In law school, Dean Richard Atkinson terrified me so much that, 15 years after his tragic and untimely passing, he still stars in the only recurring dream I have ever had. Inevitably, when I am stressed or overwhelmed, I dream that I am running frantically to try to make it to the final exam for a class I mistakenly thought I had dropped early in the semester. I have never attended this class nor am I even familiar with the subject matter, but in the dream I must take the exam. The emotional gut punch that always scares me awake isn’t the fear that I won’t graduate or that I will lose my scholarship, it’s that I will disappoint him. And if my conversations with former classmates are any indication, I am not alone; Atkinson still looms as large in our memories as he stood in the classroom. But it isn’t fair to imply that fear is the primary emotion that comes to mind when thinking back on our days with Dean Atkinson: Love is. Joy, empathy and love. As almost any University of Arkansas School of Law grad from that era will tell you, Atkinson was the heart, soul, passion and moral compass of the law school and the Arkansas legal community. And this week, his former students across the state and across the nation are revisiting his memory, comforted and buoyed during this trying time by exciting news that the law school he loved will create a transformative new program in his honor.
Atkinson was casually and undeniably brilliant. His friends called him Dick, but as a former student I won’t dare to be so informal. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University in 1966, Atkinson went on to receive a master’s degree in divinity from Yale University in 1971 followed by a law degree from Yale in 1974. Upon graduating from Yale, he joined the King and Spalding Law Firm in Atlanta, and in a tribute written after Atkinson’s death, his brother John remembered that, for the first time in Richard’s life, he was deeply unhappy. He called home one day and told the family that he was resigning from his lucrative job at the prestigious firm to go teach law in Arkansas based on the advice of a law-school friend none of them had never heard of named Bill Clinton.
At Atkinson’s memorial service in 2005, Clinton vividly remembered their conversation that day:
I was sitting in my office in the Law School over 30 years ago, returning his call. He was doing well at a big Atlanta law firm and by doing well he found himself unsatisfied. He felt he was of no particular service to humankind, and asked me if I knew of any opportunities for him to do legal services work. I suggested instead that he come to Fayetteville and interview for a job at the Law School. He took that job shortly after I left. Many people thought both moves were good for the Law School. That was the beginning of his remarkable odyssey among us. He quenched his desire to serve in so very many ways. As a teacher, a dean, a poet, a citizen of his community and state, and a friend to all of us, and countless others.
Even though his family thought he was crazy, Atkinson came to Arkansas. As far as creation stories go, it’s a pretty great one.
Atkinson was a hell of a teacher: fierce and patient, thoughtful and intensely fun. Holly Friedman, a former student, remembers that on the very first day of law school she arrived in his class prepared to discuss the case he had assigned, Pierson v. Post, which was about a man caught hunting foxes on another’s property. In true Socratic fashion, Atkinson questioned the students on the facts of the case, the majority opinion, the dissent and so forth. Then he asked the class what the case was really all about. What was the law trying to achieve in this case? Disappointed in the class’ awkward attempts to come up with a legal theory that sounded smart and would somehow make sense of the strange case, Atkinson suddenly leaped on top of his desk and bellowed “More dead foxes!” And in an instant, using a case about fox hides, Atkinson reframed his students’ thinking, from focusing on legal procedure and technicalities to reflecting on much bigger questions like “what is property and why does our society protect private ownership?” I would compare the story to something out of “Dead Poets Society,” but that would be unfair to Atkinson. He was that good.
When he was promoted to dean of the University of Arkansas School of Law in 2002, Atkinson took the unusual step of insisting that he still be allowed to teach, saying, “Against the advice of many of my friends, I will continue to teach Property each semester. Teaching is too much fun for me to give up entirely.” Almost everything that has been written about Atkinson has included deeply moving descriptions of his ability to inspire his students and elevate their thinking. His brother John wasn’t exaggerating when he said, “he was voted Teacher of the Year just about every year. … He was simply the best.” And he was. As Professor Bob Laurence once wrote in a peer review of Atkinson’s work, “I suspect that for many of our graduates, he is the University of Arkansas School of Law.”
I, for one, remember his booming voice, huge smile and twinkling, mischievous eyes much more than I remember the Rule Against Perpetuities or the Rule in Shelley’s Case. Atkinson taught us property law, but really, he taught us to love the law. And it worked; year after year, each new class of first-year property students would be transformed into inquisitive young attorneys trained think both critically and creatively. In a faculty tribute written after his death, his colleagues perfectly captured the experience of being in one of his unforgettable classes. In an age of PowerPoint presentations and commercially produced course outlines, they noted that Atkinson would enter the lecture room armed only with “the casebook, a seating chart and his considerable intellect.” The picture they painted of an Atkinson class still makes my heart rate rise:
“Compose yourself,” he would thunder to a nervous first-year student called upon to recite a case. And that ability to find composure, or some measure of it, in the midst of heart palpitations, dry mouth and intestinal butterflies surely led, for many of us, to effective cross-examinations, to incisive oral arguments, to quiet client counselings, to careful and complete negotiations.
There are verifiable stories of smart and accomplished young men and women suddenly withdrawing from law school after disappointing him in class, such was the power of his gaze. He wanted us to be successful, but he also wanted us to figure out pretty quickly whether we would be happy spending the rest of our lives as lawyers. He was not mean or cruel, but his disappointment still haunts our nightmares. As former student Shontavia Johnson remembers, his eyes would sparkle as he trilled “Shon-TAAAAY-via!” to call on her in class, but even though he was smiling, her stomach would drop and her voice would tremble as she answered, terrified of letting him down.
Please do not confuse my descriptions of Atkinson’s intense intellect and high expectations for dull and rigid academic stuffiness. Everyone who knew Atkinson has a wild story they will gladly tell you, laughing until they cry, and then crying once more because, as former student Autumn Tolbert said without any hint of exaggeration, “I am still completely heartbroken that he is gone.” There are stories of him being handcuffed to a student at a late-night Halloween party, both of them in full costume. Many have fond memories of him breaking out into spontaneous poetry on the first bright days of spring or hosting “brunches” at his home that stretched late into the evening. His brother John said, “In Galatians, Paul says, ‘the fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self control. May we all live by the Spirit.’ More than any other person that I’ve ever known, Dick lived his life by the Spirit. And oh, what a life he lived! He packed 120 years into 58. He lived every day to the fullest.”
I cannot imagine that there is a soul on earth who knew Richard Atkinson that would disagree. Atkinson was an uncommonly good person and an uncommonly gifted teacher, but more than that, he was a light that illuminated the world for so many. His friend Ruel Walker wrote that “Richard’s greatest achievement was his demonstrating throughout his life that it was humanly possible to care about nearly everyone he met — as much as he did, as deeply as he did, as genuinely as he did. That is a triumph of the heart and of the spirit, on the very highest level.”
But there is another part of Richard Atkinson’s story. He was a brilliant thinker and accomplished dean, a poet and devoted friend, a strict father figure and fearsome orator. And he was gay. As a gay man born in 1946 and raised in Elkin, N.C., a tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is hard to fully imagine the difficult road that Atkinson faced or the joy of finding love and happiness in Fayetteville with his partner Michael Hollomon. I still remember the day, early in our first year of law school, when a young man fresh out of Cross County, who unironically wore his “good overalls” to go out drinking on Dickson Street and sometimes got lost walking home because he wasn’t used to navigating a landscape with hills, confided in Atkinson that he’d never met a gay man before. With his trademark mix of feistiness and grace, Atkinson grinned widely and drawled, “Oh yes you have, but I guess they just didn’t feel comfortable enough to let you know.” And thus, one student at a time, Atkinson redefined for so many young Arkansans what being a gay man in the rural South could mean. In an era when gay characters were almost never depicted as complex three-dimensional human beings in our national media, Atkinson didn’t shrink himself for the ease and comfort of anyone.
When I was in law school, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided Goodridge v. Department of Health, becoming the first state in the nation to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. And so it seemed natural, years after losing our beloved law-school dean, that I would think of him in the quiet, sacred moment that our officiant read Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s beautiful words from that case on my own wedding day. I married my law-school sweetheart under the colorful stained-glass dome of the Pulaski County Courthouse, aware that somehow, in a course ostensibly about dull and dry property law, Dean Richard Atkinson had imperceptibly woven together in my brain a free-flowing association between love, beauty, truth, dignity and the law.
Now, thanks to a $500,000 planned gift from Michael Hollomon and Eric Wailes, Atkinson’s memory will serve as the inspiration for a new Law and Sexuality Fund at the University of Arkansas School of Law. By creating a path for better understanding of, and advocacy in, the area of sexuality and the law, Hollomon and Wailes are ensuring that Atkinson’s legacy continues to impact future generations. Several projects have been proposed to advance educational opportunities and research, including a national scholarly paper competition, a travel award to bring notable speakers to campus and send students and faculty to visit external experts, and organizations and public service opportunities.
“We observe that few areas of law and policy have changed as quickly or as dramatically as those regulating the legal rights of members of the LGBTQ community,” Hollomon said. “This is a very dynamic area in legal thinking, and society is exploring how people are judged equally under the law. We’re very committed to this initiative.”
It is a thoughtful and fitting tribute to a brilliant man who loved the law and believed in its ability to change the world. Friends since their time together at Yale, Hillary Clinton put it best when she wrote, “Dick Atkinson had strong convictions and always put those convictions to work: for his students, the Law School, and his community. He lived life honestly, joyfully and well.” Thanks to Michael Hollomon and Eric Wailes, Atkinson’s legacy will continue to be a force for good. And the joy we are all feeling right now at hearing this wonderful news is exactly what it felt like to make Richard Atkinson proud.