By Katie Vloet
Dec. 6, 2012
Fifty faculty members formed a semicircle in Hutchins Hall 250 on Thursday, waiting to pay tribute to their retiring colleague, J.J. White.
And waiting. And waiting. It was Prof. White's last class as a professor at the institution where he has taught since 1964—before any of his students and many of his fellow faculty members were born. And, by golly, he was going to teach, right until the last minute.
"It's like the pawn shop case...," he prompted a student. "Oh, yeah, the big problem is whether it falls under Article 9," the student responded, then sighed with visible relief as Prof. White nodded. The moment of Socratic method-inspired terror had passed.
And the day's class about the Uniform Commercial Code—a topic on which Prof. White is a leading authority—had ended. But the class went on, and the faculty waited some more.
View an image gallery from Prof. White's last class.
"Do you want to tell us anything about the, uh, format of the exam?" one student asked. Everyone laughed. Another student asked if it would be helpful to look at his previous exams that are on file in the library, since they are all from 1984 or earlier. "Katherine," Prof. White responded, "I'm not taking this course, I'm teaching it."
Finally, Dean Evan Caminker raised his hand, and Prof. White called on him.
"There are about four decades of students who came before you," Dean Caminker assured the students, "who had no more information than you do about what to expect from Prof. White's exams." The students and faculty, well aware of Prof. White's hard-earned reputation as a tough professor, all laughed.
Dean Caminker added, right before the faculty and students gave Prof. White an ovation during the Law School's traditional "clapping-out" ceremony: "I hope you have appreciated this opportunity to learn from one of the true masters."
Indeed, Prof. White, the Robert A. Sullivan Professor of Law, is one of the nation's top scholars in the field of commercial law. His book Uniform Commercial Code (with Summers and Hillman) is the most widely recognized treatise on the subject. He is also the author of several casebooks on commercial, bankruptcy, and contracts law.
Prof. White earned a BA, magna cum laude, from Amherst College and a JD, Order of the Coif, from Michigan Law ('62). After graduating, he practiced in Los Angeles. In 1964, he began as an assistant professor at Michigan, then was promoted to associate professor in 1967 and professor in 1969. From 1978 to 1981, he was associate dean of the Law School.
Throughout his nearly five decades on the faculty, he built a reputation not just as an expert in the field, but also as a tough, fair, and often very funny professor. Online professor guides from former students describe him as "entertaining, curmudgeonly," "one of the best professors I've had at the Law School," "he puts you through the wringer each time he calls on you in class," but he also "truly cares about you as a student and person."
And one former student summed up Prof. White this way: "Hard. Fair. Brilliant." And now we can add: Retired.
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