Death won't silence U law school's voice for justice

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 1, 2010 - 8:25 PM

Don Marshall was 6 feet 2, but when he stood in front of law school students at the University of Minnesota, as he did for more than 40 years, he seemed even larger. He had a mop of white hair and a booming voice that could intimidate lesser egos, an intellect as deep as the Scottish bogs where his parents were born and a disarming sense of humor.

When Don Marshall called on you -- and he would call on you -- you had better be ready.

Marshall, 79, died Friday after falling and hitting his head while rummaging around the Edina home he recently put up for sale. Since that time, his sons have been deluged with condolences from the region's major law firms and many of the attorneys who attribute their success to their mentor. The family plans a memorial service later this month.

Mike Ciresi, the tenacious trial attorney, said there is "no way" he would be the attorney he is today without Marshall. "He was an extraordinary presence, a giant," said Ciresi, who still hears certain phrases in his tutor's voice when conducting a trial.

"It's a rare lawyer who attended the University of Minnesota who doesn't remember Don with fondness, and a little fear," said attorney Terry Wade, a friend. "Many of the best trial lawyers in town were positively influenced by Don."

Wade vividly remembers his first class with Marshall. "I couldn't understand about 70 percent of the words he used," he said.

Thomas Sullivan, provost at the U and a former dean of the law school, said Marshall's influence on the local legal community was huge.

"I've heard it said many times that Don was the best teacher to ever appear in this law school," said Sullivan. "He was very smart, always exceptionally well prepared, a master in the classroom.

"No question there was this aura, this legend about Don. He was spellbinding, and so careful with the use and pronunciation of words that he would use at exactly the right time to emphasize the right point."

Marshall was married to his wife, Gerry, for 49 years, until she died suddenly about three years ago. They had four boys together, Andy and Dave, both lawyers; Bruce, a journalist, and Dan, a photographer. Bruce died of cancer, an event that devastated his father.

Family, teaching and books were the essence of Marshall's life. So nothing was more difficult than his wife's death. "Which is why after Mom died and he retired, he didn't do so well," Andy said.

Sullivan said he spent a lot of time in the past couple of years talking to Marshall "about how you get through life after something like that happens."

Andy remembers family dinners that served as a time for discussion. "He did facilitate the dinner conversation like he did his classes," Andy said. That included conversations on equality, race, social issues -- and justice.

When Marshall retired, a banner hung in the law school with his motto: "Never whisper justice."

"He was like the maestro of an orchestra," Wade said. "He was as incredible in the class as anyone I've ever seen in a courtroom. The most important lesson he taught students was to be well prepared and, like a trial lawyer, if you weren't well prepared you were going to be embarrassed."

Many privately compared him to the demanding Prof. Charles Kingsfield of the novel, film and television show "The Paper Chase."

But Marshall was "mortified by that," Andy said. "He was thrilled when students had breakthroughs or succeeded. He never intended to intimidate or embarrass anyone."

Tom Sinas, a former student and an attorney, agrees. "A lot of teachers use that Socratic method to intimidate," said Sinas. "But he wasn't like that. You worked hard to prepare for class because you know he worked so hard, even after teaching a class for 40 years.

"Professor Marshall taught me to appreciate the richness of life and the joy of sharing it with the ones you love," said Sinas. "He really made you feel it was romantic to be a lawyer."

Son Dan Marshall, a commercial and fine arts photographer, said his dad was "brilliant, thoughtful, emotional." Most important, he taught his sons and students empathy for others, even those with whom you didn't agree.

"He took big themes and big issues and did his best to lead a life the way he believed," said Dan. "And he taught others they weren't just things to talk about, they were issues to act on and implement."

"He has been a real influence in my life and in the legal community," said Ciresi. "His legacy will last for generations."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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