Riding Off in Style: A Student Tribute to Professor Catharine Wells 

BC Law lost one of its giants a few weeks ago as Professor Catharine Wells passed away over spring break. She was a graceful, thoughtful, and yet commanding presence at the Law School. While there was a lovely tribute piece to her from BC Law Magazine, which included many quotes and stories from her former colleagues, there has not been a tribute from those she impacted most over her decades-long career: her students. I wanted to include some quotes and stories from students, present and past, who could properly convey what type of a person, leader, educator–and most of all human being–Professor Wells was, and what she meant to them. 

The idea came to me as I walked by her old office in the East Wing the other day. I noticed a small bouquet sitting outside of her door. It wasn’t an over-the-top assortment of flowers, but it still caught my attention because of how much it reminded me of Professor Wells. It stood there in a kind of dignified, not in-your-face type of way. Its grace reminded me of a particular scene from my 1L year that I still remember fondly, and now with some sadness, of course. 

I personally had Professor Wells just once for Torts my 1L Spring semester, which coincided with the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. Classes had all gone remote and pass-fail, and as the pandemic worsened, our enthusiasm for learning was not at a high point. Students were looking forward to summer and were grateful to have nearly survived their 1L years. Many were apprehensive about job prospects and their summer internships (some things never change) — all on top of worrying about the health of their families during an anxiety-ridden time. 

To say the least, reviewing the exceptions to but-for causation and proximate cause was not very high on the priority list for our virtual Torts classroom. Professor Wells knew this all too well. And so, as we were wrapping up our last class of the semester, she casually delivered what was easily the most touching speech a professor has ever delivered to me and many others:

I do have a few things I want to say to you.

First of all, I want you to know, I know how difficult this semester has been for many of you, not all of you, but many of you. And I have admired the fact that you’ve come to class, you’ve done the reading, and that you’ve taken it very seriously under difficult circumstances. And I want to say to you that that takes character, and that takes real commitment to your own professional excellence, and I applaud you for that.

It’s also been hard for me. I don’t think I ever understood how much it means to me to be in the presence of students, and feel that wonderful energy that comes from all of you. I miss the person-to-person interactions a lot, and I do hope that when things are back to normal, you will stop by my office and say hello. So that is one thing I wanted to say to you.

I also want to say to you…

I think I understand what this has been like for you. I belong to a generation that was equally uncertain as the uncertainty you’re facing now. We were worried about nuclear bombs. We lived in a country that was torn apart over an inexplicable war. Police were shooting at students on campuses. We were demoralized by racial injustices. Confused by rapidly changing gender roles and sexual attitudes. Jobs were very few, and meaningful jobs were almost nonexistent.

So, I think I can empathize with you fairly well. So, I want to say to you now, what I never, ever, would’ve believed then.

The uncertainty that you feel is a great gift. It will enable you to engage life on your own terms, and to find genuine happiness. You are bright, hardworking, and well educated. There is always a place for all of you in this world. For each of you, there is a future out there. You have a great deal to give so seize the future, and don’t be afraid.

The world is changing really rapidly, but our problems are the seeds of transformation. You are its embodiment and its soul. So trust yourselves, and the universe, to forge a new world. One that’s more sustainable, one that’s more just, and a place of satisfaction and meaning for yourselves.

I think what I am saying… it may seem to you, at this time and place in your life, that nothing’s gonna work, it’s all gonna fall apart, but in crisis, there’s opportunity. And it will allow you to move forward to build the kind of world that you want to build.

As we sat there in our kitchens and childhood rooms across different time zones, Professor Wells had managed to touch us. Looking around the Zoom room, you saw sniffles, tears, and a few shocked faces. Where in the world did that come from?? Professor Wells had turned our Section 1 group chat filled with exhausted, checked-out 1Ls into a tear fest worthy of a primetime Spanish telenovela.  

I can only imagine how many other students Professor Wells impacted in her decades of teaching. I hope that the stories and quotes below highlight some of that. While we may not see her again on the Newton campus in this lifetime, we can rest assured that her influence will be felt for much longer in the careers of her students. I remember the heartfelt messages and tributes being sent between our section classmates a few weeks ago. Seeing similar reactions of her latest 1L students reassured me that we weren’t the only ones who felt this way. It is obvious that Professor Wells’ influence will not be waning anytime soon.  

A special thanks goes to Danny Abrahim for interviewing and compiling these quotes below, and to John Ferraro for going back into Panopto and transcribing one of the most memorable moments of law school for Professor Wells’ Section 1 Spring 2020 class. They deserve more credit for this piece than I do. 

Sarah Jane Forman – Class of 2005

I had Torts with Wells during my 1L year in 2002. Law school was a shock – I was an older art student who didn’t know anything about law. BC at the time was very corporate, conservative, and Big Law focused. Wells would invite students over for a potluck at her house. She created a space and community to make people feel comfortable. This was especially meaningful to students of color in a white-dominated institution like BC. Wells told me those who tend to do well in law school come from families with lawyers and to stop comparing myself to others. She reminded me why I came to BC in the first place and made it a little more bearable.

I remember Wells’ words to this day, twenty years later. They’re lessons I teach to my kids. 

Wells was my only female professor and one of few who incorporated Critical Feminist and Race Theory into her class. It was the first time that I – a woman and student of color – was exposed to that kind of thinking. She taught us things like what ‘the average reasonable person’ is and told us to scrutinize them through critical lenses. Some people had negative reactions to that, mainly white male students. Complaints were made. But Wells was unbothered. She was stalwart. She told us it was okay to question the rules, which was refreshing. I was inspired to take Critical Race Theory as a class later on.

Students used to IM (instant message) during class and make snarky comments like, ‘Why are we learning this, it’s unrelated to Torts.’ But Wells had a lot of gravitas – an attitude that said, “This is important whether you like it or not.’ She was ahead of her time. Other professors weren’t challenging foundational questions like the morality of law, who the legal system really supports, societal forces at play, etc. Wells did, and she was intentional about the way she taught us torts.

She was mindful of the diverse backgrounds in class and never hid the ball like other professors. She made a particular effort with students of color.

Robert Eskridge – Class of 2005

Wells was one of four professors who stuck out during my law school years in the early 2000’s. In fact, she was the first law school professor I ever had, at 9 AM on Wednesday’s and Friday’s. She met students halfway and thoroughly prepared us for Torts. A lot of my career now is focused on what Wells taught me about civil suits, torts, hardcore American principles, embedded philosophies and morals in the law. All these things come into play at the New York Stock Exchange, where I evaluate risks and liabilities for people and governments.

She was a white woman but the second person in my entire life to teach me about Critical Race Theory. The first was a professor at my college, Lisa Hajjar, who actually inspired me to go to law school. Wells picked up where Hajjar left off. She taught us how the Reasonable Person standard should not always mean a white male person. I spoke to her about a CRT anthology I had began reading in college and Wells actually knew some of the authors and primary thinkers and leaders of CRT. She was a genuine thought leader and academic.

This was the time when people first switched to laptops. Our class was peppered – and I mean peppered – with black students. There were 6 of us in a class of white people. People would start complaining over chatrooms and we would just look at each other like, ‘get ready for the CRT ride.’ We had white people from Tennessee, Alaska, the Deep South – Wells introduced CRT to all these students who had never heard of it before, 20 years ago.

One time, we read a case with questionable racial overtones and Wells asked if anyone picked up on anything. I raised my hand but she picked on someone else, a white student, who said, unsure, ‘The Defendant was wearing a raincoat.’ She picked on me next and I explained how the Court described the Defendant as a ‘tall Negro man,’ presupposing that he was going to engage in criminal activity. An argument ensued between my classmates about how this could not be possible.

I remember the dinner Wells invited us to. I made crab cakes, stuffed mushrooms and asparagus. The dogs started fighting and Wells commented, ‘That’s why we call them bitches.’

My mom raised me as a single parent. She told me that one of the most memorable conversations she’s had with a law professor was when Wells, at my graduation ceremony, told her how proud she was of me. My mom finally felt like someone could relate to her pride in single handedly raising a son and watching him walk across the stage in purple stripes.

She was always happy, always giggling and always laughing. But when she got down to business, she knew what she was talking about. She was gracious and so kind to her students. When she first walked into class, she came in a few minutes late and we all thought she was another student. She was a livewire at 9 AM.

During our third or fourth class, Wells cold-called me. I was so nervous, I ran out of the classroom and threw up. She made it a point to take care of me and never called on me again. She wanted us to get familiar with cold calling and not to scare us like some other professors. Now, ‘cold calls’ happens every single day of my life on the job. Wells gave me my first experience with that.

Matt Coughlin – Class of 2022

My background is in Philosophy and Wells has a PhD in it from Stanford. I spoke with her a few times about it during my 1L Spring, when she taught me Torts, and eventually did an Independent Study with her. She was very happy that someone was interested in philosophy. She was editing a book about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and judicial philosophy at the time.

She tried to give some philosophical insight in class and in my meetings with her, something you usually don’t get with professors in law school. She would delve into the way judges formulate and change their thinking over time. Other professors usually just go, ‘Here’s the rule, here’s how it works’ and that’s that.’ Wells went deeper.

She could take any legal concept or judicial decision and spin it on its head. Picture a 3D object spinning around on a digital platform – that’s how Wells thought. She could take something theoretical apart, explore it from different angles, delve into its historical background and its origins and break all that down into simpler terms.

She was very lively in our one-on-ones. She could jump into topics and burst into mini-lectures about philosophy and the law. I wish I had more time to talk with her. She pushed me to look beyond the private sector for work.

We were overwhelmed by all that was happening during our 1L year so it was helpful to get to know Wells over the course of our meetings. I saw firsthand how much she cared about what she taught, and how genuinely excited she would get about her subjects, especially when we spoke about her book. She’d light up seeing someone enjoy learning about philosophy, torts or law.

Nate Robinson – Class of 2022

She was literally brilliant, a genius. When I spoke to her, it was clear that it was on her heart and mind to make it a mission to make sure I was as comfortable as possible. She wanted to be a friend, and she felt like an ally.

She knew the law and professed it clearly for anyone who was actually willing to listen.

Elizabeth Gooen (over email) – Class of 2022

I was a student in Professor Wells’ Section 1 Torts class in Spring 2020 and her American Legal Theory class in Fall 2020.

Professor Wells’ passion for social and racial justice, equity, and feminism really shone through most brightly in her American Legal Theory course. She was well-suited to leading seminar discussions. She had a realistic but ultimately hopeful vision and was incredibly passionate to share her wealth of knowledge. Professor Wells also had a quirky humor that made her classes unique—whether it was her Torts hypotheticals that included keeping tigers in backyards or sharing biting commentary on law, she was one of a kind. A number of memorials have listed out her scholarly accomplishments, her fierce feminism, and her commitment to civil rights; all of those came through in her teaching. However, most of all, Professor Wells was incredibly empathetic and kind to her students.

I distinctly remember coming to her Torts office hours, pre-pandemic, to share my excitement that we were both Seven Sisters alumnae. Professor Wells attended Wellesley College and I attended Smith College, so I felt an instant affinity with her. I remember sharing my frustrations about law school. In return, she listened, she related, and she gave me advice. She shared insights from her own life and career as well as a lot of wisdom that day, particularly about navigating this profession as a woman.

Any piece honoring Professor Wells by someone in our Section needs to include those parting words she shared with us. They incapsulate a pretty unforgettable moment. 

I already planned to take that advice as I’m beginning my own career as a civil rights attorney, but now I’ll also do so to honor her legacy.


Izzy Ercan is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact him at ercani@bc.edu.

One thought on “Riding Off in Style: A Student Tribute to Professor Catharine Wells 

  1. These comments are a wonderful tribute to my dear cousin. I’ve known her all my life, but only as a cousin/friend and often several years would pass that we didn’t see each other at all. These comments give such insight to her professional life and how well thought of she was by her students. It is comforting to know she’ll be remembered by others so very fondly.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s