Amanda Lyons had been a first-year law school student at the University of Minnesota for all of one week when she e-mailed David Weissbrodt to ask a favor. Might the founder and director of the Law School’s esteemed Human Rights Center (HRC) put her to work?
“I’m sure I was too intense for him to deal with,” she said earlier this week with a laugh, noting that first year students were expected to have their noses deep in the foundational lessons of tort and constitutional law. Heady human rights? Already?
“I’m lucky he didn’t say, ‘Come see me in a year,’ ” Lyons said.
Instead, Weissbrodt said yes, he’d find her work in the HRC library. Later, Lyons became one of Weissbrodt’s research assistants as he offered international legal definitions of torture at Guantanamo Bay. She also spent a summer interning in Colombia before her final year of law school, mentored there by one of Weissbrodt’s former students.
Today Lyons is HRC’s executive director, enthusiastically carrying on the work of Weissbrodt, 74, who is being celebrated as a legendary human rights pioneer as he moves into retirement. But it is Weissbrodt the mentor who means the most to Lyons and legions of fellow students. In HRC’s summer fellowship program alone, 650 fellows have been sent to work in more than 380 organizations in more than 90 countries.
“The opportunities I got at the Law School would not have existed without him, the training and research work I got to do with him,” Lyons said of Weissbrodt. “It’s hard for me to overestimate the impact he’s had on my path and my ability to pursue a meaningful professional track in human rights legal work.”
Weissbrodt, now an emeritus professor, was feted at the law school recently as HRC celebrated its 30th anniversary. Throughout the school year, HRC brought in speakers on international humanitarian law, sustainability, torture, poverty and emerging democracies. Though diverse in nature, their topics all led back to Weissbrodt’s legacy.
Still, he’s not sure what all the fuss is about. He was just doing work that needed doing.
“Since I chose law, I tried to make some contributions,” he said, seated comfortably in the den of the condo he shares with wife and fellow lawyer Pat Schaffer, with views of the Mississippi River and downtown Minneapolis.
“But this work is not just theoretical. We need to train lawyers to practice it. It doesn’t make sense to identify the problem and not do anything about it.”
So he’s done a lot about it. In 1988, Weissbrodt established HRC, one of the first of its kind and, later, the world’s largest human rights library. He was the first U.S. citizen to chair a United Nations human rights body since Eleanor Roosevelt. He served Advocates for Human Rights and Amnesty International and helped to found the Center for Victims of Torture.
In his 43-year career at the U Law School, he authored several books on human rights, immigration and international law, and spent time as a visiting professor at universities in France, Switzerland, England, Japan and Australia.
“People say, ‘You’re retired. You can travel,’ ” said Schaffer with a smile. “I say, ‘We’re retired. We don’t have to travel.’ ”
They’ll be married 49 years in June and are the parents of two adult children and three grandchildren.
She’s the reader, he’s the “workaholic,” she said, noting that he still shows up at the law school most days for a few hours. But he does play, too, calling himself an “inveterate swimmer” who does 25 to 30 pool lengths regularly.
Weissbrodt was born in Washington, D.C., the son of an economist mother and lawyer father who retired from government to represent American Indians in property disputes.
He and Schaffer, reared in Montreal, came to the Twin Cities in 1975 so he could join the law school at a time when little was being done in the human rights field. He started programs and founded HRC in 1988. And they stayed.
“We found Minnesota the kind of place that encouraged us to stay,” he said. They bought a farm in Todd County that they kept for 25 years, growing strawberries and reveling in the “nice chance to meet Minnesotans.”
They also found Minnesota a good fit for their liberal politics and creative approaches to injustice.
“When Minnesota sees a problem, it gets addressed,” Weissbrodt said, picking up a copy of the 1,200-page tome, “International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process,” a case book which he co-authored and could recite in his sleep.
HRC faculty director and Regents Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin met Weissbrodt when she was being interviewed at the Law School. His reputation preceded him, said Ní Aoláin, an internationally renowned advocate in her own right.
“David was a fixer,” she said. “He was always ready to do whatever it took — big or small — obvious or less so, sometimes publicly but often quietly and very effectively to get a better outcome.”
But it was his personal connections “as a dedicated teacher, generous colleague and friend,” she said, that remain most endearing and enduring.
Schaffer recalled many phone calls over the years from former students who took jobs in big law firms and were unhappy.
“David would say, ‘Don’t quit your day job, but have you thought about the International Labor Organization in Geneva or a position with the United Nations in New York?
“Years later, they’d call back and say, ‘You changed my life.’ ”