Tribute to Louis Henkin

by David M. Schizer, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law

I remember how much fun it was to introduce young academics to Lou. “This is Lou Henkin,” I would say, and their eyes would go wide, like they were meeting Frank Sinatra.

Lou deserved every ounce of this admiration. As everyone here knows, he founded the field of human rights law. Lou was a University Professor—the highest academic honor that Columbia University can bestow. He was an elegant and forceful writer, and a revered teacher and mentor to generations of distinguished lawyers and judges. He said Kaddish for Justice Felix Frankfurter at a ceremony attended by Lyndon Johnson and Dean Acheson. During World War II, he won a silver star for persuading 75 German soldiers to surrender to him and a dozen other Americans. I am told that he could multiply 15 by 7 when he was 5 years old. His intellect was truly extraordinary.

It was easy to admire Lou, but we felt more than admiration for him: We loved him. We loved him because he was warm, generous, and kind. We loved him because he was understated and playful. We loved him because he had deep integrity. And we loved him because he inspired us. He was committed to making idealism practical and to extending the blessings of freedom under law to everyone on the planet.

Lou also showed such commitment to his colleagues and students at the Law School. He remained deeply engaged as a classroom teacher and as a forceful intellectual presence in our community until past his 90th birthday. I remember the pleasure of hearing his voice outside my door, saying “Hello, Mr. Dean.” I enjoyed his regular calls at 1:10 in the afternoon, inviting me to be the tenth person for the minyan he hosted for students in his office. And I looked forward to seeing him every Saturday at our synagogue. He had a way of making everyone he knew feel that we were important to him. That was a very special quality.

Of course, Lou would not have been Lou without Alice. He was fortunate to have found the perfect partner in life, and their deep devotion to each other was obvious to all of us. Together they raised a warm, loving and gifted family. Lou was incredibly proud of Josh, David, and Daniel—and he was utterly smitten by his five beautiful grandchildren. I remember the twinkle in his eye when he offered to arrange a blind date for his grandson and my daughter. They were 2 years old at the time.

Obviously, we all have warm personal recollections of Lou. Since I let our graduates know of his passing, we have received a flood of beautiful emails and comments posted on our website. I will read three to give you a sense of them:

My name is Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer and LL.M., and I was among the first human rights fellows the Columbia Law School had and benefited from Professor Henkin’s knowledge, character, and kindness. Every now and then whenever in New York City, I would pop up and say hello. He always would make some time to know how I was doing. I would give him a copy of the Universidad Diego Portales, Human Rights Report, let him know that I was running the human rights clinic here in Santiago, Chile, or let him know what I had been up to. His advice was tremendously useful in my different endeavors. I am sure you will be receiving many emails of this sort. If it is possible, please let Mrs. Henkin know that I deeply regret Professor Henkin’s death. They invited us all, the human rights fellows, to a dinner at their house, and [I] could see what a lovely, interesting, and powerful couple they were. I can’t imagine her sadness in this moment. Let her know that her husband’s teachings still live deep south here in Chile, so that this can fill her with pride and perhaps even joy.

This is from Chris Brummer, professor at Georgetown:

My memory of Professor Henkin was one, strangely enough outside of class and conferences. A band was playing music from the group Cool & The Gang outside of the Law School, and there, among first-year law students (of which I was one), Professor Henkin, a towering figure of the Academy, was dancing. He was away for a semester, and I never had the opportunity to take his course subsequently, but the brief encounter left an indelible mark. I can only hope to bring the same erudition and fun to my scholarship and teaching.

Third is from Daniel Petter-Lipstein:

I was blessed to take a constitutional law seminar with Professor Henkin, and it remains one of my most memorable academic experiences. Professor Henkin was inspiring and pushed us to ask penetrating and important questions. I was in awe of his vigor, even though he was over 80 at the time. But his brilliance as a scholar and teacher, while enormous, were outdone by his humility, kindness, and grace. He cared deeply for his students and, as a fellow member of the Jewish people, was a shining example to me of what a Jew could and should be in the modern world. The world has lost one of its great tzadikim (righteous persons).

Obviously we all recognize Lou in each of these comments, and we will miss him terribly. Lou made the world brighter for me. It’s truly been a privilege to have him as a colleague and friend. So I am heartbroken. We all are. But I know that through his ideas, and through his example, Lou Henkin will always be with us.