The Path Less Traveled

Noted law professor shows flair for the dramatic

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Weld Professor of law CHARLES R. NESSON in his office in Griswold Hall getting ready for a busy day of classes. Nesson has recently been embroiled in controversy over his drug habits.

It is 6:30 in the morning as Weld professor of Law Charles R. Nesson ’60 takes a set of keys out of his pocket to unlock the gates to the Mount Auburn Cemetery. The key to the gate, he says, was given to him by the cemetery so that he could enjoy his morning walk before the cemetery opens to the public.

“I believe Mt. Auburn was an initiator of the garden cemetery movement. Before that, the places where they kept the dead were horrible. Catacombs, the things of kid’s nightmares,” he says. “I’m going to be buried here.”

“This place is an arboretum, a bird sanctuary,” he continues. “I get up to honor the sun, to feel at one. I feel at one with anyone who feels blessed by the morning.”

The solitary morning walks, like so many things Nesson does, have a certain air of eccentricity, and even cause the occasional controversy. When he told the Harvard Law Record in February he smoked marijuana regularly during these strolls before class, it made national news.

His irreverent style draws both admiration and ire—he has dabbled on the wrong side of the law, he has helped make ground breaking civil rights changes and he has offered to defend a students’ use of racial epithets. Among the Harvard Law School faculty, his antics have earned him a reputation as a hilarious, but sometimes frustrating colleague.

Nesson reaches the top of a large hill in the middle of the cemetery and looks out at the Charles River, flanked on either side by Boston and Harvard.

“My dad’s office was over by the Prudential,” he says pointing at Boston’s second tallest building. “He went to the law school to get out from his father ‘s control,” Nesson says, staring at the city.

“He was 19 and you needed to be 21 to take the bar exam. When he finally took it he knew he needed help with the test. He was caught with five other guys getting the answers to it. He was disbarred before he ever practiced,” Nesson says with a smile and a shake of his head.

His father then went to work at Nesson’s grandfather’s real estate firm.

“He did a good job, until my grandfather died. I don’t know, after that he changed, started liquidating the property and he spent all the money.”

Nesson hums as he begins walking again, down a steep hill.

“I love the names of the paths. There’s Fern Path, that’s my wife’s name, and Ivy path, that’s my sister, and Holly Path my niece. There is a great spot where Ivy and Holly Path cross.”

From Student to Professor

When he was a student at Harvard Law School (HLS), his professors used to joke that only he and God were smart enough to understand his papers.

A math major as an undergraduate, he entered HLS and maintained the best grades in the class for all three years.