As the child of two Russian-Jewish immigrant parents in 1940s Shanghai, Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 was no stranger to injustice, a reality that set off his interest in law at an early age.
Living under the rule of imperial Japan, Tribe’s father found himself suddenly arrested after the United States declared war on Japan in December of 1941. As an “alien national,” his only crime was having become a U.S. citizen twenty years ago.
“My sense of what seemed to me the injustice of that imprisonment—after all, he’d done nothing wrong—gave me a lifelong commitment to justice and to the rule of law,” Tribe wrote in an email.
In 1963, one year after graduating from Harvard College, Tribe enrolled in Harvard Law School. Less than a decade later, he had earned tenure at the school, where he would go on to teach future President Barack Obama, Chief Justice John G. Roberts ’76, Justice Elena Kagan, and Congressman Barney Frank ’61-’62.
Despite his long-held interests in issues of justice, few who knew Tribe as an undergraduate had any idea that he was destined for a career in law. In college, Tribe was a brilliant mathematician, earning summa on his senior thesis. And in his spare time, he was an artist focusing mainly on what he described as “pastel seascapes and portraits and drawings of real nudes.”
THE ABSENT-MINDED PROFESSOR
When Tribe first stepped onto campus as a freshman at the age of 16, he found Harvard to be an eye-opening experience. Neither of his parents had attended college, and, given his humble background, Tribe never attended “a fancy high school,” as he put it.
As a result, the young Tribe was awed by the wide array of new intellectual opportunities he could pursue, as well as “all the amazing women I felt too young to be taken seriously by.”
“I have more fond memories than I could possibly recite in a finite period,” Tribe wrote.
Tribe excelled in his academic studies as an undergraduate, friends remembered. He was especially adept at mathematics, enrolling in graduate courses in the department beginning sophomore year.
“Mind you, he was smarter than practically everyone else we knew in college,” said Stephen M. Jacoby ’62, who lived with Tribe in Greenough during their freshman year.
Friends who knew Tribe said their talented classmate could have succeeded in a number of post-graduate careers. His only defect, Jacoby pointed out, was his absent-mindedness.
“He couldn’t keep track of his debate cards, of simple things like the raincoat,” Jacoby said. “It was the epitome of an absent-minded professor, only he was still quite young at the time.”
THE GREAT DEBATER
Despite concentrating in mathematics, Tribe sustained his interest in law and public policy issues by joining Harvard’s debate team his freshman year.