Fordham Law

Former Dean Addresses Graduates at 99th Law School Diploma Ceremony

May 23, 2006

Former Fordham Law School Dean John D. Feerick addressed the 549 members of the class of 2006 at the Law School's Diploma Ceremony on Sunday, May 21, at The Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Juris Doctor degrees were awarded to the 483 members of the class of 2006.  Sixty-six students received the Masters of Law degree.

Feerick and James A. Cohen, associate professor of law and director of clinical education and external affairs, both received the Dean's Medal of Achievement, awarded for extraordinary contribution to Fordham Law School.

The text of Dean Feerick's speech is included below:

Father McShane, Dean Treanor, Father O'Connell, Trustees, members of the faculty and administration, the School's new Chair Holders, the generous benefactors who made the chairs possible, family and friends of the Class of 2006, and most particularly the members of the Centennial Class of Fordham Law School.

To each member of the class I offer my sincere congratulations. This is a wonderful moment for you and your loved ones.  Today is your day, a day for celebrating your accomplishments.

I am honored and humbled to have this opportunity to address you as the School celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding. 

Forty-five years ago I sat where you sit and listened to someone give the graduation address. I have to be honest and tell you that I don't remember a word of it.  So what can I say to you today that you might possibly remember for forty-five minutes, if not forty-five years?   I have chosen a message that is relatively simple. 

It is this: Life is about people.  No matter where you function people will be present.  Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us has an enormous impact on other people.  We affect them in ways we can hardly imagine -- and they affect us, as well.  Fred Rogers, a pioneer in educational television, put it this way:  "If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of.  There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person."

I discovered this truth in the very recent past as a special master of family homelessness in New York City.  As I was leaving a crowded facility I had just evaluated, a little girl who had been watching me gave me a beautiful drawing of hers on which appeared these words:  "Do not forget the homeless."  It seemed to be a small gesture at the time, but she surely cannot know how many times I have thought about her and her drawing.

In another shelter, a young boy by the name of Pedro lived on the top floor of a building.  After his mother had shown me their living accommodations, I thanked them and gave Pedro and his four siblings each a dollar to buy an ice cream.  As I was leaving, he asked if he could show me the way out.  He took my hand and held it as we walked together down the five flights of stairs.  I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.  He looked up at me and said, "I want to be like you." 

This was as moving a moment as I have had in my entire life as a lawyer.  Was he reacting to the dollar bill?  Or to my interest in the conditions of his home? Or the time I spent talking with him as we walked down the stairs? Or was it all three of these or something else?  Was the little girl with the drawing, to whom I had not given a dollar, simply reacting to my interest in her facility?

I will never know the answers to these questions, but I do know that those two children changed my life.  As a result of these brief encounters, and other experiences with the homeless, I now know that I want to devote the remainder of my time at Fordham to helping Dean Treanor accomplish his dream of having at the School a major Center on Social Justice where reducing family homelessness will be an important part of its mission.

Every day, in practically every life situation -- in our homes, the workplace, on the street, in buildings and stores, in organizations and other settings in which we find ourselves – we are drawn into relationships with other people. I urge you to always be conscious of the people around you.   Be interested in them.  Show them respect and understanding.  Listen to their stories.  Share with them your stories.  And be prepared for the surprises that will come your way as a result. 

Kindnesses that we extend to others can be magnified in importance and have an impact far greater than we might realize.  No act of kindness is too small -- and often our actions affect others in unanticipated and profound ways.

I discovered that again at the recent 45th anniversary of my law school  class where classmate after classmate spoke about a particular act of kindness by a teacher or classmate as being their most memorable  experience in law school. Someone has said that success  lies not so much in where we find ourselves at the end but rather in the lives we affect along the way.

As you go forward, you will have many opportunities to extend acts of kindness to others. They will come to you in all the different circumstances in which you will find yourselves.  Be open to the possibilities present in every situation. If you are, when you find yourselves forty-five years out of law school, you will have compiled a beautiful and wonderful album of memories.

Let me recall for you in this Centennial year the lives of five  graduates -- four of whom I knew personally -- who, for me, define the essence of Fordham Law School – its mission and its promise.  One did his work in a large law firm, another in a legal services organization, a third in a government office, the fourth in a small law firm, and the last at a school and among those suffering from substance abuse.

Ruth Whitehead Whaley, Class of 1924, was the first African American woman to graduate from our School.  She enjoyed a spectacular academic career, with more A's and A-pluses than any graduate I can recall. She became the second African American woman to be a member of the New York Bar in the First Judicial Department and the first to be a member of the North Carolina Bar, the state in which she was born.  She had many public achievements in New York City, including firsts in many areas.  She also had a law practice in Manhattan and was renowned for the career assistance she gave to aspiring minority lawyers  at a time when racial discrimination was rampant in America.  One minority lawyer told me that "there were so few of us at the time and we had no place to turn for help other than to Ruth Whitehead Whaley."  When a School in Harlem was dedicated in her memory a few years ago, the guest speaker spoke of her, to an audience overflowing with young minority children, as an extraordinary example of someone who dreamed, persevered and achieved. Each year since 1977, our School's Black Law Students Association honors someone with its highest award named for Ruth Whitehead Whaley.

Frances Berko, Class of 1944, attended the School with multiple disabilities that affected her speaking and walking.  She had been the first person with cerebral palsy to graduate from Hunter College. At Fordham, she excelled academically, graduating with honors and an editorship of the Law Review.  For the rest of her life she devoted herself to the disabled -- she taught and wrote, helped start United Cerebral Palsy of New York, drafted basic federal legislation, established a community center in Ithaca with its first infancy intervention program for parents of developmentally disabled infants, and administered a program for  profoundly multi- disabled individuals who had been rejected for placement in educational programs. In 1981, she was appointed by Governor Carey as New York's Advocate for the Disabled and later re-appointed by Governor Cuomo.  On the day she received the Law School's Alumni Medal of Achievement, the speaker was Richard Thornburgh, then Attorney General of the United States.  He had been instrumental in the passage of the federal disability act.  He was overwhelmed by Frances, as we all were, as she lifted herself from her wheel chair to take the microphone and say thank you.  In his remarks, Thornburgh simply said:  "I am not sure why I am here today.  She was the force behind it all!"

Denis J. McInerney, Class of 1951, left Fordham College on his 18th birthday and joined the 82nd Airborne Division.  Not too long ago, his son shared with us in a moving eulogy that on his father's first practice jump, he became entangled with another jumper and landed hard.  He immediately picked himself up and said: "I have to go up again right away; otherwise, I will never jump again."  A year later, Denis landed in Normandy, a few hours before the start of that invasion.  When I asked him about his wartime experience, he recalled how cold it was during the Battle of the Bulge as he lay on top of his duffle bag with his rifle at his side.

After the War, this son of immigrant parents went on to become one of the finest trial and appellate lawyers in the United States. A partner at the law firm of Cahill, Gordon and Reindel, he made it a point to help others in numerous areas.  He served as president of the New York County Lawyers Association, vice-chair of the Character and Fitness Committee, a founding director of Volunteers for Legal Services, and president of the Fordham Law Alumni Association.

As president of the Alumni, he inspired generations of younger graduates to become involved, including myself. He also created the annual fund, which has provided untold support to thousands of Law School students. But he never let his busy life get in the way of his love for his family and his devotion to his faith.  His name and that of his wife, Irene, appear on major scholarship programs at Fordham Law School and Fordham College. 

Raymond J. O'Keefe, Class of 1953, was a master teacher at the school, renowned for teaching with humor.  He left the faculty in the early 1960s because of his alcoholism.  He later told me that this was the lowest point in his life.  He felt all he had hoped for had been lost.  With the help of God and AA, he gained control of his addiction and his drinking ended.  For the next forty years, as he practiced law and returned to teaching at Pace and St. Thomas law schools, he became one of America's foremost workers in the field of helping lawyers cope with the challenge of substance abuse.  He founded alcoholism programs, chaired committees, gave seminars, and went all over the United States and North America to rescue lawyers from this affliction.  In the process, he saved countless lives, including a member of my law school class.  In 1999, he was given the Law School's first humanitarian award for all he had done for others.

Archibald Murray, Class of 1960, was one of the most outstanding lawyers of my generation in his service of poor people as attorney-in-chief of the New York Legal Aid Society.  We used to bump into each other as students at the law school and chat about our futures.  He was an immigrant to the United States and I was the first born of immigrant parents.  We had no clear idea where we were going but we both knew we wanted to have some meaning in our lives.  What a difference he made. 

Arch turned down opportunities to become a law firm partner, a judge in our state and federal courts, a law professor, and many other positions.  Instead, he spent all of his days where his heart was, helping poor people gain access to justice.  He was dignified, gentle, and unfailingly courteous.  He enjoyed a wonderful marriage to Kay Murray, and the distinction of being the first black lawyer to be President of the New York State Bar Association.  Today, he is memorialized at our School with a Chair in his name and a certificate given to every member of the graduating class who has excelled in public service.
These five graduates and many others have had a significant impact on others.  They had in common their love of people. They excelled in their acts of kindness. They gave willingly of their time.  They were mentors and role models.  They welcomed newcomers and strangers.   They were dedicated, honest and loyal.  They possessed an enormous generosity of spirit.  They each had personal achievements and accomplishments.  Each left a lasting legacy and each experienced the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from making a difference in the lives of others.  All of them lived their lives in a manner exemplifying what Louis Stein always said: There is far more joy in giving than anyone can possibly realize.

Now it is your turn, Members of the Class of 2006, to begin to write the story of your life.  As Daniel Burnham said: "Make no small plans. They have no magic to stir humanity's blood:¦ Make big plans; aim high in hope and work" and prepare to leave a legacy of your own. 

When you reach my stage in life: “ turning 70 and forty-five years out of law school, may you be able to look back on a life of loving, caring, helping, guiding, nurturing, and inspiring, and don't forget laughing and celebrating.  May it go well for you.  My very best wishes go with you as you leave this assembly and go forth to celebrate.   And may God be with you all of your days.  Thank you.