Story by TIM OBERMILLER
Most alumni probably aren't aware that Illinois Wesleyan once had a law school, but over its 53-year history the law program was regarded as one of the university's great successes. Many of its graduates, such as U.S. Senator Scott Lucas, became leaders in their fields. Others, like Antoinette Funk, worked to change the norms of society as a whole.
Illinois Wesleyan was the youthful age of 24 when it decided to open its own law school in 1874. During IWU President Samuel Fallows' brief but productive administration, nonresident and post-graduate courses were established, but the law school quickly became the standout. The June 1874 issue of the Wesleyan Alumni Journal declared, "There is perhaps no Department either established or to be established of greater immediate vital importance to the University and the people generally than the Law Department."
McLean's County's active judges and attorneys both created and ran the school. There were no full-time professors. An article in the University Archives written by Class of 1915 alumnus Roy A. Ramseyer states: "Many of us as students felt that this was a decided advantage, in that the instructors came to their classes with a practical knowledge of the everyday application of the principles which they were teaching."
In order to gain admittance, students "were required to be at least 18 years of age and of good moral character," wrote Ramseyer, while the school's curriculum "was modeled after the courses of the best law schools in the United States." According to the book Bar None: 125 Years of Women Lawyers in Illinois, students "attended lectures, did moot court exercises, studied major texts such as Blackstone's commentaries and were required to pass a comprehensive exam at the end of their senior year."
Law students did not separate themselves from other Wesleyan students, engaging in many college activities. "Its students always constituted a considerable proportion of the various athletic teams which represented Wesleyan," Ramseyer noted. Future senator Lucas, for example, played left end on the 1912 football team.
The first graduating law class had only seven students, but enrollment quickly grew. From an average of 60 students, it reached its peak at 133 students in 1923.
Law classes were held in the lower level of the Main Building, also known as Hedding Hall, which burned down in 1943. For a time, classroom space was rented near Bloomington's Courthouse Square so that busy judges and attorneys who taught Wesleyan's law students could save the time it took to travel to campus.
Prior to the 20th century, IWU was one of only four Illinois universities that allowed women to study law. In 1879, Marietta Brown Reed Shay became the first woman graduate of the law school and also won a coveted $50 prize given for the best final exam. The sixth woman to practice law in the state, Shay wrote A Student's Guide to Common Law Pleading. Published under the name M. B. R. Shay in 1881, the book won positive reviews in law journals and became required reading at many law schools — including Illinois Wesleyan's.
In another law school first, Gus A. Hill became the University's first black alumnus when he received his degree from the school in 1880.
By the 1890s, when Antoinette Funk was among its students, the law school had secured a reputation "as broad as the whole West," reported the Wesleyan Echo. "From all parts of the land students come to enjoy the privileges here afforded. The judges of the supreme court of Illinois have recommended it and have backed up their words by sending their own sons to Bloomington."
During its history, the school graduated nearly 1,000 students. Best known was Scott Lucas (D-Ill.), class of 1914, who served in both the U.S. House and Senate and became Senate majority leader from 1948-1950. He helped pass the 1936 Soil Conservation Act, ran the Midwest branch of Harry Truman's successful presidential campaign and was an early advocate for civil rights. Lucas was also one of the earliest critics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade and found himself targeted by McCarthy during his 1950 reelection bid, in which he was defeated by Everett M. Dirksen.
Other law graduates included two state governors — Clarence Baldridge of Idaho and Lester Hunt of Wyoming — as well as University of Arizona President J. Byron McCormick. Another well-known alumnus was Sigmund Livingston, class of 1913. As founder and first president of the Anti-Defamation League, Livingston traveled across the country speaking out against anti-Semitism, which he saw rooted in damaging but popular stereotypes and misinformation about Jewish people.
What many of the law students felt was one of the school's greatest strengths — its use of practicing judges and lawyers as professors — eventually led to its demise. In 1927, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools ruled that an accredited law school must have at least three full-time law professors and an independent law library. Since funding for such amenities was not available, the decision was made to close the law school that same year. An attempt by the Board of Trustees in 1928 to resurrect the school failed to raise sufficient funds, as did a second attempt in 1934.
"The old Law School is now history, but it is an honorable history," alumnus Ramseyer wrote after its closing. "We may take just pride in the realization of what our Alma Mater, the Law School, has accomplished."