Robert G. Seaks was just 18 years old and newly graduated from Gettysburg College when he started his legal studies at Duke in the late summer of 1931. He was much younger than his classmates, but he excelled at Duke, finishing at the top of his class all three years; he remains the youngest Duke Law graduate, at age 21, to win the Willis Smith Prize for graduating first in his class. He served as editor of the law journal and as a research assistant to some of the top faculty scholars.
However busy he was with his studies — and, in his upper years, his social life — Seaks found the time to write home regularly to his parents, George, a physician, and Myrna Miller Seaks of Harrisburg, Pa. His letters are lively and descriptive, detailing the demands and sheer grind of law school, the characters in his class and in Durham, and the financial trials facing most students and their families during the Great Depression.
Seaks’ son, Terry, recently made two remarkable gifts to Duke Law, both reflective of the lasting affection his father maintained for the school that launched his illustrious career in law: He established the Robert G. Seaks LL.B. 1934 Professorship; and he shared copies of his father’s letters home with the Goodson Law Library. The correspondence — more than 55 letters and postcards in total — offers an intimate portrait of a young man’s experience of law school during a time of transformation for the nation and for Duke, which was slowly evolving from a small Southern school into an institution of permanence and national consequence.
For those who have since followed in Seaks’ footsteps through Duke Law’s classrooms and hallways, the letters also affirm that some things never change.
Dear Mother & Father,
Sept. 23, 1931
By this time, I am perfectly contented here. Law school is very hard but with diligence it can be accomplished. And it is far more interesting than you would guess. Already I have picked up legal terms and am thinking legally. … Still, one gives up all outside interests and lives in a seemingly dreadful routine.
Last night I met Dean Miller, the admittedly foremost authority on criminal law. The law faculty are, at least my instructors are, very young men. I believe at least four of them are under thirty-five, the other two little older. But they are marvelously brilliant with crystal clear minds. Duke is following the country-wide tendency for younger men instead of older fogies who bask in the holy aura of experience, and are accordingly blinded by it.
Oct. 27, 1931
Referring to beautiful sights, I might mention Duke’s Chapel, which I might imagine will hold its own with any similar building in the country. It is almost completed externally now but a few remaining cables and booms yet marring its beauty. … It is a most beautiful and impressive sight with the white tower illuminated. Of course it stands as a monument to God from James B. Duke, philanthropist. It seems almost a shame that I accidentally noticed a case to-night in law entitled Duke v. Duke. In this case the monument-to-God giving James B. sues his wife for adultery and she counters with eight separate charges of adultery against James B. I have a notion to tack it up on the bulletin board to see how quickly I get kicked out of school.
Oct. 29, 1931
I am very busy just now. … The reason I am rushed for time is because of an impending examination in Torts. I guess I have told you that we have two or three times been threatened with exams “within a week” but they never materialize. This time though it looks as though Mr. Maggs* means business and all the boys are cramming. Maggs, who as I told you is the terrible tough Prof., has been raising the roof for a week. He has been bawling all the students out in his best manner. All the other Profs. have been fairly decent. Maggs is the only one who does not limit his field of criticism. He is liable to bust out at any time with a harangue or walk out of class in disgust.
*Later in the year, Seaks reported that Professor Douglas B. Maggs “is now transformed into our most congenial professor.”
Nov. 24, 1932
I guess that you saw the glorious news in the papers. Last weekend, Duke beat its deadly enemy, Carolina, for the first time since 1893. In 1897 the rivalry was discontinued until 1922 so that is not as bad as it sounds. As a result of this glorious victory, the Duke campus was quite in a row last week end. Drunks predominated and the city of Durham was in the hands of undergraduates for a while. … Quite a day for dear old Duke.
The undergraduates at Duke pulled a neat trick. They dug a grave Saturday night in the campus at the union entrances and put up a large headstone on which was written, ‘Here lies Carolina. Died Nov. 19, 1932.’ The grave was covered with flowers and ferns and two candles kept vigil at the grave.
March 5, 1933
Seaks tells his parents of his time-intensive work as one of four editors of the first volume of the Duke Bar Association Journal. He assisted Donald Bruce Mansfield ’33.
When that journal finally comes off the press, I am going to go up with a bang — in other words go on a toot that should land me in jail if the cops are on their toes. …
Being Mansfield’s assistant in editing the B.A.J. has at least brought me some fun. It means that I sit in at Board of Governors’ meetings with four faculty men and Mansfield and myself where everything written is gone over for possible mistakes. The faculty (Dean Miller is one) is downright kiddish when in a meeting of that kind. I like to sit in those four hour meetings and hear the faculty tear to pieces the student work for the publication. Almost everyone has to rewrite at least ten times. I also get to know the faculty and get a consequent drag with them. I am looking forward to getting a scholarship to some big school to take advanced work when I get out of here. But that kind of thing is almost impossible to get. Mansfield is now trying to get something out of Yale.
Seaks did, eventually, become a Sterling Fellow at Yale.
March 18, 1933
I am having my troubles as well as the nation is having theirs. I raced through my February money by the middle of the month and lived on borrowed money for the latter part of the month. So I badly needed your check when it finally came. But the local bank could not cash it because Pennsylvania banks had some kind of a moratorium. They took it for collection and told me they thought it would come through by today (Monday). In the meantime, of course, all banks have been closed, and I still don’t have any money. I hopefully await next Thursday when, supposedly, there will be no longer a federal bank holiday. North Carolina took a 3 day holiday at a special meeting of officials yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. If neither is extended I can get my money then. Mother Pendergast* has been feeding me on credit for the last two weeks. Every school boy is in the same jam and I imagine that the university will have to start operating on credit. …
Anyhow I still work hard. My note for the Bar Journal has not yet been completed. Something is always wrong with it every time I hand it in. The Bar Journal will come out very soon and I will send you a copy. You are eligible for the Nobel Award for 1933 if you can get a hazy idea what I am writing about. My note is getting more obtuse daily. It will be a great relief to get it off my hands.
* “Mother Pendergast” offered two meals daily to about 12 law students at her farmhouse near campus. “The quality of the food is good, but the quantity is staggering,” Seaks wrote to his parents.
April 28, 1933
While you may not be aware of it, I am afraid that you have an athlete of the first caliber in the family. In other words, all my present interests outside of law books are taken up with the intramural indoor baseball league composed of some fifty odd teams grouped into five leagues, and the greatest of these teams is the law school’s. Managed, captained and coached by Rollicking Rollo Bergeson, its star performers are Mosby Perrow at shortstop, Bruce Mansfield at third base, and hard-hitting, slick-fielding Seaks at second base. The rest of the team is, I’m [afraid], not up to par and the first two league starts have been lost. But this afternoon, with a revamped team, we are out to seek revenge. The big game comes next week when we play our annual game with the medical school. Unfortunately, the preachers are in another league and we will get no chance at those rascals.
And this coming Saturday comes the big blow-off when co-captains Seaks and Perrow lead Phi Delta Phi against our competitors, the Iredell Club, for the historic keg of beer, terms cash. Following the game, the two teams repair to a specially rented cabin to dispose of the keg of beer and pretzels, on a loser pay all basis.
May 14, 1933
School is drawing to a close to no one’s sorrow, especially not to mine. We have only three more weeks of classes to be followed by two weeks of exams. That means very intensive review. The professors (I wonder if they are human) tell us to review intensively, as the next month may be an important one in our lives. In the same breath, they assign a little extra work in order to try to finish their quota of work.
Oct. 16, 1933
… As all good football fans know, yesterday was a gala day for Duke. The fabulous salary paid to Mr. [Wallace] Wade was shown to be justified because he started bringing home the bacon. Duke stepped into the national football picture by doing what hasn’t been done since 1930; what was done before that only in 1926. The only two teams to lick Tennessee in the last seven years both went to the Rose Bowl and won there. With a veteran team, pronounced the best in the East, Tennessee took a sound drubbing from Duke before 25,000 paying customers.
Nov. 22, 1933
Since I have gotten back I seem to have taken a new lease on studying and intellectual life. In and out of class I argue with Mr. Craven* who deplores what he terms my ‘crusader spirit.’ That old iron man rather enjoys my futile attempts to badger him in Public Utilities. A small class makes a lot of discussion possible. As the only person in a class of seven who is not a deep-dyed conservative, Mr. Craven has only me to battle. Sometimes he lets fly at me as though I were the embodiment of all the spirit of liberalism and he usually walks off with a glorious victory. …
Chief campus interest is centered about the Duke-Carolina classic which comes off tomorrow. … Student enthusiasm results in a lot of noise until seven o’clock in the morning. Last night there seems to have been quite a to-do about the place. Carolina had a ram which they proposed to lead about the field tomorrow during halftime pulling a coffin in which Duke was to lie. Loyal Dukites last night went over to Chapel Hill, painted him Blue, Duke color. Also painted were Carolina’s gym, stadium, etc. Carolina came back one hundred strong at five o’clock in the morning. A bit of Carolina colored paint was slapped about the campus. However there was no vandalism; that is to say, no painting of anything valuable.
Duke is now in possession of Carolina’s ram and most of the signs strewn about their campus imploring to beat Duke. Reports have all Chapel Hill ready to come to Duke tonight to keep up the battle. The result is a booming business for Durham fruit stores with rotten tomatoes going for twice the price of good tomatoes.
*Professor Leslie Craven was a leading specialist in utilities regulation.
Jan. 16, 1934
I don’t think I’ve told you yet that the future of the Railroads in this country practically rests in my palm. You see, I’m working for the government. Mr. Roosevelt is the big noise and he has Mr. Eastman (federal coordinator of U.S. railroads) working for him; Mr. Eastman has Leslie Craven of the Duke Law faculty working for him drafting a comprehensive act; Mr. Craven has me working for him. It’s a nice looking set-up but I’m afraid it pyramids rather sharply. … All I seem to be needed for is a little hack work, digging up and briefing cases. But I have read Craven’s comprehensive plan for the future of U.S. railroads. He is going to propose a radically new type of governmental control. All this is exceeding[ly] confidential. … Only us big people in the know are informed as to what is coming off. So you’ll see that I’m lugging government secrets about in my pockets.
April 14, 1934
… Now as to what I have been doing. It makes me sore even to write about it. I’ve been writing a five or six page note for the faculty magazine called Law and Contemporary Problems. I will be the only student contributor in this issue. The issue is devoted to the entry of the federal government into the housing field. The authorities in the field are all contributing articles and I’ll have my little note in the rear of the magazine. The magazine will have at least a 2 or three thousand circulation amongst all interested in slum dclearance and re-housing. My subject is one on which nothing has ever been written and which should be an important one. … What I’m sore about is the fact that I’ve been up to all hours writing the damn thing since before Easter. Three nights in a row I worked until after two, one night getting to bed at five o’clock. The gentleman under whom I wrote it adamantly refused to give me a free hand in my writing. He constantly insisted on rewriting for reasons with which I was not in sympathy. So it won’t be written as I wished it to be. … but while I feel a certain pained dignity, it is nice to know that even my little note of five pages will be perused by quite a few people and that the subject on which I wrote looms large on the horizon. … I’ll send you a copy as soon as it comes out.
May 7, 1934
I get sadder and sadder as graduation approaches. There are quite a few things that I hate to leave down here.
A bit of news: A wired request came in to Law & Contemporary Problems several weeks ago to reprint my note. The author graciously wired consent at the magazine’s expense. So I’m on page 4 of the Real Estate and Builder’s Guide or some such magazine that I never heard of. I sure would like to know just who rates those first three pages in that magazine. I believe there must have been some favoritism shown.
Here is a less juicy bit of news: I still have no job. Albeit my fading hopes have not yet definitely faded. I’m going to see the Dean and all his professors again this afternoon.
More bad news: I’ve been out of money for quite some while.
Good news: I got the nicest looking gabardine suit you could find at what my good friend who works in the haberdashery assures me was a real buy. …
Dad might as well resign himself to the fact that it will cost him the Bank of England to come down here [for graduation]. I only hope that I can get a job and stop costing him.
After law school, Robert Seaks negotiated power contracts for the Tennessee Valley Authority and served as assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and as special assistant to Attorney General Tom Clark in the U.S. Justice Department. For the last 30 years of his career he specialized in regulatory work at Wheeler & Wheeler in Washington, D.C. Seaks died in 1992, at the age of 79. It was his dear friend and fellow World War II code-breaker, Justice John Paul Stevens, who reconnected Terry Seaks, now Professor of Economics, Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, with Duke Law when the justice spoke at Hooding 2012. Terry Seaks received his PhD in Economics at Duke University in 1972.