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The Life and adventurous career of Eric Stein, oldest active law professor in America

published November 03, 2005

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

( 95 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)

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Over nearly five decades, Eric Stein has taught the law to some 2,000 students. He helped write the rules of procedure governing the UN. He forecasted the creation of the European Union 50 years ago. He is the oldest active law professor in the country. You could learn a lot from him.
The Life and adventurous career of Eric Stein, oldest active law professor in America

He is 26 years old. The Nazis are coming, and he's trying to get his parents and sisters the hell out of Prague. He's thinking logically, like a lawyer, covering every angle. He figures if he can get to Italy, he'll stay one step ahead of Hitler's advancing army. From Italy he can get to America, and from there he can send for his family.

But his family doesn't want to leave Prague. France will save us, they say. Or England. So they stay. He goes, banking on the likelihood that he'll be able to use the degree he's earned at Prague's prestigious Charles University to make his way in America. In time, he'll earn a second law degree from the University of Michigan, he'll write books—11 of them—and around a hundred articles, he'll help draft rules for the United Nations Security Council, he'll be part of the team that writes the charter establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose inspectors will one day trawl Iraq and Libya for weapons of mass destruction. What's more, Eric Stein will become one of the most important scholars on the subject of unity in Europe, the scrambled continent he is currently trying to escape. But first, long before he does any of that, he has to get to Italy.

And so he goes. It's August. Hot. He waves to his girlfriend through the window of the train as it lumbers out of Prague's Woodrow Wilson Station in the middle of the night. He crumples into an empty compartment and finds himself next to a Dominican monk. They chat a bit and doze through the early morning hours, until suddenly there is a man in uniform glowering down at them. Maybe police, maybe Gestapo. Collecting Jews. The three men—Stein, the monk, the Nazi0-are silent for God knows how many long, sweaty seconds. Most likely, the officer decides Stein must be with the monk, and he keeps moving, plucking other Jews from their seats and sending them off the train. When the train finally rolls to a stop in Milan, Stein, the young lawyer headed for America, steps into the station piazza, and a boy rides past on a bicycle, its basket stuffed with fresh bread. The boy is singing an Italian aria, falsetto, off-key, beautiful.

Stein has put some space between him and the Nazis, but he still isn't safe. The rumblings are that Mussolini will soon cave and give up Italy's Jews. He leaves Milan, a fascist hotbed, and heads for a fishing village near Genoa. There he receives a letter from his sister informing him that the Gestapo came looking for him shortly after he had boarded the train. He meets an American expatriate. The man says getting a visa to the United States is an all but impossible task. His best chance is to try the Naples consulate. There Stein encounters a young, conscientious vice consul. "I said exactly the wrong thing," Stein recalls today. "I told him I was already a lawyer and that if I went to America I would never return." The kid gives Stein an illegal student visa to get to America.

According to research by the Association of American Law Schools and Jungle Law, Eric Stein, who turns 91 on July 8, is the oldest active law professor in the country. He's an emeritus member of the faculty at the University of Michigan Law School, his American alma mater. He still advises about a dozen SJD and LLM candidates a year, writes articles—he wrote two in a month's vacation in Arizona this winter—and speaks to international law groups such as the American Society of Comparative Law. "He's not active," says Brian Simpson, a Michigan colleague. "He's hyperactive."

To international law scholars, Stein is something of a European prophet. He was the first American professor to study the European Union in the 1950s, and many consider him the first man to foretell its course—that what started as an agreement on coal and steel would grow into a grand experiment in multinational, constitutional government. It made sense, of course, that unity in Europe became his life's work. France and England didn't save his family, after all, and his parents died at Auschwitz, a sister at Terezin. "His drive is emotional," says Matthias Reimann, who teaches international and comparative law at Michigan. "The EU was for Eric a camouflage peace project. Many of his generation felt it: You had to do something to make Europe cooperate. You had to prevent World War III."

At Charles University's law school, Stein became enchanted with the clarity of legal thinking. "I loved Roman law because it was a closed system," he says. "I liked the precision. In one course, the professor gave me a deed from ancient Alexandria, written in Greek. It was partly damaged and my assignment was to reconstruct it."

His experience at Michigan Law in the early '40s was in some ways similar—strict, challenging, all-business—but different in others. He liked analyzing cases, which wasn't done in Prague. "They were like stories," Stein says, sitting at his office desk in Ann Arbor. As he's talking, he is, remarkably and a little dangerously, tilting his chair all the way back, like a college kid. "But at the beginning of my first year, the dean spoke to my class and said, 'Look to the person on your left and the person on your right. One of you is not going to be here in a year.' The whole attitude towards the student has changed from very patronizing and severe to friendly and understanding. From the point of view of human decency, it's a good thing, so long as professors don't coddle students so much that they stop working."

Coddling doesn't impress Stein. He has a big heart, but he's wise enough to understand that smart people are better off figuring things out by themselves. When he arrived at Ellis Island aboard an ocean liner in 1940, there was no kid riding a bike singing opera. There were squinty-eyed paper-checkers, and they saw right through Stein's illegal visa. He was detained for 10 days in a room along with an Indian carrying a snake in a basket. Once more, Stein found whatever luck it was that had seated the monk next to him on the train. This time it was in the form of some relatives in Highland Park, the posh Chicago suburb. He got in touch with them, and it turned out they knew someone who knew someone who knew FDR's secretary of labor, Frances Perkins. To this day Stein believes he may have been freed from Ellis Island with the help of a cabinet member.

On his winter break in 1940, as a young 1L with a thick accent, Stein holed up in a room in Highland Park and transcribed his entire first-semester notes, many of which he had taken in Czech, into English. He learned the language and he learned the law, and he received his JD in 1942. Stein promptly enlisted in the U.S. Army and returned to Europe to fight the forces that had pushed him out of Czechoslovakia and then Italy, the forces that were murdering his countrymen. "I felt morally bound that I should contribute to the defeat of this evil regime," he says. "If I don't help, who should?"

When he got to Italy, the Red Cross told him only one sister and one of her sons had survived the war.

After his discharge, Stein joined the State Department's new Office of United Nations Affairs and worked under Dean Rusk, who would become JFK's secretary of state. Stein saw the UN as having a simple mission: Prevent future wars. "The UN was a formidable vision for development and progress," Stein says. It would, everybody hoped, help push colonized countries toward independence and promote human rights in corners of the world where they did not exist. One of Stein's early projects was to help write the UN resolution condemning apartheid.

He was 42 when, almost 10 years into his work at the UN, Stein's diligent, methodical work ethic became frustrated by political troubles both inside and outside the organization, notably the cold war that was developing between the United States and the Soviet Union. The increasing messiness of the UN's attempt at postwar harmony didn't jibe with Stein's predilection for rationality, for precision. He liked problems with solutions: You take the deed from ancient Alexandria, you figure out how to fill in the holes. You want to fight the Nazis, you join the Army. He wasn't sure where to turn. Academia didn't seem to be an option, since most law schools didn't hire Jews. "My first years in Washington after the war were very lonely," he says. "I had some despair."

Then he met Virginia Rhine. She was from Arkansas and had come to work in Washington as an intern in the Forest Service when the men were fighting the war. Returning to work at the State Department after graduate school at Columbia University's Russian Institute, she was introduced to Stein through a mutual acquaintance. They had an on-again, off-again relationship until they decided they'd commit for life five years later. On their working honeymoon in Geneva in 1955, Stein attended a conference and ran into Blythe Stason, then the dean of Michigan Law School. As luck would have it—and luck always seemed to have it for Eric Stein—Stason became Stein's next monk, his next vice consul, his next labor secretary. He offered Stein a job, and Stein accepted. "I became one of the first Jews on the faculty," he says with pride.

Stein's UN expertise was part of what drew Stason to him, but Stein had no interest in studying the organization he'd worked nearly 10 years to build. "One of the very few times I have ever seen Eric cry was when he felt the UN was not living up to his hopes and dreams of it," Virginia says. Stein had invested so much thought, so much logical, lawyerly thinking, so much hope in the UN that he couldn't bear the thought that it might not work. "I should have written a book on the UN, but I was so disappointed," he says.

Stason was also intrigued by Stein's work as an advisor to Dwight Eisenhower's atomic energy representative. Stein, for his part, was thinking about Europe. At the State Department he had seen cables about an experimental agreement that was taking shape among France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, whereby the countries would conjoin one another's coal and steel industries. To Stein, it was remarkable: former enemies cooperating in essential industries. This camouflage peace project was less ambitious than the unwieldy UN, but that was the very reason it might work.

In 1960, Stein coauthored, with Thomas L. Nicholson, the first book on what is now the European Union, American Enterprise in the European Common Market: A Legal Profile. "That book was prophetic," says Whitmore Gray, an emeritus professor of law at Michigan who took Stein's international business class in 1956. "He saw that the EU would be something bigger than an economic cooperation. Eric really started the whole field of European Union studies. Many of the architects of the EU were regular visitors in Ann Arbor, taking advice from him here because it was not taught over there. He had great enthusiasm for it, and that was contagious."

Matthias Reimann points to an article Stein wrote in 1981 in the American Journal of International Law, "Lawyers, Judges, and the Making of a Transnational Constitution"—probably Stein's most-cited work. "That paper brought it all together. It crystallized for people that the EU was headed towards a constitution, and he was proved right 11 years later by the Treaty of Maastricht," says Reimann.

Tim Dickinson, an expert in international business transaction and an adjunct Michigan professor, is another Stein disciple and former student. "I may not owe everything in my career to Eric Stein, but I certainly owe a lot," he says. "It's a sense of service he gave me—that I have to take my talents and give back. There's a preoccupation with greed in the law school environment. It's easy to have money rule your life, but if you sit down with Eric Stein, you'll find there's a lot more to life than money."

Both Reimann and Dickinson have emulated their mentor and now teach courses in transnational law. In 2001 Michigan became the first school in the country to require a course on the subject. "That reflects Eric Stein's influence on this school," says Reimann.

He's almost 91 now. The number of his former students who are already retired could staff a large law firm. Reimann, like many of Stein's friends, colleagues, and former students, is German. In their more than 20 years of friendship, discussions of Stein's murdered family and Reimann's ancestry have never been tense. Not even close. "It was a matter of accepting," Reimann says. "I suppose Eric saw what happened as part of the larger human drama, as part of human history." Which, really, is Stein's most profound wisdom, the thing you expect to find out near the end of an article about America's oldest law professor: From a past charred by the Holocaust, Eric Stein chose to build a career dedicated to preventing future holocausts by fostering international legal institutions, and by inspiring his students to do the same.

But what about the UN's status today? What about Iraq? And more important, what about the people who make laws and draft resolutions and create new constitutions? Can a lawyer's work make humanity's future better than its past? I ask Stein these questions in his office one morning as the radiator clanks. He tips back in his chair. I expect a hearty answer in the affirmative. But he looks at me squarely through his thick-framed glasses, and I become horrifyingly aware of the 60 years of living he has on me. "I have my doubts," he says. "I would like, by instinct, to be optimistic. But by my experience, I have constantly the feeling to control that instinct." Later, he adds: "There has been progress in human rights. I was in the chamber of the UN in '48 when they adopted universal human rights. Just think of the recognition that 'human being' included women. This was wonderful. But no one knows how long it will last. No one knows how deep the trend is. People learn from history only so well."

No one knows how long it will last. Human rights may be only a trend. I ask Stein how he has mustered such effort for so long on a project—that's what cooperative government is, really: a project—that is so intrinsically experimental, so uncertain. "It is perfectly plausible that the Earth will be destroyed," he says. "The question is, What to do now? This is what I think of." He brings up a poem by Wallace Stevens, The Man with the Blue Guitar, from which he quotes in his book Thoughts from a Bridge. A line from the poem reads, "I cannot bring a world quite round / Although I patch it as I can."

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