David Westfall, a professor at Harvard Law School (HLS) for 50 years
who specialized in property law and was known for his love of teaching,
died Wednesday. He was 78.
Westfall, who held the Gray and Schipper professorships,
taught a mandatory first-year property-law course for all 50 years that
he was an HLS faculty member. In recent years, however, he had branched
out to labor law and family law.
By all accounts, Westfall enjoyed teaching and was loved by his students.
Some of these students, like Bromley Professor of Law Arthur R.
Miller, whom Westfall taught in 1957, became Westfall’s friends and
colleagues in later years.
“I was very close to him, as his student, which is unusual at
HLS, because it’s so big,” said Miller. “He was user-friendly, in that
he always had time
Stephen B. Burbank ’68, who is Watson visiting professor at HLS
and also one of Westfall’s former students, described a similar
accessibility in Westfall.
“He was not a hierarchical person at all—it was easy to
become his friend and remain his friend for decades,” said Burbank, who
graduated from HLS in 1973.
Burbank said Westfall was a unique professor during that era.
“David was somebody that we would call quite ‘laid-back’ and,
at the time, there was a pretty striking contrast between him and a lot
of the faculty, who were like characters out of ‘[The] Paper Chase,’”
Burbank said. “He was the antithesis of that—a gentleman who elicited
participation not by fear but by inviting a dialogue.”
“David cared a great deal about the quality of his teaching,
he cared a great deal about the material that he loved...and he had a
tremendous rapport with students,” Miller said. “In the long course of
his professional life, he impacted many people who are now at the top
of the legal profession...great practitioners, great judges, and a
large number of academics.
“He taught subjects that are very important, that will never
be taught as well again,” Miller added. Westfall also wrote a book on
family law published in 1994. A casebook and supplement to his book on
estate-planning law and taxation appeared in 2001.
Despite the fact that he was “a very much appreciated and
highly-regarded colleague,” said his friend, Royall Professor of Law
David R. Herwitz, “he never took himself too seriously.”
Beyond his work at HLS, Westfall was also passionate about travel.
“In the last few years of his life, teaching and traveling
abroad became absolutely central to his life,” Miller said. “He would
teach short courses in Germany, South America, Turkey...He was enjoying
that part of his later years. It was a sad thing when his illness got
to be so severe that he had to stop traveling.”
A few months ago, when Westfall announced that he could no
longer teach, his students decided to continue studying the subject on
their own, rather than to request another professor. They felt that
anybody else would be too much of a departure from Westfall’s style,
according to Herwitz.
And, said Miller, this affinity was mutual.
“He would say to me, long before he was ill, that he could not
imagine life without teaching,” he said. “And, indeed, he wanted to die
in the classroom.”