Monday, April 27, 2015

A Remembrance of Stanley Kutler, from Michal Belknap

[I've invited several of Stanley I. Kutler's students to share their memories of their mentor.  Here is a remembrance from Michal R Belknap, Earl Warren Professor of Law, California Western School of Law.  Professor Belknap received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1973.  His dissertation was “The Smith Act and the Communist Party: A Study in Political Justice."]

Michal R. Belknap
In the beginning there were only four of us.  When Stan Kutler arrived at Wisconsin in 1964 as an associate professor the department cobbled together a seminar for him. Bill Wiecek, was a new Harvard JD and I had just received my bachelors degree from UCLA.  Both of us had expressed some interest in law and the Constitution.  The department gave us to Stan, along with Susan Previant Lee, who would eventually abandon history for newspaper writing,  and Gordon Bakken, who still had a few credits to go to finish his BA at Madison.  Not a lot to work with.  But with the energy and infectious enthusiasm  for which he would become noted (and a great deal of the hard work he demanded from us), Stan Kutler managed to turn this unpromising little band into a group of pretty productive historians.

Two years later Bill, Gordon, and I had all passed our prelims.  They were soon well on the way to writing their dissertations.  I, on the other hand, was off for a two-year hitch in the Army, the result of an ROTC scholarship that had helped to pay for my undergraduate education. When I returned, Bill and Gordon were heading out to first jobs, Bill at Missouri and Gordon at Cal State Fullerton.  About all I had to show for the intervening two years was an Army Commendation Medal for (forgive me Stan) protecting Richard Nixon. 

While I was away, things  had changed quite a bit.  The tiny band I had joined in 1965 had grown into a large and vigorous seminar.  As its senior member, I was supposed to be writing a dissertation.  But I did not even have a topic.  I started proposing ones I thought would be interesting and Stan started shooting them down, one after another.  Then one day he took me to lunch.  The Chicago Conspiracy trial was dominating the news, and he suggested political trials might make a good topic.  That sounded much more exciting than the ones I had been proposing.  But after a week or two of reading, I concluded it was just too big.  There did seem to be a lot of parallels, however, between what was then going on in Chicago and the 1949 conspiracy trial of the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States.  Unlike most of my previous ideas (which in all honesty were duds), that one appealed to Stan.  Little did either of us realize that he had guided me to a topic that would come to dominate my academic career and to which, after a book and numerous articles on Dennis v. United States, I have now returned to write a revisionist book attacking my own earlier work.

While immensely productive, my mentor-student relationship with Stan Kutler was not always an easy one.  In 1970 the history TAs went out on strike.  Because I was on a fellowship and had not been a TA since before I left for the Army, I was ineligible for membership in the union.  But my roommate was a shop steward, and when he asked me to participate in the picketing, I agreed.  I did so  despite being aware that Professor Kutler was opposed to the strike.  I considered joining the TAs who were picketing 4:00 a.m food delivers to the Lakeshore Dorms, a safe demonstration of solidarity with the union that I knew he would never ever learn about. But that seemed like a rather cowardly way to demonstrate my support for the strikers.  So instead I joined a group of  TAs who were picketing the building in which Stan’s office was located.  To put it mildly, that did not go over well with my mentor.  After reading me the riot act, he threw me out of his office.  For several agonizing hours, I was sure my academic career was over.  Then the phone rang.  It was Stan, calling to apologize.

Rather than being over, our relationship grew closer and more productive as the years passed.  It seemed Stan was always coming up with ways to make my ideas into something better.  In my book on Dennis, I had included a fragmented and unexciting discussion of the disciplinary actions taken against the defendants’ lawyers.  In Stan’s hands that subject became a chapter in his prize-winning book, The American Inquisition.  My dry academic monograph on the Court martial of Army Lieutenant William Calley for Vietnam’s My Lai Massacre inspired him to write an off-Broadway play. That too was a vast improvement on what I had done.

The last time I ever saw him, Stan was still at it.  Initially, he greeted my idea of doing a second book on Dennis with what could charitably be called extreme skepticism.  Later, although not in good health, he came all the way over from Madison to Milwaukee, where I was presenting a paper on the subject at the Marquette Law School.  We had dinner, and as always, he was full of suggestions about how I could improve what I was planning on doing.  That dinner was quintessentially Professor Stanley Kutler, and it is a memory I will treasure forever.

[Remembrances continue here.]