Their First Visit to the University of Michigan Law School

They visited the law school for the first time on a hot, late-August day.  It was mid-morning, and the temperature was already in the high 80s.  A typical Midwest summer day, it lay in wait under its high harsh sun for something new to come along, something that might relieve the monotony of having to provide unrelenting sunlight and humidity.  For Derek, the day’s sunshine would become memory’s Klieg light for its illumination of the stage setting in which he first saw the buildings that would become the stone crucible in which his final adult character would be forged amidst a storm of intellectual discovery and personal challenge.

Their apartment was on the University’s North Campus, several miles from the main campus and the law school.  The student assistant had told them about the University’s inter-campus bus system and pointed out the nearest bus stop.  So, on their first full day in Ann Arbor, they decided to undertake a voyage of discovery.  When they got to the bus stop, they found another couple waiting there and introduced themselves.

Ben and Missy Skyler were from upstate New York.  Both had degrees from Cornell.  Ben was another first year law student, tall and lanky with a shock of unruly, hay colored hair.  Derek, who’d always prided himself on recognizing people on first introduction for who they were, at first took him to be a southern California surfer, but was quickly proven wrong.  In a sharp, almost comical, contrast to Ben, Missy was short, dark, and rotund with the pregnancy of their first child.  They lived in an adjacent building, and were making their first visit to campus as well.  The four of them decided to travel together and make the law school their initial destination.  Ben and Derek had a required orientation to undergo before the start of school in a week’s time.

The bus put them down on the edge of the main campus.  They had no idea where to go next, but a passing student pointed across campus when they asked him where they could find the law school.  They made their way across the main campus, admiring its tree-studded sprawl and diverse architecture.  Mary spotted the English Department, and said she would visit it later when Ben and Derek went for their orientation.

Nothing looked like the pictures of the law school any of them had seen until they reached the far side of the main campus.  Then, across a broad street, they saw what looked like an Oxford College.  From the street’s edge, it consisted of the long stone façade of a residence hall through which a high, arched tunnel passed beneath a medieval themed tower crowned on four corners with spires.  At the tunnel’s mid-point, a large hanging wrought iron and opaque white glass light fixture dangled.  Through the tunnel could be glimpsed another, fey-seeming world – grass, cobbled walkways, tall trees, and a series of stone steps rising toward an arched entryway set into a building covered with ivy which, on subsequent inspection, proved to be the law library.

“I hadn’t realized it wasn’t on the main campus,”  Ben said.  “It’s a world unto itself.”

            “Neither did I,” said Derek.  “A former transatlantic cable company attorney gave them the money to build it.  Looks like they didn’t spare the horses.”

            “From what I read,” amended Ben, “he built it himself and then donated the buildings and land.”

Once through the archway, they found themselves facing the law library and Hutchins Hall, the main lecture building.  They stood frozen in place, overwhelmed by the ornate buildings and the peace and grandeur of the law quad, its grass boxed and cut into triangles by cobbled walkways.  Large, ancient trees dominated the resultant polygonal patches of grass.  Squirrels ruled the place in the late August heat, chittering and scampering up and down trees as they foraged and played.

Overcoming the inertia of first discovery, they crossed the law quad and sat on a shaded stone bench like birds on a wire to drink it all in.  As they looked back toward the archway through which they had just passed, they saw yet another archway to the outside world rising beyond a column of stone pillars on their left.  The pillars framed a walkway in front of what they later learned to be the Lawyers Club, a guest house for visiting scholars and a venue for meetings and social events.  They began to notice grace notes within the stone façade: intricate inset and outline carvings, leaded windows, stepped window and door frames, and other examples of the mason’s art.  Mary was the first to spot a gargoyle hidden in a corner, and it became a game to find others among the niches and crannies of the masonry.

“Amazing,” Derek said after the game wound down and silence settled over the group as they drank in their surroundings in great gulps of fascination.  “It’s magical.  I’m going to love it here.”

“Me, too,” Ben replied.  “I’ve never been to Oxford or Cambridge, but whoever designed this certainly nailed my concept of them.”

The law quad was almost too peaceful and magical to leave, but they realized that the true world of the law school was behind them, within the law library and Hutchins Hall.  Since their bench was in front of the law library, they began their tour there.

After climbing stone steps and passing through heavy wooden doors, they found themselves in an immense, rectangular reading room of biblical proportions.  Like a wedding cake, it was fashioned in tiers.  Its base consisted of intricately carved wood paneling surrounding and crowning dark wooden book cases, with framed stone archways set at regular intervals containing doors or leading to reading nooks.  The second tier was made up of grey limestone walls pierced with tall, vaulted, stained glass windows.  The top tier was a ceiling at least fifty feet above them –  a colorful world unto itself, rich in ochre and pale blue to complement the light gray stone of its supporting walls.  The ceiling was as intricate as the top of any wedding cake: crossed by richly decorated wooden beams enclosing stretches of intricate panels sculpted from colored plaster; medallions with a shield and wings motif were located on either side of the beams at their mid-points. Two-tiered iron chandeliers dangled from heavy chains above long oak tables standing in two paired rows on a cork floor, each table surrounded by unpadded oak chairs.

Long rays of natural sunlight in which dust motes danced joyously augmented the light provided by the chandeliers.  The reading room was an academic cathedral, the depth of its silence palpable despite the presence of several people working throughout the room.  They stood at the main entryway as a group, mute with the awe of discovery.  Finally, Ben said in a hushed voice,  “I thought the Law Quad said it all, but it was nothing more than prologue.”

Derek nodded.  “Makes me wonder what Hutchins Hall is like.  Let’s go see.  If it’s anything like this, I may have found heaven.”

In Hutchins Hall, they found the heart of the law school’s power.  The building had colored stone floors, brick walls, and vaulted stone ceilings.  In the pre-semester silence, its first floor was empty and echoing.  Even so, its atmosphere was more intimate than the library’s reading room, and possessed a subliminal sense of ongoing human activity even though no one but themselves was present.  High vaulted windows lined its halls, each with its own internal grisaille glass panel depicting a legal-tinged theme.  Some of the windows faced the law quad and some faced an interior, grass-covered courtyard lined with wooden benches, bright with promise in the late morning sun.  Tall, open-backed hardwood benches graced the brick walls between the windows, inviting them to sit, rest, and absorb the atmosphere.

“Man,” declared Ben.  “I’ve been waiting all summer for this.”  He was staring down a flight of stone steps leading to an underground passageway to the library, worn in the middle by thousands of footsteps taken across decades.  “Maybe all my life.  Look at that,” he said, pointing at the stairs.  “Evidence of everyone who came before us.  This place is soaked in tradition.”

“Yes, it’s kind of overwhelming.”  Mary looked at Derek.  “Sandy’s dad didn’t lead you astray.”

“He sure didn’t.  I hope I’m up to this.”

“You are.  But all this tradition is too heavy for a nice summer’s day.  I need a break.  Anyone for lunch?”

“I was just about to bring that up,” said Missy.  “I’m starving, and I need to get off my feet.”

As they stood debating which way to go to find a restaurant, a passing law professor introduced himself and welcomed them to the law school.  When asked for a restaurant recommendation, he advised that Dominick’s was the only place for a Michigan law student to have lunch.  It was cheap, its food was not bad, and it was just out that door and across that street.  They couldn’t miss it.

They took their time over lunch, savoring the dwindling hours remaining to them before their work began.  It was too soon to be certain whether Ben and Missy might become close friends, but it seemed a strong possibility.  They began their friendship slowly: first by relating their respective histories and hopes for the future; then by lightly testing one another by the exchange of opinions about the draft, the War, civil rights.  When Derek volunteered that the War was immoral for lack of a valid purpose, Ben countered by questioning whether any war was moral regardless of any hypothetical purpose.  Missy and Mary sided with Ben, and a lively discussion ensued for the next two hours – the kind of academic discussion only college friends could have on a hot August afternoon on a shaded wooden deck; a discussion complete with fine distinctions, scholarly references, laughter, soft drinks and beer, and cheeseburgers with fries all around.

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About Stephen Ellis

Stephen Ellis is the author of Fortunate Son, a novel of Sahaptin Valley
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