changing Careers” by Stewart J. Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, and a presentation on “Managing Money Through Moody Markets” by David R. Pedowitz, M.B.A. ’82/J.D. ’83, senior portfolio manager at Neuberger Berman, who believes it’s not markets that are moody—it's investors, who are too easily swayed by emotions to act rationally.
Speaking to the crowd at Bailey Hall, Cornell President David J. Skorton delivered a State of the University Address that focused on the strength of the current faculty, and the importance of hiring new members over the next decade. “So many of you have warm memories of the professors you knew at Cornell, people… who awakened an interest, ignited a spark, provided a foundation of knowledge, opened doors, guided you,” he said. “Cornell faculty today are at the top of their game, contributing to discovery, innovating, advancing knowledge, expanding creativity, serving society, changing lives. But like all of us, they are getting older.”
Then, after a pause: “Well, not those of us in this room,” he added, “but everybody else.”
He could have said the same that night at Duffield Hall. As dinner arrives, Dean Schwab rises to speak about Reunion’s “link of generations,” where the Class of 2013 can share stories with the Class of 1963; then, fifty years from now, can mingle with newly-minted Class of 2063, bridging a century of learning at Cornell Law. Then, with a wave to the guest of honor, he talks about the transformative experience of studying law, praising Rossi as “one of the greatest teachers in the history of the school, who’d literally helped train thousands of Cornell Law students and countless other lawyers across the country and the world.”
As one of those lawyers, Kevin Arquit ’78 shares the story of his 1L year in Hughes Hall, where his window opened onto the faculty parking lot, and no matter how early he awoke, Rossi’s car would already be there. Robinson follows, describing how Rossi became the father figure he’d never known, giving him the confidence to believe he might someday be a great lawyer. Next, Kevin M. Clermont, Robert D. Ziff Professor of Law, veers between comedy and tragedy, praising Rossi’s wife, children, grandchildren, and poodle before coming around to Rossi himself. “As a teacher, he has no peer,” says Clermont. “Indeed, it is impossible to convey his effectiveness and popularity—except to this audience who studied under him. Nobody on the faculty knows his secret, or we’d all be using it.”
Stepping up to the podium, Rossi disagrees with all of them. Coming to work early wasn’t a sign of dedication—it was the only way he could stay ahead of students like Arquit. As for Robinson, who clearly had all the talent he needed, Rossi couldn’t remember having any effect at all. Clermont had it wrong, too: It was Rossi who’d asked Clermont for advice, not the other way around. “Listening to all that undeserved praise, I’m not sure who they’re talking about,” says Rossi. “I guess it’s me. It certainly describes how I would like to be remembered. And I suppose at a time like this, some exaggeration is allowable.”
But what if it’s not exaggeration? Watching Rossi accept a framed Law Forum with his photo on the cover, it’s impossible for Dana Lowe ’98 to forget how hard she worked to avoid being called on in Rossi’s evidence class, and how much she struggled in Professor Hillman’s course on contracts, which was even tougher. “The irony,” she says, “is that contracts has become my living. I’m a senior lawyer at JP Morgan Chase, negotiating international securities contracts, all because of the dedication of the faculty to see their students succeed. It goes to show that quite often, the things you think are the most difficult can become your greatest assets.”
As desserts are finished and plates cleared, Katherine Ma ’98 tells a story that’s equally unlikely: After starting Cornell pre-med, she graduated as an educational psychology major with a passion for justice. “I’d taken a class with Professor Clermont my junior year, and it was just so thought-provoking, so inspiring, that instead of becoming a teacher, I decided to go to law school,” she says. “And I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, because my son, who was only six weeks old when I started law school, is going to be a freshman here this fall. He was born here, he grew up loving it as much as I do, and he’s convinced it’s his destiny to attend Cornell.”
Two tables away, a group of Cornell Law’s newest graduates are taking a moment to look around the room, observe the alumni around them, and imagine their place within this link of generations. “We had Rossi as 1Ls, and even then we knew we were in the last class he’d have,” says Suzy Marinkovich ’13. “It was an extraordinary blessing to share the same hypotheticals, the same history, the same trauma of being called on, with people who graduated decades ago.”
“It’s truly been an honor to be here tonight,” says Cynthia Galvez ’13. “I’m not sure what lies ahead, but there’s a certain level of comfort, assurance, and confidence that comes from hearing about the lives of people in this room, knowing we’re all joined together.”
By then, the deejay has begun playing “Brick House,” and the program is shifting from dinner to dance. It is growing late for the Class of 1953, but still early for the Class of 2013, who will be spending the rest of the summer cramming for the bar, packing up their things, and following in the footsteps of the people around them. “It’s funny, because we just graduated three weeks ago, so it’s too soon to feel at all removed from school,” says Tiina Vaisanen ’13. “But it’s amazing to listen to these alumni who graduated decades ago, and they’re still talking about their time here. For me, it brings home the fact that we’ve been so privileged to be in the presence of these great minds. And it’s finally starting to hit, just how much we’ve accomplished over these past three years.”
-- Kenneth Berkowitz