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Faculty Profile: Stefan Riesenfeld

Forty-Six Years as a Berkeley Professor

By Tamara Keith, Public Affairs
posted September 2, 1998

As Stefan Riesenfeld begins his 46th fall as a Berkeley law professor, some of his current students are the grandchildren of his earliest pupils.

During Riesenfeld's 60 years in the classroom, 10,000 students have listened to his lectures and a fair number continue to keep in touch.

Anyone who was ever in his class has a Riesenfeld story to tell, said Gary Shapiro, a San Francisco attorney and one of Riesenfeld's former research assistants. "He was funny, he was very intimidating and of all the teachers at Boalt, he was the most available to students."

Riesenfeld has written or edited 32 books, 140 articles and 119 book reviews on topics including international, comparative, property, commercial and administrative law and legal history. Through the years his writings and advice have influenced international treaties and led to a complete overhaul of Hawaii's workers' compensation system.

Shapiro remembers when Riesenfeld was asked to write a law review article. A couple of months later the editors wrote Riesenfeld asking the status of the article. He had not begun writing. As the deadline drew near, letters from the frantic editors arrived at Riesenfeld's office almost daily. A few days before the article was due, Riesenfeld sat down to write. He set two yellow legal pads on his desk, one for text and the other for footnotes, and wrote the entire article, including exact quotes and citations, without ever stopping to check a source.

"Not only did he finish it," said Shapiro, who typed the article and found the citations to be correct. "The article was brilliant."

"At 90, Professor Riesenfeld lives in the present," said Riesenfeld's colleague Professor David Caron. "He will tell stories. He does so, however, not to drag his listeners into the past, but rather to inform the present."

This fall, Riesenfeld teaches Modern Problems in Comparative Law at Boalt Hall and carries a full teaching load at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

Working 56 hours a week, Riesenfeld takes the bus to campus on weekdays from his Berkeley home. On weekends a former student brings him to work.

In the classroom, Riesenfeld does not tolerate poor preparation. He's been known to say things like "you have mashed potatoes for brains" or "I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you."

He is quick to point out, "I never called any student an idiot. I merely indicated that what they said was idiotic."

Riesenfeld has one primary goal as a teacher: "I want to make the students aware of future issues -- to have a small feeling of what's coming next."

Los Angeles attorney David Hayden took several classes from Riesenfeld in the early '60s. "I'm glad to see that young people have access to this knowledge that goes back to the turn of the century," he said. "They don't have to read about it in books; they can talk to their professor."

Riesenfeld came to Berkeley from the University of Milan in 1935 to earn his law degree and serve as research assistant to then-Dean Dickenson. He had moved to Italy in 1932 to escape the turmoil in his native Germany.

When he arrived at Boalt, Riesenfeld had two PhDs and spoke three languages. English was not one of them. Despite the language barrier, he earned his law degree in three years, graduating at the top of his class.

Since 1935, he has been away from campus only 14 years -- 11 while teaching and studying at other universities and three while serving in the US Navy during World War II.

Work he did while teaching at Harvard earned him a third doctorate; while teaching at the University of Minnesota, he found time to earn an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering.

In 1946 Riesenfeld met and married his wife, Phyllis Thorgrimson. They have two sons.

Riesenfeld has never felt ready to retire. Since taking emeritus status at Boalt in 1976, Riesenfeld has taught there virtually every semester on a recall appointment. Berkeley recall appointments last one year at most and must be renewed through an extensive review process.

In the five years immediately following his retirement, Riesenfeld taught four courses a year at both Boalt Hall and Hastings and was the academic counselor in the U.S. Department of State's Office of the Legal Advisor -- which meant a midweek commute to Washington, DC.

He has slowed down very little since then.

"Many emeriti are still very active in campus life," said Shelley Glazer, director of the UC Berkeley Retirement Center. (See "A Professor's Work is Never Done," page 5.) "Professor Riesenfeld is a stellar example of emeriti who continue serving the campus even in their retirement."

Riesenfeld says he keeps working because teaching guarantees

him an office, access to thousands of books in campus libraries and contact with at least 50 new students each semester.

"You see how lucky I am," he said from behind the large document-covered desk in his Boalt Hall office. "Next door is the entry to the library and I have the key to that door. So I have no trouble getting what I want to read."

Bringing the librarians chocolate and home-canned apples doesn't hurt, either.

"I feel a real affection for him, and I think I speak for the entire reference staff when I say that," said Alice Youmans, head of reference in the Law Library. "He is one of our favorite patrons. You know when he comes in, he'll have a real challenging question. He already knows all the obvious answers, so when he comes to us he's looking for something elusive, a puzzler. He makes us truly use our skills as reference librarians."

Riesenfeld says he is "painfully aware of the fact that the gap between what you know and what you ought to know widens with age....You can never know everything; what you have to know is how to find out."

It is this love of exploration, of looking for answers that keeps his mind churning and brings his body to work daily.

"The analysis is fascinating," said Riesenfeld. "There are other enjoyable things, but what really keeps you wired is the analysis, the questions. It's what you think about nights and days."


A Professor's Work is Never Done

Of 240 respondents to a recent survey by the Academic Senate Committee on University Emeriti Relations survey, 70 reported that, although retired, they continue to teach. Fifty reported teaching at Berkeley, a Berkeley-associated lab, or another UC campus.

An additional 17 emerita are teaching at Yale, University College of London, University of Zurich, University of Chicago, University of Minnesota, Arizona State and University of Alberta, Canada, as well as many local institutions of higher education.

The 70 professors were from departments as diverse as agricultural and resource economics, business administration, chemistry, molecular biology and music.

In addition to teaching, the retired professors reported writing articles, reviewing books, serving on editorial boards and academic committees, pursuing research, directing dissertations, serving on local government boards and commissions and many other types of active involvement.

One professor reported writing two books that are due out from Oxford University Press -- one later this year, the other in 1999.

Another has been serving as adviser to the Chinese Art Exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Professors described establishing programs within their fields, securing six-figure grants to pursue research, writing textbooks, and, in general, leading active, productive lives.

"Obviously, retirement is not an ending for these professors," said Shelley Glazer, director of the UC Berkeley Retirement Center. "In addition to their academic work, they and retired staff have created the retirement center to support and enhance their connection to campus life," she said.

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