By Joel K. Goldstein, Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law
Few, if any, law professors anywhere have shaped the practice of law in a community as Vincent C. Immel did in St. Louis. Many practicing in the larger St. Louis metropolitan area earned their degrees from this law school and, from 1958 to 2004, Vince taught virtually all of them. Memorably, and very well.
So naming the library at the new law school building for Vince not only puts his name on its largest space, but honors the legacy of the extraordinary teacher whose impact transcended any classroom or building and shaped a legal community and an alumni body.
This latest recognition responds to an insatiable desire of Vince’s former students, colleagues and friends to give tangible recognition to him and his contributions. An atrium, two scholarships, a professorship, a library fund, a lecture on teaching and an alumni society were or are named for Vince, and the sentiment to celebrate this humble man endures undiminished a decade after he retired and five years after his death. This extraordinary response by so many to one man’s life simply acknowledges in small part what he gave others.
Vince was a great teacher not so much because of what he did as because of who he was. The basic characteristics he brought to the classroom were not a disguise or a pedagogical device but an application of the traits that made the man. Vince the teacher reflected Vince, the human being.
Vince was famous for teaching Contracts but that subject was simply his vehicle to teach students fundamentals of legal analysis — how to read cases, how to reason about legal problems, how to think like a lawyer, how to recognize competing arguments, how to defend your conclusions.
He structured class to reinforce that vision. His role was not to provide answers but to prepare students to function independently as lawyers after they passed his course (if they did). His questions were unrelenting, not to badger students but to prepare them for the practice of law. He loved Dean William Prosser’s wonderful metaphor about the man who berated the lighthouse because it blew its whistle, flashed its light, and raised all hell (Vince could do that, too) yet the fog rolled in undeterred. Vince was not in the business of dissipating fog but in giving students the tools to help them navigate through it. In helping students develop the skills to reason to and defend sound conclusions, Vince helped produce many outstanding and successful practitioners.
He did so, in part, by setting high standards. Vince recognized that mediocrity did not become excellence through unearned praise. “I never worked so hard in my life for two D’s,” one alumnus said upon hearing Vince’s name. A prominent practitioner bragged publicly about a C+ he earned from Vince. Earned! Third year students flocked to his Remedies class even though they recognized it would make their last semester more challenging and require them to sit by the phone until noon of Hooding Day to make sure they had passed the course and could graduate. Students may not have appreciated the Immel drag on their GPA, but they respected the implicit lessons that potential could be reached only by stretching to exceed a bar set high and that a candid assessment was worth more than reassurance unrelated to reality.
All of this was a reflection of a humane man who cared deeply for his students. Vince’s students were not fungible names on a seating chart or numbers on those disappointing exams but human beings with hopes and dreams and feelings and potential. He remembered them long after they graduated. When, in the mid-1990s someone mentioned a student from a class more than three decades earlier, Vince asked, “Wasn’t he the pharmacist?” (He was.) Students experiencing financial hardship found that Vince had an uncanny ability to produce scholarship funds to respond. He did not disclose that his checking account was the perennial source. Vince was truly a person for others.
Vince was dedicated to teaching. After retiring in 1990, he taught for 14 years without financial compensation. He was regularly in his office with the door open, and he would not be kept from meeting his teaching responsibilities. He never mailed it in. When his car would not start upon leaving one morning mass, he hitchhiked a ride to 3700 Lindell arriving just in time for the class which he necessarily (but comfortably) taught without book or notes. Class over, he reclaimed his car.
Vince demonstrated the fallacy in the belief that law practice is a prerequisite for effective law teaching. There are gaps on every resume. Vince easily compensated for that foregone experience by his appreciation of the practice of law, his skill at and dedication to his craft, and his commitment to teaching and to his students. Many able practitioners and judges could testify that Vince helped give them the skills essential to their success.
Legal education has changed since Vince’s heyday, and it continues to evolve. In today’s context, Vince would do some things differently.
But the fundamentals that made him a great teacher are timeless. Talent. Vision. Preparation. Commitment. High standards. Honesty. Dedication. Caring for others.
Then and now, Vince stands as a model for teaching excellence, for professionalism, for making teaching a form of public service.
So it’s appropriate that his name goes on the library in the law school he helped create, in the legal community he taught, as another recognition for a giving and gifted man, and as an inspiration for those who teach, study and work at Saint Louis University School of Law.
First written for the Vincent C. Immel Law Library dedication.