A legacy celebrated

Alumnus’ gift pays tribute to Professor Edward Littlejohn
When Fred Harring ’97 entered his summer Torts class at Wayne State University Law School in 1994, he had no idea what to expect. Professor Edward Littlejohn entered with a thick casebook crammed with legalese, and his powerful voice filled the lecture hall.

“It was like hieroglyphics,” Harring said. “Reading timeworn cases on assumpsit and trespass … was like trying to decipher a foreign language.”

But like many first-year law students, Harring had to do — as the notorious torts standard goes — what a reasonable person would under the circumstances: He took things day by day. And Littlejohn expertly guided Harring’s class through those daunting first days.

“Teaching well is hard, but teaching first-year law students is even harder and more important,” Harring said. “Professor Littlejohn managed, in his own way, to encourage students that things will be OK — this is going to be difficult.”

Harring said his time at Wayne Law changed his life. His early lessons prepared him for a fruitful career as general counsel to Fisher Investments, a global investment firm headquartered in Washington. He also joked that his Wayne Law journey actually and proximately led to his connection to his wife, Rachel.

“I loved every professor, and their lessons resonate to this day,” he said. “I can tell you something about each and every one.”

Dean Richard A. Bierschbach with Fred Harring.
Dean Richard A. Bierschbach with Fred Harring.

The edge of the pork chop

Almost 30 years later, Harring can still recite Littlejohn’s maxims from the syllabus of his 1994 Torts class. “‘If you think you have something to say, stop, think again and maybe the thought will pass,’” he recalled.

Many of Littlejohn’s lessons were shaped by his personal trials and triumphs as one of the first Black law professors in the United States. A graduate of Hamtramck High School, Littlejohn joined then-Wayne University with plans to become a doctor. But his undergraduate career was cut short when he no longer had a place to live.

“I was on my own and homeless, so I joined the Army,” Littlejohn said. “They gave me three meals a day and a cot, and it got me off the streets.”

Eventually, the G.I. Bill enabled Littlejohn to return to school. He earned his bachelor’s in sociology from Wayne State University in 1965, which put him on track to attend the Detroit College of Law. In 1969, he graduated at the top of his class with his juris doctor.

After working for a Black-owned law firm, Littlejohn returned to his alma mater as a law professor. Two years later, he joined the Wayne Law faculty as a professor and associate dean.

“My style was demanding and tough,” said Littlejohn. But students appreciated his unique approach, which included organizing field trips to meet judges and see court proceedings in action. He even injected humor into his lectures.

“‘You are on the edge of the pork chop — you’re about to fall off,’” Littlejohn recalled telling students when their cold calls went south. “It means you’re about to commit an error.”

One class even gave Littlejohn a keepsake toy pork chop, on display in a bookcase at his Sarasota home.

“I think the highest honor a professor or teacher can have is to receive very positive feedback from students,” said Littlejohn, who taught at Wayne Law from 1972 to 1996 and earned the Donald H. Gordon Award for Excellence in Teaching.

portrait of Edward Littlejohn
Edward Littlejohn

Paving the way

In tribute to Littlejohn’s impact on Wayne Law and its students, Harring gifted $250,000 to create a research scholar position in Littlejohn’s name.

“All these years later, I had never forgotten him,” Harring said, “and I thought, What can I do to possibly thank him and honor him?”

What’s more, Littlejohn extended the gift with a seven-figure pledge to create an endowed chair in the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The center is home to the Collection of African American Legal History, the nation’s first and only archive of its kind, which Littlejohn created in 1993.

Even in retirement, Littlejohn remains active in the legal community. He recently co-authored a book with Professor Peter Hammer, “No Equal Justice”: The Legacy of Civil Rights Icon George W. Crockett Jr., published by Wayne State University Press. Learn more about the book on Page 34.

“Professor Littlejohn was a teacher, scholar and a gentleman,” Harring said. “I’m just one of thousands who benefited from him.”

[Editor’s note: Edward Littlejohn, professor of law emeritus, died in June after this issue went into production. The Law School mourns his passing, remembers him with fondness, and celebrates his legacy of contributions and service to his students, Wayne Law, and the legal community.]

A personal letter from Fred Harring to Edward Littlejohn at the time of Harring’s gift.

Dear Professor Littlejohn,

It has been too long!

I understand Dean Bierschbach told you of the 250K contribution in your name in gratitude for your many contributions to the Wayne State community and beyond.

What an honor it is for me to have a hand in this. It is the least I can do, given the continuing and positive impact you have had on me personally and professionally over the last 26 years, and I know the thousands and thousands of students you’ve taught and interacted with over the last several decades have similarly benefited in ways that simply can’t be adequately expressed in a letter, gift or award. You are that rare individual who does not call attention to himself, and your intellect and scholarship was first among equals at Wayne. You, sir, are a legal giant.

I began my legal education at Wayne State in June 1994 as a student in your summer Torts class, which, as you know, was a full year condensed into six weeks and, therefore, a real challenge to naifs like me and my classmates. Though I was a relatively older student and had academic, professional and life experiences well beyond the typical student coming straight from undergraduate studies, I had no idea what I was in for. Reading timeworn cases on assumpsit and trespass on the case was like trying to decipher a foreign language and really no fun. But your encouragement, good humor and skill brought me and others out of our stupor; once Palsgraf came around, things started to make a little more sense, or so we thought. (I still remember your crack about casting Sally Field as Mrs. Palsgraf in a film.)

The way you carried yourself (always with dignity!) in the classroom and halls was instructive, and the life lessons you imparted weren’t something contained in the Prosser and Keeton casebook and therefore unique and lasting. You taught us to take the subject matter and our professional obligations seriously: Care about what you do, and always be prepared. I tell my colleagues and staff the same thing to this day.

I also recall your syllabus contained a page entitled “Littlejohn’s Maxims.” Oh, how I wish I kept that. Some of my classmates and I still discuss those, and I’d be grateful if you could send me a copy. I do recall at least one of them, which went something like this: “If you think you have something to say, stop, think again and maybe the thought will pass.” I’m still working on that one.

Other memories: You took us on “field trips.” One was to the then-Recorder’s Court to observe the, uh, morning proceedings, and we then had a personal and spirited conversation with your friend (whose name I don’t recall), the presiding judge at the time. You also took us to meet with your friend, Judge Avern Cohn, in his chambers. On another occasion, we met with your law school classmate and friend Mayor Dennis Archer. You always stayed in the background. The fact that you took the time and care to do this has never been lost on me. The following year, you invited me to have lunch with Ernie Goodman at your apartment (where I got to admire your impressive art collection; I, too, have become a collector).

Pardon me, but I’m compelled to provide other lessons gleaned from that summer:

  • If you’re confused, look at the top of the page. (It will tell you what concept you are learning.)
  • “Read the newspaper; it’s your first resource for cutting-edge legal news.” (Even if they get it wrong, and they often do, at least you are seeing developments. To this day, I still read three print editions.)
  • “Answer the call of the question.” (Good advice for law school exams and motion practice.)
  • “Beware the client who comes to your office with a shopping bag filled with scraps of paper and weathered documents …” (I’ve had a client or two like that in my early years and sadly didn’t take your advice; my wife Rachel is a legal aid lawyer and says those who don’t present such bags are an outlier!)
  • “Mr. Harring, everyone’s an editor. Writing is hard.” (No kidding.)
  • Me (after whining about a C+ in my second year): “But I don’t get C’s.” You: “You do now.” A classic. I just used that line last week.

I could go on, but you are done reading long and indecipherable exam bluebooks.

Please take a bow. And know that if you are hearing this from me, there is a silent majority (not in the Agnew sense!) who share my thoughts and experiences. I am certain many others keep in touch with you, and I’m very sorry it has taken me 26 years, but your words and deeds continue to echo thus in my mind (that’s T.S. Eliot, not my own). What you have done has meaning — then and now. Your kindnesses to individuals and causes big and small are not without notice or impact. I owe so much to you.

All my best and thank you,