During the first minutes of my first Torts class with Charlie Rice, I began seriously to rethink my decision to go to law school. A student sauntered in late. Professor Rice stopped the class and with his ramrod straight posture and steely Marine eyes, focused on the student.
“There is no courtroom in this country where you can walk in late,” Professor Rice barked. He then noticed the student holding something. “What’s that?” The student replied, “A commercial outline.” “These commercial outlines are shams; these companies just rip you off,” Rice growled. Professor Rice pulled the outline from the student’s hands and threw it across the room. Then, with a strength belying his nearly 70 years, Professor Rice grabbed the much larger student and ran him out of the classroom. My classmates and I murmured and looked at each other, not believing what we had just seen.
Professor Rice let the tension build for a moment and then broke into a big grin. The tardy student was a third-year law student, a plant. The joke was on us. Since that day, I’ve heard about numerous such pranks that Professor Rice played on his unsuspecting first-year students. There was an important lesson embedded in these pranks—a lesson that Professor Rice lived so well: Law school (and life) was to be taken seriously, but not too seriously. We, his students, should laugh, lighten up, and relax. Professor Rice saw this world as part of the Divine Comedy: deadly serious, but shot through with the mirth of Christ.
In the month since Professor Rice passed away, I’ve been struck by another quality that he had: a capacity to love those given to him—his children, his students—and to be present and attentive to them no matter where they were in life.
No one could mistake where Professor Rice was. He believed in Christ, His Church, Our Lady, and Saint Joseph. He held fast to the Church through thick and thin—too much thin. But whether you were a lukewarm Catholic or an antagonistic atheist, Professor Rice loved you because of your inestimable worth as a child of God. A testament to this has been the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by fellow alums who clearly were not in the same book, let alone on the same page as Professor Rice.
Professor Rice was the best kind of Christian witness: clear and attractive, charitable and firm. He might think you were wrong—dead wrong—but you knew he loved you. In an age when truth and mercy are too often separated or seen to be at odds, he saw that they were intrinsically connected. His witness drew people in.
For instance, I have one classmate who came to accept and live the Church’s teaching on contraception because of Professor Rice. Four children, who might otherwise not have been, exist because of Professor Rice’s patient witness. He sat with this classmate’s wife and talked through the issue with her, helping her grasp what was at stake.
Such stories are legion. Students who had questions and crises found Professor Rice’s door always open, his phone always answered. While students are graded blindly in law school, anonymous to the professor, Professor Rice’s students were anything but anonymous to him, never simply numbers on a ledger.
In my own case, when I was dealing with some serious questions about whether I was called to marriage or the priesthood, Professor Rice set aside a block of time, talked to me about the questions in front of me, and encouraged me. He recounted his own vocational journey which included a retreat to a monastery a month or so before his own wedding. (I can only imagine what the future-Mrs. Rice went through as Charlie figured out whether he was called to the priesthood.) He recounted the sage advice of a Jesuit on that retreat who told him that the priesthood would go on without him.
It was the sort of lesson Professor Rice taught us on that first day of class: Take life seriously—the stakes are eternal—but don’t take yourself too seriously. It is why he could repeat over and over to those of us who, like him, worry about the state of things: “Relax. You’re on the winning side.” He knew that the victory had already been won on Calvary. Requiescat in pace.
Conor B. Dugan graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2003. He was in Professor Rice’s final Torts class at Notre Dame. Conor is a husband and father. He is also an appellate litigator in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with Warner Norcross & Judd. He blogs at One Court of Justice (http://wnj.com/Blogs/Appellate).