History – A letter from HLS Forum Founder Jerry Rappaport HLS’49

How I created the Law School Forum, and how I had the audacity to do so, is in hindsight difficult for me to imagine. But the history is true.

In March 1944, at age 16, I entered Harvard as a member of the class of 1947C. Harvard was on a war time calendar with three sections in full-year programs, with three semesters each year. I knew I wanted to go to law school and opted to join a newly combined seven-year program to obtain both degrees simultaneously. I believe I was one of two such students before the program was ended. The program prescribed three years of college followed by two years of law school, and then two years of college and law school combined, resulting in a joint degree in seven years. The concept was obviously way ahead of its time; joint degree programs had yet to be invented!

I decided to take extra courses plus my three semesters a year to be eligible for admission to law school before I turned 18. After VE day in Europe, Harvard went off three sessions and three semesters per year, despite the fact that the war with Japan had not yet ended. I therefore decided to spend the summer at Princeton to finish the necessary coursework for admission to the law school that fall.

During my summer at Princeton I became a news commentator on the Princeton student radio station which intensified my interest in public policy and the use of radio to reach a wider audience. The war with Japan ended. In September 1945 when I started Harvard Law School I had just turned 18 and had not yet finished college. I was on a program that at the time had but one student.

Many of my classmates were returning veterans, which made the age differential even greater than usual. The law school, concerned about this age difference, requested that I remain a resident of my college dorm, which I did throughout the program. Most significantly, they assigned Dean Jim Landis as my advisor and counselor. Landis had led the life of a lawyer, public policy advocate, and administrator, and fortunately for me took his role as my advisor quite seriously. We discussed the disconnect between the exciting public policy issues in a world in the midst of great change, and the limited exposure to these issues in a law school program totally focused on being a rigorous competitive trade school.

I know it is difficult to return in time to 1945 at Harvard, when there was no TV, no education talk stations or public service programs on radio, and few forum events or student organizations competing for attention on campus. My concern, which I discussed with Dean Landis, was that lawyers ended up in public policy positions after receiving legal training in a virtual public policy vacuum. Because I had grown up in Manhattan with one of the only public radio programs in the country – “The Town Hall of the Air” – and had been in the audience at one or two program broadcasts, I thought it would be wonderful if Harvard Law School could sponsor a series of programs on the issues that were going to shape the world.

Although I was just a first-year law student, Jim Landis encouraged me to embrace what he thought was a fine idea. He offered to provide me an office with a phone and secretary for a limited time to see if I could pull it off. He suggested I get some friends to join me. As my mentor, he gave me a letter of introduction to Justice Felix Frankfurter so I could learn first-hand how Frankfurter had connected law, public policy and service, and to ask the justice if he would be willing to open some doors for speakers.

Because I was the founder, I named myself President. I appointed as board members a group of friends who shared my interest in a project that would expose us to a world beyond the academy. Empowered by the dean’s mandate, I designed and executed the first programs on my own in the spring of 1946 and presided over them as student host.

In the world of the 1940′s an invitation to a forum at the prestigious Harvard Law School didn’t require payment of a speaker’s fee, so at the start we didn’t have any expenses to speak of. I was soon able to arrange for WHDH radio to broadcast the question-and-answer portion of the programs, which was perhaps symptomatic of the lack of public affairs programming at that time and of the public commitment of Bob Choate, the publisher of the Boston Herald (a different paper back then), which owned WHDH.

HLS Forums were held initially at Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall. When crowds became too large the Forums were moved to Rindge Tech High School, where we charged a small admission fee. The Law School paid for a dinner for some board members, the speakers, and a few professors. Livingston Hall, Milton Katz, and Lon Fuller became faculty advisors to the Forum.

I remained Forum President and Founder through the end of 1947, by which time the HLS Forum was well established. My classmates were going to be seniors and I was returning to my College and Law School classes, so it seemed appropriate to give over the title of President to one of the other board members. The Board held a democratic election, selecting Dick Holman, a senior at the Law School, as President. I continued my involvement so they elected me President Emeritus to recognize my work as founder and first President.

As a footnote, because the Forum was so successful on the radio, I went on to explore ways in which radio documentaries and forums could connect knowledge and insights of Harvard University academics with challenges in the Boston community. A program I produced with Gordon Alport on prejudice received a nomination for a Peabody Award in 1948/49.

I had just turned 18 when the war ended and was extremely impressed with many of my classmates, members of what we now call “the Last Great Generation.” At the first HLS Forum in 1946, I emphasized its relevance by stating that my classmate veterans had fought for a better world and to be worthy of their idealism and sacrifices it was incumbent on all of us to make it so. Chaffee built on this connection by dedicated the Forum to those who had not returned. It was a moving moment and expressed the idealism and hope at that time.

Times have changed and the Harvard Law School Forum has adapted to changing media, student, and community interests. Nonetheless, it survives 66 years later and audiences still assemble to hear controversial, thoughtful presentations sponsored by students of this great institution. I am proud of that, and grateful to all those who have carried on the Forum’s work, despite the transformation of the media in the public and the university arenas.

– Jerry Rappaport
Harvard ’47
Harvard Law School ’49