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Remembering a Titan

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Very sad to learn of Professor Seidelson’s passing, which hit very close to home. He taught us how to think like lawyers. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, there are many Seidelson impressionists and former students who share a strong fondness for the man. Some of his more memorable material:

“Counselor, can I put you to work?”

“If I may, just one more hypothetical...I lied, I have just one more hypothetical for you...”

“You are a tough nut to crack, but I am going to crack you.”

Twenty-eight years have gone by, and I still have instant recall of his torts class.

Raymond C. Bershtein, JD ’83

If memory serves, Professor Seidelson gave his home phone number to all his students so that we could call him with questions, at a reasonable hour, of course—not a particularly common practice among professors of any stripe.

Carl Horkowitz, JD ’80

I was in Professor Seidelson’s evening torts class in 1960. I had a preconception of the Socratic method in which the kindly, patient professor gently elicits principles of law from students who marvel at the sheer genius of the process. Seidelson did embrace the Socratic method, but, at least in the classroom, he was neither kindly, nor patient, nor gentle.

Forty-eight years later, I remember clearly that what he mostly did was challenge us. Even the best prepared felt pummeled by his ceaseless barrage of questions. What he wanted us to do was fight back, preferably with innovative responses.

In one classroom exchange, I was holding my ground pretty well, citing precedent in support of my point. Then, without warning, a missile flew toward me. The good professor literally had thrown the book at me. I awkwardly caught it and stood there speechless. “NOW,” he bellowed, “you’ll remember the most convincing arguments aren’t necessarily in books. Consult your brain FIRST.”

Yes, sir, Professor Seidelson, I remembered that bit of wisdom, and you, my entire 30-year career as a litigator. You were sui generis.

Phil Ehrenkranz, LLB ’64

In spring 2005 and 2006, I had the privilege of playing Professor Seidelson in the Law Revue show. When I walked out on stage with the duck-footed shuffle and the open collar that stretched forever, the roar of the crowd was immediate and humbling. As students, we had a great appreciation for his integrity and the respect he conveyed towards all people.

I sometimes find out that opposing counsel are GW Law alumni. When I do, I will inevitably look for the chance to reprise a few words of my role as Professor Seidelson. People recognize the voice instantly. No one has ever responded with anything but fond memories and appreciation to “May I impose upon Your Honor to stand….”

Steve Pazan, JD ’86

When I learned that Professor Seidelson had died, I felt a great sense of loss. Simply put, he was the best teacher I ever had. And I have been fortunate to have had many very good teachers.

Even though he had roughed me up pretty good in torts, I asked to be in his evidence class. Every day, I use what he taught me. I still remember his simple phrase to explain the difference between an admissible extrajudicial statement that is being offered for a nonhearsay purpose and inadmissible hearsay: “If it has to be true to be relevant, then it is hearsay and not admissible.”

To this day, many of the lawyers and judges I encounter have trouble with that concept. If only they could have taken evidence from Professor Seidelson.

Dennis Cornell, JD ’72

I was a first-year student in Professor Seidelson’s torts class in 1969. As was reported in your last issue, he viewed classroom exchanges “almost invariably a delight.” I am not so certain that his students perceived them that way, however.

He seemed to revel in calling on students in class and having them stand to face his grilling. The student would often wilt under the pressure, which would cause Seidelson to move both of his arms in a grand upward sweeping motion, at the same time barking, “Stand up straight. I like a tall target!”

Stephen J. Draisin, JD ’72, BA ’69

Thank you for Professor Robinson’s tribute piece to Professor Seidelson. I had Seidelson for torts in my first year and conflicts in my second year. To this day, I will not walk into a courtroom without asking myself whether my preparation would survive the scrutiny of one of his Socratic dialogues. He was a gifted and dedicated teacher. Please add me to the list of the many students who are grateful for his teaching.

David P. Ackerman, JD ’82

I took an evening class from Professor Seidelson in the early ’90s and was subjected, as described by Professor Robinson, “to the rigor of David’s stand-on-your-feet, careful, highly Socratic questioning and analysis.” To ease tensions, he told a story from his experience as a student. He wanted to convey that he, too, had been subjected to the same rigorous questioning. He explained that he had a particular professor who would always ask, “Well, Mr. X, what is your analysis?” Having heard this question numerous times, he was ready with a snappy answer when his name was called. When asked, “Well, Mr. Seidelson, what is your analysis?” he responded simply, “Well, professor, it’s the testing of piss!!!” Evidently, that professor never again phrased the question in quite the same way.

Susan Wolski, JD ’95

In 1963 I was one of Professor Seidelson’s favorite targets for the Socratic method of teaching in torts, as I was often wrong but rarely in doubt!

One evening our conversation was becoming increasingly animated, and he suddenly grabbed a chalkboard eraser and threw it at me. He put good force behind it, but, as I was about 20 feet away, I caught it. Our discussion then continued for several more minutes.

When I got up from behind my desk, about the third seat in from the center aisle, he said, “Oh, I’m disappointed. I thought you were going to throw it back at me.” I did so but underhanded, which is why I went to the center aisle. I wish I could remember what we were arguing about!

I could never figure out why he taught rather than going into a firm and making six or seven figures a year. Some are just natural-born teachers.

J. Walter Carpenter, JD ’67

I had the great fortune of having Professor Seidelson for my first-year evidence class. Not only did he bring humor and incredible insight to the subject, but he also inspired me to pursue a career as a trial attorney. He took the time to nurture me as a student. He was always available to all his students, and he never hesitated to continue a class discussion outside of class time.

I served as an assistant prosecutor for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office and then as an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of New Jersey. Seidelson set me on my career path. For that, I will be forever grateful.

Please send my condolences to his family. He will always have a special place in my educational memories.

Lisa Russell-Charles, JD ’87

As a commuting night school student from the early 1960s, I seldom crack the GW Law School magazine. I did so for the summer 2008 issue, and to my great surprise, I came upon the article about my old evidence professor, David Seidelson.

I learned that Seidelson was actually younger than I by two years and that he had arrived at GW at about the same time as I. When I sat in his class, he must have been just 32 or 33. Amazing, considering the authority with which he presented himself.

I remember the day when he walked into class, mounted the podium, stretched, and yawned. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I didn’t sleep well last night, so I really don’t feel like teaching today.” He then pointed directly at me. “Wiener,” he said, “would you mind taking over?”

Fortunately, I had carefully briefed the assigned cases, so I more or less held my own, at least until Seidelson, perched in the front row, raised his hand. With a pretense of puzzlement, he asked for an explication of what I deemed an obscure point in the case under discussion. I was stumped and was reduced to inviting my fellow students to comment. At the end of the session, Seidelson allowed that I had not done badly.

I am saddened at the passing of this man, whom I will always remember for his wit, his mastery of the material, and his well-masked kindness.

Richard Wiener, LLB ’63

I was a member of the Class of 1972, which was mentioned in the wonderful article about Professor David Seidelson, and I was present when he made that dramatic entrance into Stockton Hall through students protesting the Vietnam War. The students were chanting, “Shut it down or burn it down,” blocking the doorway, and urging everyone to boycott classes.

When Seidelson approached, the crowd became silent and stepped aside in respect (maybe some in fear) as he quietly said, “Pardon me,” and walked in to hold his class. Some of us then followed him through the door. I remember classmates such as Dan Efroymson, JD ’72; John Cronin, JD ’72, BA ’69; Tom Acey JD ’72, BA ’69; and others who felt as I did. We didn’t support the war. Some of us were veterans. (I was a Marine.) But we believed closing universities and skipping our classes was a pretty foolish way to convince Richard Nixon to change the U.S. policy in Vietnam.

There was tear gas on 20th Street one morning as I walked to class, but Seidelson and other GW faculty members (like Barron and Pock) showed up and kept our classes going. He was an important academic and personal influence on me and decades of other GW students.

Mike Barnes, JD ’72

I was saddened to read about Dave Seidelson’s passing. As the law review adviser, he played a significant role in my law school days. In 1964-65, when I was managing editor of the law review (and current U.S. District Court Judge Jim Robertson was editor-in-chief), Seidelson kept our feet to the fire in producing each edition. I was to devote nearly full time to the publication, not “waste” my time on other “less important” activities. For the entire academic year, I never revealed to him that I had two part-time jobs that meant a lot to me—as the stadium announcer for the Washington Senators and as the press box announcer for the Redskins. It wasn’t until the law review banquet in May 1965 that I finally confessed. He just smiled, knowingly; the son of a gun knew it all the time.

Philip R. Hochberg, LLB ’65

I appreciate the article about David Seidelson in the summer 2008 edition of GW Law School magazine. I took Seidelson’s torts class during my first year of law school. His decency left a mark on me and taught me a valuable lesson on righting a wrong.

During one class he was engaging a student. He asked for the holding of a case, and the student gave him an answer. I don’t remember the case or the answer, but Seidelson became irritated with the student for giving him an answer that was dicta. Being in our first semester of law school, we were not all aware of the difference between the meaning of a holding and dicta. The student started crying and Seidelson continued his “examination.”

I am not aware of what events took place between classes, but promptly at the beginning of our next class he apologized to the class and to the student for his behavior and for his oversight.

Having someone with his years of experience publicly admonish himself and apologize taught me a valuable lesson on who he was and how I should behave, even when in a position of power. I feel fortunate for having had the opportunity to know him.

Arlir M. Amado, JD ’99

I was saddened to read of the passing of Professor Seidelson. He was “the best” in my three years at GW Law School. Never shall I forget the vigor, the perspicacity, the wit, and the wisdom with which he conducted every class. The students with whom I was friends and I prepared diligently for him, not necessarily or solely because we were afraid of being called upon but, rather, because we wanted to be able to follow the exciting ways in which he conducted his class—a true master of the Socratic method, frankly, not well mastered by many of my professors during that period.

I think about him not infrequently and only can hope that my son, just beginning at Yale Law School, will leave there with as fond memories of his professors as I have of David Seidelson.

Robert L. Geltzer, JD ’68