Bittersweet memories for Valparaiso Law School alums

Before the signs were taken down and the remnants of the past 140 years were put into an archive, Nadia Wardrip took her 2-year-old daughter to Valparaiso Law School at the end of May to snap a couple of photos.

The Lake County deputy prosecutor had spent 12 hours a day, six days a week at the law school so she could become a prosecutor, as she had dreamed of doing since high school. Going back one last time helped her explain to her little girl how she became who she is.

Wardrip arrived on campus in the fall of 2010 already knowing she was headed to the prosecution side of the courtroom. She wanted to speak for victims, and she chose Valparaiso because she believed she would be better prepared by the hands-on experience offered through the school’s clinic and the externships.

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Faculty reflect on Valparaiso Law School’s legacy

Criminal law was her favorite class because the late professor David Welter often drew from his own private practice to teach the students. Conversely, the memory of her struggles in property law causes Wardrip to utter “stupid class.” Even though she graduated with honors, getting a D in that course still stings.

Like many others who earned their J.D. at Valparaiso, Wardrip focused more on her career than on thinking about her alma mater. But misfortune brought the school back to the attention of the alumni. A shrinking pool of quality applicants and declining bar passage rates caused the law school to stumble so badly, the university decided to close it.

“It was never a top-tier school,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean it didn’t create great attorneys.”

The official history of the law school, founded in 1879, is captured in law review articles, books and documents from Valparaiso University and the American Bar Association. However, pictures taken through the years and stories from alumni convey the intimate details of what studying law at Valparaiso was like.

Alumni say they were drawn to the school because it was a small place where they could better know their professors and get a more personalized education. At orientation, they were told they were not going to be taught the law, but rather were going to be taught how to analyze the law and think like lawyers.

Dana Wachs, class of 1985, credits his courtroom skills to the late professor Richard Stevenson constantly asking “why” whenever someone objected during mock trial practice. Stevenson, who also taught evidence, pushed his students until they understood the legal foundations of their arguments.

Wachs still calls upon what he learned about the law and about being confident in front of a jury in his own private practice at Gingras Thomsen & Wachs in Wisconsin. In addition, the ability he gained to be comfortable in front of a crowd and speak off the cuff helped him during his three terms in the Wisconsin state legislature and in his brief 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“That was a great place,” Wachs said, explaining Valparaiso was what he wanted in a law school. “I absolutely loved it.”

Click here to read faculty reflections following Valparaiso Law School’s closing.

‘Super busy’

Maryam Afshar-Stewart, class of 2016, enrolled in Valparaiso as the legal job market was crumbling, but she was undeterred. She threw herself into the experience at Valparaiso, joining the women lawyers association and the Muslim student association as well as working on the law review and in the criminal legal clinic.

Studies came first, she said, but she loved having a schedule that was “super busy” and unpredictable. Her plans for a career in family law changed after a couple of internships with judges and in the Lake County Prosecutor’s Office, where she is now a deputy prosecutor.

“Whether or not I would have a job didn’t cross my mind,” Afshar-Stewart said of her decision to attend Valparaiso. “Work hard and you’ll succeed was my mindset.”

Gene Schoon, senior counsel at Reiter Burns in Chicago, acknowledged he did not work hard as an undergraduate and ended up on the waiting list at Valparaiso Law School. He was admitted and began overstudying and overpreparing for class in order to keep up with his classmates.

During his third year, he and a few of his classmates were tapped to help the Elkhart County prosecutor in a trial against Ford Motor Co. The automaker had been charged with reckless homicide after three teenage girls died when their Pinto caught fire. Every day he was at the trial, and every night he was in the library helping prepare the briefs for the next day’s hearing.

“I was drawn to the law, in part, because it seemed to be a profession where learning and skill could be used for good,” Schoon, class of 1980, said. “I was not a hippie, but I was an idealist.”

Jonathan Sichtermann, class of 2012, loved his time at Valparaiso so much that the law school was part of his long-term career plans.

An appellate lawyer at McVey & Parsky in Chicago, Sichtermann credits the legal research and writing skills he learned in law school with his success. The day he learned the note he had written would be published in the law review was a highpoint punctuated by a celebratory dinner with his parents at Pesto’s Italian Restaurant.

For him, the law school’s closure carries a special disappointment. He was hoping to return to Valparaiso as a law professor.

“That was my goal,” he said. “I wanted to work for a law firm for 10 years, then try to get a position at Valparaiso University.”

Click here to learn about the donor lawsuit agains Valpo.

‘Losing our history’

James Dillon, class of 2013, could see why the law school was experiencing trouble by looking at the class photos hanging on the walls of his classrooms. The number of graduates in each picture kept growing, signifying to Dillon that the school was accepting larger classes to bring in more revenue even while the facilities grew tired and the library began showing its age.

He also remembered the rumblings that grew as the bar passage rate began falling and the ABA sanctioned the school. Some hinted the school’s decline was linked to the higher enrollments of minority students who did not have the ability to become lawyers.

The innuendo hurt Dillon, an African-American. He was dedicated to his studies, arriving at the law school at 6 each morning after working overnight as a police officer. Following a quick nap in his car, he would head to class at 7:45, then nestle into a desk at the back of the library to study before returning home to sleep and repeat the routine.

Dillon, now a solo practitioner, loved being a law student. Disagreeing with the decision to close, he worries the value of his Valparaiso law degree will drop, and he mourns the loss of the school itself.

“We’re losing our history,” he said. “It’s like your parents died and they sell the house so you have nowhere to go home to.”

Frank Parise, class of 1985, shares some of Dillon’s frustration.

The Wisconsin native was accepted to law schools in Wisconsin, but the campus and intimacy of the law school convinced him to study at Valparaiso. He got what he wanted with a demanding curriculum, opportunity to work with actual clients, tough but caring professors and classmates who became lifelong friends.

Like Wachs, Parise took evidence taught by Stevenson and was a member of the mock trial team. Initially, he found the professor to be too strong, too authoritarian, but he came to see “the human element.” Stevenson pushed and prodded because he wanted his students to be better lawyers.

Now in solo practice as a criminal defense attorney in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Parise said the end of the law school diminishes his J.D. and all that he has achieved. Colleagues do not tease him, but when conversations swing to talk of alma maters, they ask about the closure, and Parise gets embarrassed.

“It’s disappointing to know your school no longer exists,” he said.

‘Banner days’

On graduation day in May 1992, Jayme Matchinski posed for a picture with her parents and siblings in front of the university’s chapel. The picture is now framed and sitting on a shelf where it reminds her of the classes she took, the people she met and the many things she learned.

She returned to campus in May 2018 to give the law school’s commencement address. Among the advice she gave the graduates, she told them to take pictures because “this is one of those milestone and banner days in your lives that will only happen once.”

Matchinski, who played basketball as an undergraduate, remembered she had to get used to sitting for long periods of time as her morning classes morphed into studying from mid-afternoon to late evening. Her need to keep Black’s Law Dictionary handy while she read through the cases eventually gave way to working with clients in the school’s law clinic, studying in China and, now, a successful practice at Greensfelder Law Firm in Chicago.

Telling the graduates to take photos, she said, was to remind them of what they had achieved and the values of courage and grace they had learned. Looking at the pictures from her own graduation, she said, “We were so happy, so young and so full of optimism.”•

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