A Memory of Professor Farnsworth

Yesterday I received an email announcing that my Contracts professor, E. Allan Farnsworth, had passed away. He was a genuinely kind person and a prolific scholar, and a generation of lawyers has relied on his treatise to get through consideration, the parol evidence rule, and the statute of frauds. I’ll always remember him, though, for scaring the heck out of me as a first year.

Anyone familiar with The Paper Chase, or Scott Turow’s 1L, knows that the first year of law school tends to induce fear and loathing, even among the most balanced students. All but the foolhardy and arrogant spend the first few weeks of the first year, at least, hoping and praying that they are not called on in front of 150 of their classmates. I was no different. My strategy was to sit on the back row, preferably in a corner, and bury my head in my laptop. But on the very first day of first year classes, my fears were realized. Professor Farnsworth, looking all the part of a scholar-gentleman, opened the Contracts class with an obscure quotation about keeping one’s obligations and fulfilling one’s contracts. Then, while scanning the large classroom, he said, “Greg Call, do you know who said this?”

What??? How did he get my name? Was this in the reading? Is this a trick question?
As I felt a hundred or so sets of eyes focused on me, and with my face warming up, I cleared my throat and spit out, “Umm, no.”
“I’ll give you a hint,” Professor Farnsworth said, “your alma mater is named after him.”
Aha — this I knew the answer to. “Brigham Young,” I responded with relief.

Professor Farnsworth went on to explain that the Brigham Young quote was the only statement he has ever found in which a moral or spiritual justification is given for keeping one’s contractual obligations. I thought this was interesting, but mostly I just felt relief for having my first in-class exchange with a professor behind me. Over the course of the semester I made a few comments, and visited occasionally with Professor Farnsworth in his office. He was always gracious and open, and even offered to write a letter of recommendation for me after the semester was over. All of this, of course, had a much bigger ultimate influence on me than that first-day cold call, but somehow I think that memory will be one that sticks.

14 comments for “A Memory of Professor Farnsworth

  1. john fowles
    February 1, 2005 at 7:44 pm

    So what was the quote exactly? Seems pretty important if it really was the only one the Professor Farnsworth, of all people, could find that embodied the moral and spiritual justifications for keeping one’s contractual obligations.

  2. Greg
    February 1, 2005 at 7:50 pm


    I think it was from The Discourses of Brigham Young. I’ll try to find the reference when I get home tonight. Maybe Nate knows it off the top of his head.

  3. john fowles
    February 1, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    I think I am remembering something too. But I’m almost positive the quote I am thinking of is just from the old Brigham Young EQ/RS manual. They wouldn’t have quoted from the JoD in there, would they???

  4. Greg
    February 1, 2005 at 8:18 pm

    The quote in the manual probably cites to the Discourses of BY (though both may have their source in the JoD).

    We never talked about it, but I would guess that Prof. Farnsworth began class one year by asserting that he had not heard anyone give a moral or religious basis for contractual obligation, and then was corrected by a Mormon student who gave him the quote from the Discourses (the manual was not in existence at the time, and Manhattan student apartments are not exactly conducive to storing the JoD.) I doubt that he had done an exhaustive search for any such quotes.

  5. Nate Oman
    February 1, 2005 at 9:28 pm

    Greg: I am sad to hear about the death of Farnesworth. He was a great contracts scholar, and I read or refer to his treatise (I own a copy of the one volume version) regularlly.

    Since we are telling 1L stories here is mine. My very first class in law school — literally on the morning of the first day — was civil procedure. Our professor was a half an hour late and by the time he came storming into the room students were getting ready to leave. He came scowling to the front of the class (he scowled alot), and glared the class into silence. They he turned to me (assigned seating, I was on the second row) and literally shouted: “Oman, what is diversity jurisdiction?!”

    He, unfortunately, did not give any hints…

  6. February 2, 2005 at 2:30 am

    Greg: First day of class — wow. Farnsworth himself — double wow. And a Brigham Young contracts quote, cited to you in class? Triple wow. I guess when you’ve got BYU on your transcript, you can run but you can’t hide.

  7. Fry
    February 2, 2005 at 7:51 am

    Was this guy any relation to Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, oldest living member of the Academy of Professors and owner of Planet Express?

  8. February 2, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    Sounds a bit like what he said on April 7, 1862 (JD 10:97):

    “We are among the people of this world; our bodies are of the earth, and our spirits are like the spirits of other people and from the same source, only we are trying to establish the kingdom of God on earth, to introduce righteousness, and prepare the people for the reign of Jesus Christ on the earth. One man says, ‘I have agreed to do thus and so.’ Then go and do it. Fulfill your contracts and sacredly keep your word.”

    The last sentence above is also quoted in Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 232.

  9. john fowles
    February 2, 2005 at 3:59 pm

    Nate, good thing you paid–how much?–for that enlightening experience. When BYU Law Professors did something like that, they were only pretending, and mocking the Harvard profs like the one you described.

  10. Nate Oman
    February 2, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    john: Actually my civ pro prof was friendly and well adjusted human being (not!) compared to my corps professor, who was very aged, extremely cranky, and mostly deaf. His preferred pedagogy was to shout questions at a single student in rapid succession, demanding that the student shout back answers (“Speak up! I can’t hear you!”), until the professor had the student literally shouting the wrong answers. At which point he would growl out his displeasure….

  11. Rob
    February 2, 2005 at 5:01 pm

    Greg, just wanted to let you know that he did the same thing to me last year, in what was his last Contracts class. It definitely caught me off guard, but it was a pleasant surprise.

  12. Greg
    February 2, 2005 at 6:00 pm

    Rob: Good to know the tradition continued. I wonder what he led out with when there were no BYU grads in the class?

    Justin B.: I’m pretty sure that’s the quote. Thanks for tracking it down.

    Fry: EAF was much better looking than the cat you’re thinking of.

  13. February 6, 2005 at 12:35 am

    Professor Farnsworth was the finest professor that I had in law school. I have modeled my law school teaching style after how he taught my commercial law class. He was a gifted and extraordinary teacher, scholar and author. The law has lost some of its luster with his passing. I hope that he and Brigham become acquainted.

  14. Greg
    February 7, 2005 at 1:09 pm

    For those that are interested, here is the NYT obit: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/06/obituaries/06farnsworth.html?oref=login

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