For Breisblatt '72, path to Duke was paved by financial aid

February 14, 2010Duke Law News

How did you come to attend Duke Law School?
My story began back in 1968 when I was thinking about applying for law school and took the LSAT. I had been in the ROTC and was going to be commissioned to be in the Army in June of 1969. I wanted to go to law school, but I couldn’t afford it — my mother was a widow living on Social Security. In order to attend Florida State I was working part time and had received a loan to pay for tuition.

I had seen a letter from Duke on a bulletin board for students encouraging students with ROTC backgrounds to apply to Duke Law School. I took the LSAT and figured if I didn’t do well, I’d go into the Army, spend my two years, and retake the test. Having received a fairly good score I filled out my application for Duke, knowing that I couldn’t really go because I couldn’t afford it. Because of the Army, I needed to apply for what was known as an “educational delay.” This requirement meant that I would need to know if I’d been admitted to Duke by February of 1969. I sent a letter to the Law School requesting that my application be considered so I could apply for the educational delay.

I was living in a scholarship house right near Florida State when I received a phone call from the dean of the Law School, Ken Pye. I was a good student — solid A’s and B’s — but I wasn’t at the top of my class at Florida State. Dean Pye told me they had been looking through the files and had decided to admit me. He wanted to let me know personally because of the educational delay. That thoughtfulness impressed me.

“But honestly, Dean Pye,” I told him, “I can’t afford to go unless I get financial aid.” And he said “Bob, you have nothing to worry about. We’ll take care of it.” Sure enough, the Law School gave me a loan that covered my full tuition. With tuition covered, my summer earnings and a part-time job while attending law school would cover my living expenses.

What was your part-time job, and how did you find it?

At that time I was working in the Florida State University Library. I decided to write a letter to the Law School Library to see if they might have any positions available. I worked for a woman named Mrs. Paisley at Florida State. I didn’t know anyone at the Law School Library, so I just sent off my letter to the Duke Law Library, addressed “to whom it may concern” and I used Mrs. Paisley as a reference.

I was working on a Sunday when I spotted a letter from the Duke University Law Library addressed to Mrs. Paisley. I hadn’t mentioned anything to her yet and I thought I had better. I found Mrs. Paisley and let her know I had used her name. Instead of being upset, she was pleased: “Oh, Bob, I’m so glad you did. You don’t know this, but I used to work at the Duke University Library.” The next thing I knew, I had an offer to work at the library for 20 hours per week. Duke went out of its way to take care of me. I had never been to the campus until I arrived and I fell in love with it.

During the next year — the winter and spring of 1970 — the country was still in turmoil in Vietnam. There were going to be major marches in Washington and the Law School, and the faculty took a vote to allow students to participate in the spring political campaigns. They gave students the option to take finals at the end of summer, instead of May.

The Law School decided to freeze all loans and scholarships so no one would be unjustly impacted. I received a letter saying they had raised tuition and my loan was frozen, but they were going to give me a scholarship to cover tuition. It was only two or three hundred dollars, but I thought it was terrific. I was not a “law journal” student and yet the school continued to insure that I would be able to attend.

When I graduated, I went off to the Army and paid off my loan … even though in the early years of my legal career I worked for the government, I have made gifts every year since I’ve graduated. In my mind the biggest donation I’ve given to Duke are my two daughters, Sarah and Deb (Trinity ’03 and Pratt ’05).

My oldest daughter, Sarah, applied for early decision before she ever visited Duke. We later visited campus on one of those perfect fall days — the wind shifted, the humidity disappeared, it was alive and sunny. When Sarah found out she was admitted, she was ecstatic. Sarah graduated in 2003 from Trinity with a degree in psychology and is now a lawyer in Chicago. My younger daughter, Deb, received an engineering degree from Pratt in 2005, and she’s now in a joint-degree program between Fuqua and the Nicholas School of the Environment. While Sarah was an undergraduate she continued the family tradition and worked at the Law Library for a semester.

Do you recall the amount of your tuition and living expenses?
I began my education in a junior college, which cost $100 a trimester. Florida State was $150 a quarter, and the tuition at the Law School ran from $1,700 to $2,100 a year during the time I attended. My first year at Duke, I lived in a dorm called Trent located near the hospital, which serves as administrative space today. Trent was a co-ed graduate dorm. With the hospital close by, I ate some of my meals at the hospital cafeteria. My second year I split an apartment on Lakewood with two fellow law students. In my last year I split a house on Lancaster by East Campus with three other law students.

What were you involved in while attending the Law School?
I played in the law school softball league and also wrote an editorial column for the Devil’s Advocate. The year we graduated was the year of the Cambodian incursion. There were major demonstrations on campus, and the University was closed down. There was even fear that the portrait of President Nixon, which hung in the Moot Courtroom on the second floor, would be seized and burned. It was taken down and hidden in a closet. Out of a class of 150, there were seven women in our class, a number that kept on growing during our three years at the Law School.

Can you talk little bit about your career and practice areas?
After the Army, I worked for the state of Florida, and then moved to Chicago with the Department of Health, Education & Welfare (HEW). In 1978 I became an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. I spent nine years in that office, and it’s where I really learned how to be a trial lawyer. When I left the U.S. Attorney’s office, I joined an intellectual property boutique firm and have been doing IP work ever since.

What would you tell someone who is thinking of attending Duke, but might require financial aid?
I would tell them if your dream is to practice law, you could not attend a finer school. The size makes it a perfect place to know your classmates, build camaraderie, and share ideas that you can carry with you for your entire life.

Why do you give to Duke Law School?
I paid off my loans, career doors were opened, and it allowed me to have my family. The Law School provided me with the education and experience I needed to succeed. Giving back to the law school in the form of donations is the least I can do to give other students the opportunity I have had.
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