Attorney Steven Harper spent two years' worth of Sundays interviewing history professor Richard Leopold about his extraordinary life.
by Steven J. Harper
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"The importance of fortuity in the unfolding of history — whether personal or of nations — cannot be overstated," he said in the distinctive baritone that barely betrayed his New York City origins.
I knew immediately that my former professor, Richard W. Leopold, was offering another gem from his treasures of accumulated wisdom — one of many provided during our weekly sessions in his Evanston nursing home room. Confined to a wheelchair, he spoke with such uncompromising clarity of thought and word that it was easy to forget he was almost 93 on the first day of our two-year conversation.
At that moment, he wanted to discuss his death.
"As I contemplate the end — as we all must at some point — I've been trying to determine whether I should give any direction concerning a memorial service. …" His voice trailed off before resuming with a practical concern: "I am worried that there aren't many left in the Northwestern history department who would know enough about me to say much. I certainly want anything said to be accurate."
Once a historian, always a historian, I thought.
Fortuity had certainly struck both of us that Labor Day 2004. I was visiting an old friend whose body had so completely forsaken him that he could no longer print his name, but whose mind remained razor sharp; he expressed concern that posterity would not play fairly with his life. Slowly, we moved forward — year by year, decade by decade — chronicling his existence. For the next two years of Sunday mornings, "beginning at 10 a.m. sharp," I engaged one of Northwestern's most distinguished educators and scholars. It was something like Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom's book about his relationship with his dying sociology professor), but so much more. On Thanksgiving evening, Nov. 23, 2006, Dick Leopold died at the age of 94.
To say that he had profoundly influenced generations of Northwestern's finest sons and daughters seems wholly inadequate. Among his protégés were some of the University's most illustrious alumni: 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern (G49, 53, H67); former Majority Leader of the House of Representatives Richard Gephardt (C62); journalist and commentator Georgie Anne Geyer (J56); General Dynamics Corp. chair Nick Chabraja (WCAS64, L67); director, writer and producer Garry Marshall (J56); former Assistant Secretary of State Phyllis Elliott Oakley (WCAS56); former Arizona Rep. James Kolbe (WCAS65). A long list of Leopold alumni at Northwestern and his previous employer, Harvard University, count him as their ultimate mentor.
"It's not just that I took his class," Crate & Barrel founder Gordon Segal (EB60) said. "He changed my life.
"He was supportive and nurturing. He spent most of his time pointing out what we'd done right rather than what we'd done wrong. Then he'd add just enough criticism to let us know we could do even better."
Dick shaped many who would become famous, but he was something special to the rest of us, too. And we were something special to him.
Somehow, I assumed the enviable role of biographer. My final journey with him began 30 years after my first days as his student. Our extended conversation transformed and enriched us both.
As we retraced his entire life, which began Jan. 6, 1912, the same day New Mexico became the 47th state, we tackled questions that even he had not previously considered: How did the central events of the 20th century shape him? In what ways was this academic giant just like the rest of us? What did he think he'd done right in his life — and what had he done wrong? What were his doubts, fears and anxieties? And, perhaps most intriguingly, as he reflected upon his life, which aspects were a revelation, even to him?
The surprising answers emerged from two seemingly unlimited resources: Dick's formidable memory and 185 boxes of his private papers stored in University Archives. I soon learned an important and previously undisclosed fact that permeated his formative years: his parents were nonpracticing, assimilating German Jews. He said he had never discussed the subject with anyone else, but his unexamined heritage undoubtedly shaped him in ways he had not fully grasped. Although the targets of bigotry have changed over the years, the human impulse to categorize, stereotype and marginalize others has not. Each generation views its societal problems as unique. Dick experienced, observed and commented on the circularity of history, reminding us that they are not.
As he overcame anti-Semitic barriers to attend Princeton University and Harvard, he was "identified as Jewish" — the phrase he used — even though, like his parents, he continued to eschew all ethnic and religious affiliations. Ironically, his early exposure to discrimination contributed to later success. He strove for perfection because any chance at the limited options for a Jew in academia required him to outperform all competitors. The path was especially daunting in his chosen discipline — U.S. history — because Jews were regarded as an alien race. The men running institutions of higher learning did not trust such "foreigners" with the task of teaching the nation's past to its youth.
With respect to Dick, such fears now seem especially ironic. Beginning with his Harvard days and continuing for more than three decades thereafter at Northwestern, students knew he was a great teacher, but they cherished him as a friend and confidant. The wisest among us returned his devotion in kind and joined his extended family. Former Northwestern President Arnold R. Weber once called him our tribe's "ultimate elder." In that role he instilled in us qualities of character and integrity for a lifetime. By the force of his example he made us want to be better, and we were.
"You came away from Leopold's course with a great desire for striving toward excellence," said Jack Guthman (WCAS60), who attended Yale Law School on his way to becoming one of the nation's premier real estate attorneys. "He demanded of you what he demanded of himself — a lot of intense work and analysis."
Despite all that he accomplished, Dick found himself wrestling with a universal anxiety that became more intense as his end neared: What, if anything, had made his life worthwhile?
We discussed his many professional accomplishments: four books, more than a hundred articles and reviews, election to the presidency of the Organization of American Historians. All of these contributed to a distinguished career but provided little comfort during his final days.
We reviewed at length how his tenure at Northwestern mirrored the University's march into the modern era. His 1948 arrival in Evanston coincided with the onset of McCarthyism — the current politics of fear set in an earlier time; he helped build the history department into one of the nation's best, only to bemoan the balkanization of his profession as "specialists" began to dominate it; he struggled to maintain equilibrium as the campus erupted in student protest over a futile war and stubborn "imperial" presidents (Johnson and Nixon). Through it all, Dick's positive impact on Northwestern had been apparent, but ultimately inadequate as he measured his life's value.
In the end, he found his legacy in his students. He had built a diverse family from renewable resources: his undergraduates. He taught us, nurtured us and gave us confidence to surpass our own expectations because his expectations for us were even greater.
I was not present for the beginning of Dick Leopold's life, but I sat with him daily as it ended. By then, he could respond only with his eyes as I read aloud letters of praise from grateful former students constituting his large extended family. As he listened during his last hours to words of love and admiration, he knew that his influence would endure.
A few months earlier, before his once powerful voice had been silenced forever, he had previously confirmed his awareness of this — his greatest legacy — during one of our final conversations.
"What is the most important thing you've done in your life?" I asked.
He answered without hesitation in his distinctive baritone: "Well, since I have no children, I would have to say that the most important thing I have done is the impact — however minimal — I might have had on those students with whom I have come into contact over the years."
I could not have said it better, but even so, I think he would want me to try.
Steven J. Harper (WCAS76, G76) is the author of Straddling Worlds: The Jewish-American Journey of Professor Richard W. Leopold (Northwestern University Press), to be released Jan. 25, 2008. He also wrote the widely acclaimed book Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster's Story (Borealis Books, 2007). Harper is a litigation partner at the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, which he joined upon graduation from Harvard Law School.