Harry H. Wellington, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus (1926-2011)

Harry H. Wellington, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus (1926-2011)


Faculty Scholarship

Faculty Scholarship Publications

The New York Law School community mourns the passing of Harry H. Wellington, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus, who died at his home in Manhattan on August 8, 2011.

“New York Law School was truly fortunate to have one of the nation’s most prominent legal and academic figures lead the Law School into its second century,” said Dean and President Richard A. Matasar. “Harry will be warmly remembered by our board members, faculty, staff, and graduates and missed by us all.”

The course of Dean Wellington’s life was not at all predictable. In a leap of faith—both in himself and in New York Law School—he said goodbye to the familiar prestige of Yale Law School, where he had served as dean for a decade and been made Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law, and became the 14th Dean and President of New York Law School in 1992. His decision to take the helm of an up-and-coming urban law school whose very foundations were revolutionary says much about his personal and professional courage. In fact, it was also a vote of confidence in NYLS.

Dean Wellington’s courage was in evidence much earlier in his life. He was born in 1926 in New Haven, Connecticut. Although money for college was scarce, and the prudent choice would have been Yale, his father’s alma mater, Dean Wellington craved independence and adventure. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, helping to pay his tuition by working as a fry cook at a luncheonette and by earning a scholarship. He was accepted to Harvard Law School and later awarded a clerkship with Justice Calvert Magruder of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. He served another clerkship with Justice Felix Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dean Wellington’s academic career began at Stanford Law School where he taught for one year. He then joined the faculty at Yale Law School where he flourished as a scholar and teacher, and where he served as Dean from 1975 to 1985. During his 10 years in the role, he became known as a nurturer of his faculty members. In 1983, he was named Sterling Professor of Law. While at Yale, Dean Wellington served as a consultant to domestic and foreign government agencies and commissions and was actively involved in bar association committees concerned with law reform.

In 1992, upon his retirement from the Yale faculty, Dean Wellington made an extraordinary move, joining the faculty at New York Law School to lead it as President and Dean. “At first, I said no, and when they asked me why, I told them that being a tenured professor at Yale Law School was the next best thing to being born rich,” he recalled. “But as I thought about the opportunity to help this place that I had come to love, I changed my mind.”

At NYLS, Dean Wellington had a major impact on the image and reputation of the School. He put together and oversaw a first-rate faculty, whose well-established scholarship continues to earn respect and admiration from the legal community. He remained dean for eight years until 2000, and in 2007, he retired from teaching. He continued to serve on the School’s Board of Trustees. Dean Wellington was awarded the President’s Medal of Honor during the Law School’s 2011 Commencement Exercises for his significant contributions to New York Law School.

Dean Wellington is survived by his wife, Sheila Wellington; his sons, John and Thomas; his daughter-in-law, NYLS Professor Lenni Benson; and two grandchildren, Max and Lily. Contributions in his memory may be sent by check to NYLS’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations, Attention: Harry H. Wellington Scholarship Fund (checks payable to New York Law School).

Note: A memorial service was held for Dean Wellington at Yale Law School on November 13, 2011.

Remarks by: Professor Edward A. Purcell Jr. Memorial for Harry H. Wellington | November 13, 2011 | Yale Law School

I first met Harry some twenty years ago when he came to New York Law School. Then, I took pride, as I surely do now, in the fact that I had a small hand, as a member of the dean search committee, in bringing him to the school. From our first encounter, I was won over by his rare combination of warm and gentle manner, tolerant and sensitive demeanor, astute and sophisticated judgment, and passionate devotion to intellect and education.

Harry nourished a never-flagging commitment to the highest possible standards of academic excellence. During his deanship I served for several years on the appointments committee, an onerous and time-consuming job that a dean could surely avoid. Always, however, Harry insisted on sitting with the committee and participating in all its deliberations. “The most important thing I can do,” he repeatedly insisted, “is to help ensure that we find the very best candidates and make the highest quality faculty appointments possible.”

I remember vividly the way Harry recounted one particular story about clerking for Justice Felix Frankfurter. Harry thought me an avid, though relatively unsympathetic, audience for his Frankfurter recollections, and I suppose it’s fair to say that he himself had mixed feelings about the Justice and his career on the court. The story involved an intense disagreement. Asked to review the Justice’s draft of an opinion, Harry reluctantly explained that he thought its reasoning unsound. Frankfurter immediately began arguing with him and continued to do so for several days. Indeed, while Harry was driving him home one evening, Frankfurter grew so upset with Harry’s continued refusal to accept the opinion’s reasoning that he gave him an extended and exceptionally rough going-over. It was so rough, in fact, that when Harry arrived home his wonderful wife, Sheila, was waiting at the door with a martini in her hand. Frankfurter had just telephoned, she informed him, and told her that when Harry arrived home he would be needing a particularly strong drink.

Harry, of course, was unnerved by the experience, and he feared that he had overstepped his bounds. In chambers the following Monday he awaited the Justice’s arrival with some anxiety. When Frankfurter finally appeared, he strode straight to Harry’s desk and literally threw a batch of papers on it. “Here, read this,” he commanded curtly. “I hope you’re happy!” Stunned, Harry quickly gathered the papers and began reading. It was the opinion, now rewritten to reflect Harry’s analysis and Harry’s conclusion. Frankfurter had reexamined the opinion over the weekend, and he had finally—and obviously quite unhappily—decided that Harry was right.

Harry was understandably relieved and rightly proud, but he was also deeply impressed. On an opinion the Justice cared about and defended repeatedly—and even vehemently—Frankfurter was ultimately willing to acknowledge that his young law clerk had the better of the argument. The episode, Harry believed, exemplified in practice the ideals of law and reason, of intellectual honesty and integrity. It was for its illustration of those ideals, I believe, that Harry continued to remember and recount the story, and it was for his own profound commitment to those same ideals that I—and so many others—so admired Harry.

After Harry left the deanship, he moved into the office next to mine. At first occasionally, and soon quite regularly, I would stop by his office, invariably greeted by a wide, welcoming smile. “Come in, my friend,” he would say with a wave, and then one or the other of us would immediately advance some question, or observation, or opinion on whatever issue was currently occupying our attention, sometimes speaking simultaneously and frequently seeking—delightfully as it turned out—to be attempting to make the exact same point. There was wonderful satisfaction in knowing that no matter how agitated I might be about some unfortunate new legal or political development—and no matter how hyperbolic some of my assertions might be—Harry would respond sympathetically and often would add something like: “Well, you’re right, and let me tell you what makes it even worse.”

Those conversations ranged widely from law and politics, to friends and family, to the books, plays, movies, and travel experiences we shared or hoped to share. Talking with Harry was invariably rich and rewarding—informative, amusing, enlightening, and thought-provoking. Listening to his comments and observations, I not only learned a great deal, but I came to understand the values he most prized: fairness and justice, reason and tolerance, honesty and integrity, friendship and family.

My feelings about Harry are dominated by one all-encompassing sense. Harry was kind, decent, understanding, and entirely fair-minded. Simply put, he was a fine and good person. While his professional achievements merited my deepest respect, his personal qualities commanded my highest admiration. I miss his welcoming smile, his conversation, and his inspiration. I miss his friendship.

Harry H. Wellington, Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus (1926-2011)