The Legacy of Newell Blakely
written by Leah Gross
(In the mid-1980’s, the University of Houston Law Center, set aside some funds to draft a comprehensive history of the school. Although that history never came to pass, transcripts of an interview to which Newell Blakely had submitted at the time were preserved. This story relies heavily on that transcript).
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He was the consummate law professor. Statesmanlike and dignified, he strode into class and started his ritual. First, he turned toward the blackboard, and with large strokes, erased whatever markings were present. Second, he removed his watch and placed it on the lectern. Then he started his lecture. With regard to students, his rules were simple: attend class, be prepared and stand when making your presentation. Students were addressed as “Mr.” or “Ms.,” for he emphasized that an attorney should not only know the law, but he must engage in professional conduct as well. Professor Newell Blakely practiced and preached ethics-before it was even fashionable.
He was the consummate dean. Discrete and persuasive, his studied and thoughtful proposals to carry out his vision for the fledgling school were, for the most part, quickly adopted by the faculty. He was an open, honest and diligent administrator. He demanded excellence from his faculty, just as he had demanded excellence from his students. With his courtly manner, he charmed alumni and donors to make the financial commitment to give the funds to start the Houston Law Review and to build the foundation that led to the accreditation of the University of Houston School of Law in the Association of American Law Schools. With regard to donors to the law school, his rules were simple: safeguard the gift, which was entrusted to him, and carry out the donors’ wishes.
He was the consummate scholar/practitioner. His work affected every practicing lawyer in Texas. He shared his ideas, his thoughts and his opinions with anyone who asked. Newell Blakely was active in the drafting of the Texas Penal Code enacted by the legislature in 1973, in the Texas Rules of Civil Evidence, promulgated by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1983, and in the Texas Rules of Criminal Evidence, promulgated by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1986. With regard to scholarship, his rules were simple: be thorough and concise; and if you want people to understand a complex subject, plainly relay to them the topic at hand.
Although Newell Blakely’s philosophy on the teaching and scholarship of the law was grounded in simplicity, he was not a simple man.
Newell Blakely was an Arkansan by birth, and a Texan by life. His father was a banker, and then a state liquidator of a failed bank. His mother was a housekeeper and kept busy raising Newell, his brother and his sister. He arrived at the University of Houston School of Law on a frigid day in January 1949 at the invitation of then-dean, A.A. White. A health ailment had exempted the young Blakely from military service during World War II, and instead of serving his country in the battlefields, he dedicated himself towards getting an education-a venture for which he wasn’t entirely successful on his first attempt. “I dropped out of Ouachita College in Arkadelphia after one year because I wasn’t doing so well. I played softball in the afternoons when I should have been in class, and things of that sort. I was not a good student,” Blakely once recalled.
After returning to Ouachita and earning his baccalaureate degree, he earned his Ph.M. in speech and drama at the University of Wisconsin. He decided to attend law school, because he thought, “In law, you’ve got a bunch of rules; it is all set out, and I could avoid problems. I could just read the rules, and I would know the law and that would be that. Of course, there are more problems than there are answers in law, but it turned out to be a wonderful change.”
After attending law school at the University of Texas, he practiced law in Harlingen-until he received a phone call from A.A. White, the UH Law School’s first dean. White invited Blakely to be the third man on the faculty-earning $350 a month.
Professor John Mixon ’56, a student and a colleague of Blakely for more than 30 years, remembered, “Newell was a complex person. He had strong opinions and had expectations of a high level of performance from himself in preparation for class, and he expected his students to be just as prepared as he was.”
In 1957, Blakely was named dean. No faculty search committee was named. Although the University of Houston’s vice-president and dean of faculties, Clanton Williams, was a one-man search committee, Blakely’s teaching style and classroom demeanor quickly earned a reputation-or cult status-which lasted for the four decades that he taught at the law school. In the 60’s, Blakely was simply known as “The Blake” and classmates urged those students who had enrolled in his famous evidence classes to “Take the Blake.” During the ’70s, after the release of The Paper Chase, Blakely was likened to “Professor Kingsfield”-the irrepressible, take-no-prisoners, be prepared professor. Because of his tough standards (and even tougher exams) students who graduated in the ’80s called him “Newell the Cruel.” In 1987, Dean Blakely thought it was time to retire from official teaching duties, but continued to teach part-time as Emeritus Professor of Law until his real retirement in 1990.
Blakely as Dean
During his tenure as dean, Blakely’s vision was of elevating the school. Blakely’s first goal was to improve and enhance the instructional program-but it presented a special challenge for the part-time division. “Our philosophy was for a first-rate legal education, day and night, and against a second-rate education. We felt it very important to provide the working student with the opportunity for a legal education.” This meant faculty oftentimes taught the same course in the day and the evening, and exams for both classes were given on Saturdays. The fact that the part-time program remains, despite incidental calls for its termination, is a tribute to Blakely’s tenacity and his vision that legal education be open to all-despite socioeconomic circumstances. Many do not believe that his democratic principles of openness and chance-giving were merely because Blakely was a product of the depression, nor was it the fact that the student body mainly consisted of veterans who fought to preserve and protect our country-but because Blakely was a true egalitarian. “With Blakely, everyone had a chance to have a swing at the bat,” says Professor John Mixon.
Elevating the school was not limited to the principals of egalitarianism. One of the ways to preserve and improve the level of instruction was to provide an extra stipend for excellent teaching by asking alumni to pledge support for an alumni chair. “Each alumnus was asked to pledge payment in each of the following three years-1957, 1958, and 1959-in the amount of ten dollars multiplied times the number of years since graduation,” said Blakely. Blakely personally visited with all of the local alumni and traveled from Port Lavaca to Port Arthur to get support. “We had 220 alumni back then, and 92% made that pledge,” said Blakely. Alumni support has since never been so high. Success number one: the law alumni chair was established.
Faculty responded to Blakely’s method of setting the example of good teaching faculty. One of the policies the faculty established during Blakely’s tenure as dean, was that all faculty who did not have a graduate degree in law, would go away within a reasonably short time, in order to earn an LL.M. Success number two: highly qualified, educated teachers.
In 1963, the University of Houston became a state school. At the time, the University endowment was insignificant, and consequently, part of the regents and president’s jobs were to annually appeal to the community in order to meet the gap between expenses on the one hand and tuition income on the other. There was considerable opposition to the state adopting the university; especially since the law school was included in the adoption. Dean Blakely participated in the successful efforts to save the school. He made his presentation to the higher education coordinating board and argued effectively to keep the doors open. According to Blakely, “a special consequence of the University of Houston becoming a state school was the end of racial segregation at the university. As a private school, the university had excluded blacks. The dichotomy was strictly black/white-brown was a category that evolved later. We had always admitted Mexican-Americans, as we had never excluded Asians.”
The Houston Law Review was born while Blakely was in the dean’s office. At one point, when A.A. White was dean, he had suggested starting a student-run journal, but Blakely thought the student body was too small at that time to produce that cadre necessary for a successful review. But as the years passed and the school grew, a committee of the Student Bar Association visited Blakely to initiate a law review; he agreed. But their agreement was conditioned on raising an initial operating fund of $10,000. Twenty subscribers were found at $500 each after a few months and the law review was launched. Success number three: a student-run journal was established.
But one of the most important things to Newell Blakely was establishing a legal center downtown near the courthouse. Blakely said, “at first, the law school faculty supported the concept, but some of the faculty began to change their minds. The university administration was far from enthusiastic, although Colonel Bates on the Board of Regents supported it.” Blakely embellished upon A.A. White’s idea of the legal center, which was to move the law school’s permanent home on the university’s main campus to the downtown location, and circulated nearly 3,000 copies of a presentation on the idea that he made to Houston’s city council. “The faculty and I worked hard to make that dream come true,” Blakely recalled, but in the fall of 1964, UH President Hoffman told Blakely he could not approve the law school’s downtown location. Because of his disappointment on the failure to establish the legal center, Blakely submitted his resignation from the deanship later that year and returned to teaching full time.
Back to the Classroom
Blakely was hired as an assistant professor, then promoted to associate, and finally to full professor. After serving as dean, he returned to the classroom. In 1979, George Hardy promoted Blakely to law alumni professor-the professorship Blakely worked so hard to establish. As a beginning law teacher in 1951, Blakely taught evidence, contracts, sales, criminal law and criminal procedure. But when he reached the point when he could express his preference, he settled for three courses: evidence, criminal law, and procedure. His strongest preference, which is not a surprise to his thousands of students, was teaching evidence. “I required from students preparation for class, regular attendance and punctuality. I had students stand for their presentations, and to ask and answer questions.
Newell Blakely knew he was a good teacher-although he seemed to be above it. He took notice of the evidence, which established his teaching prowess. In an interview he gave in anticipation of the school’s fortieth anniversary celebration, he made available to the writer a file containing comments and letters from anonymous students and alumni praising his ability. He noted in the interview, the establishment of the Newell Blakely chair endowed at $1.5 million. He attached a copy of John Mixon’s speech delivered at the annual action in May 1988-praising Blakely as a fine teacher. He asked the interviewer to note the dedication in 20 Houston Law Review 11.
Professor John Mixon knew Newell Blakely on many different levels-as his student, his colleague, and his friend. First, Mixon said that Newell Blakely believed this school should graduate people by a trial of fire instead of pre-selection criteria. “He worked hard-he worked himself hard and worked his students hard. People had a sense of accomplishment when they passed his class,” said Mixon. “But Newell was charming. He never put students down and he never fussed at them. He was a person of great gentility. He was appreciated about all he ever wrote.”
Professor Sidney Buchanan recalls that in 1967, when he arrived, that Blakely wanted to have each student perform at the highest level in his classroom. “He had strong beliefs both in teaching students how to analyze legal issues and in helping students develop good habits in life: discipline, timeliness, and good study habits. All of those things that are valuable for students to practice in the real world.” Blakely was a strong believer in the Socratic method; asking questions of students and requiring them to respond in relation to the material.
Everyone can agree on one thing about Newell Blakely: the issue for which he held most fervently, and for which he held with the highest regard, was that of fairness. Yes, he was strongly committed to teaching a core curriculum of basic courses; and he was strongly committed to the maintenance of law center rules regarding student activities, behavior and class performance. But within those convictions, he believed that the rules be applied evenly, fairly and without exception.