PUBLISHED:June 06, 2011

Pages from the Past: Alumni remember Jack Latty

Former Dean Elvin R. LattyThe spring 2011 issue of The Duke Law Advocate included a look back at the tenure of Elvin “Jack” Latty as dean. (Read article.) Latty, who headed the Law School from 1957 to 1966, is credited by many for helping Duke climb to the forefront of legal academia. A number of alumni recalled Latty as a forceful (often unorthodox) recruiter of the best and brightest students, an excellent teacher, and a caring mentor who took a keen interest in placing Duke Law graduates in positions at top law firms.

The article by George Pianka '13 prompted several alumni to send in their own recollections of Duke Law School’s colorful dean.

Donald Mewhort ’65, who played basketball at Duke, admitted that his less-than-steller accounting grades led him to be apprehensive going into his 1962 admissions interview with Latty. “After putting me at ease with his warmth and in-depth knowledge of the basketball team’s successes, Dean Latty confessed to me he had 'a soft spot for athletes’,” wrote Mewhort. “I was a little surprised by his frankness and even more so when he said that I was admitted to the Law School’s class of 1965, and that I would be the recipient of a Bunyan S. Womble scholarship.”

Mewhort and Latty formed a special bond that culminated in Mewhort serving as Latty’s student assistant in his third year. “That included an office on faculty row and entailed doing his research, arranging parties at his beautiful Hope Valley home and preparing exam schedules (after which I needed to hide from my fellow students),” recalled Mewhort.

“I could not be more grateful to the man who made my very rewarding and satisfying career possible. There is certainly more than one ‘house that Jack built’.”

H. “Nick” Gaede Jr. ’64 shares that sentiment. He recalled being enthusiastically recruited by the likeable Latty during Gaede’s senior year at Yale. “As he did with many he told me, ‘Duke is where you need to be.’ … He was right. It was where I needed to be.”

Gaede asked Latty for advice and assistance a couple of years later when a professor and upper-classman suggested he apply to Bradley Arant in Birmingham, Ala., for a summer position — though doing so would result in his wife, Jo Anne, losing her job. Latty offered to call the senior partner, with whom he was acquainted, on Gaede’s behalf.

“Without another word, he asked his secretary to get the firm’s number and in a few minutes was on the phone with Mr. Arant,” wrote Gaede. “I, of course, only heard the dean’s side of the conversation, but I can say even my mother would have been embarrassed. When he hung up the phone he said, ‘Nick, you have a job starting in early June, good luck.’” Forty-eight years later, the Gaedes are still in Birmingham, where Nick Gaede is a partner at Bainbridge, Mims, Rogers & Smith.

James B. Craven, III ’67, said Latty was displeased by his desire to become a criminal defense lawyer.

“He very much wanted all of us, in the placement bulletin, to put as our career preference something along the lines of ‘Big business clients in a big city firm’,” said Craven. “He was visibly grieved when I told him I had zero interest in such pursuits, but instead wanted to represent criminal clients.” Craven still practices criminal law in Durham.

Craven recalled a chance encounter with Latty at a London theater in 1974. “I told him I was very much enjoying practicing law with Robinson Everett, but had gotten no closer to Wall Street than a federal jail in lower Manhattan,” said Craven. “He was a good soul and I miss him.”

Steven Naclerio ’71 shared a remembrance of Latty from 1969, one of the dean’s last years in the classroom.

“At that time, the dean was nearing the end of his long and distinguished career but a friend to us all nevertheless. He was teaching two courses one semester: basic corporations and securities law. He was also past the point of Socratic dialogue and would speak to us from notes written on yellow pads. He didn’t like to be interrupted.

“One day he came to class, pad in hand, and began his lecture. After a few moments, we realized he had brought the wrong papers and was giving the securities law lesson in corporations class. No one was sure what to do. Finally, one on the law review members who had worked closely with him coughed loudly and raised his hand. The dean was not happy but asked what the problem was. The situation was diplomatically explained.

“Dean Latty then looked up at the class, down at his notes and said, with some embarrassment: “Never get old!” He then walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. A general discussion ensued as to what to do next. Before a consensus had been reached, the door opened and Dean Latty reappeared with another yellow pad. Without explanation, he began reading the corporations lecture for the day as if the class had just started.

“As the years have gone by, the Dean’s advice about not getting old rang truer and truer. Unfortunately, and like everyone else, he was never able to give us a better alternative!”