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Alumni Remember Professor Joseph Koffler

Since the death of Professor Joseph Koffler on November 13, a number of alumni have sent their memories of this legendary teacher to New York Law School. We are pleased to share these recollections with you.

Elizabeth Anne Bannon '84

On Monday, January 12, 1981, I walked into New YorkLawSchool for my first day of law school. I had two classes that day: Legal Writing and Torts I.

When my classmates and I arrived for our Torts class, whispers spread throughout the room -- "This man is like 'Professor Kingsfield' from 'The Paper Chase,' isn't he?" ... and "I heard that this guy is really tough on you!"

Well, in walked an unassuming, not very tall man, who appeared to be in his late 50s. It was Professor Joseph H. Koffler. He asked us what other classes we had had so far. Some brave soul answered, "Legal Writing." Professor Koffler then announced, in no uncertain terms, "This is torts. This is your first substantive class. Does anyone know what a tort is?"

A dead silence hung over the room. Finally, apparently tired of waiting, the good professor looked somewhere in the middle of the class and said "You! Stand up! Do you know what a tort is?"

Again, silence. No one moved. Especially me; especially since I had the sinking feeling that he was speaking directly to me.

He was.

He repeated his question, this time looking directly at me, "Yes. You. Stand up! Do you know what a tort is?" I stood up, and, with the voice of someone who hasn't a clue of what she is talking about, answered,

"A tort is a civil wrong."

My friend, who was an accountant, had told me this the night before when he learned that torts was one of my first two classes. This was, apparently, insufficient, as I heard Professor Koffler's booming voice: "What else is it?"

"It is between individuals," I replied.

"What else is it?" he asked, unrelentingly. I was running out of options, here. Remember that I was merely reciting a definition given to me the previous evening. Nonetheless, I looked at him right in the eye and said, "I don't know what else it is, but I know what it isn't." I saw a hint of a gleam in his eye as he almost let go a smile as he asked, "All right. What isn't it?"

"It's not a crime," was my answer, as I stood, alone, in that sea of now very, very afraid mid-year classmen of the class of 1984.

He finally let me go as he said, "Fine. Sit down." I was so relieved. I made it through one round fairly unscathed.

Then he started speaking about law school in general, and this time, though he did not directly address me, I felt that he did. Professor Koffler said, "Studying law is one of the most exciting things you will ever do."

He was right. As far as I was concerned, Professor Koffler was right. I remember this event as if it happened yesterday, yet twenty-five years have now passed. I loved law school and I loved torts. I was fortunate to enroll not only in Professor Koffler's Torts I and II classes, but also in the "Advanced Torts" class he taught.

I was so very glad to have visited him after I was graduated and was working. I am so very sad that I will never be able to do so again.

I now work at the Appellate Division Courthouse as a Court Attorney and I often feel that I am back in law school again, because I am constantly studying law. And I am reminded of, and grateful for, my tort professor's words:

"Studying law is one of the most exciting things you will ever do."

Marilyn J. Bruno '92

How very sad to hear of the passing of Prof. Koffler. I had him for Torts in the Spring of 1990, when he named me "Captain" of the class. Any time somebody didn't know the correct answer, he would call on me. Lots of pressure there, of course. The nickname stuck with me throughout my years at NYLS.

This poem was written at the time, which I very coincidentally just came across:

T is for Tort-ure, with a smile.
O is Our professor's galling guile.
R for seeing whom he is to Rile.
T is for his special Teaching style.

Put them all together, you have Koffler. The bane of freshman, thug, and scofflaw.

I will miss him.

Stephen Charles (Shlomo) Groll '93

I am very saddened at the news of Professor Koffler's passing. He was my torts professor at NYLS and I remember him fondly. His encyclopedic knowledge, spiced with a dry wit, enlivened that class beyond all expectations. A scholar of the "old school", he will be sorely missed. May his memory be for a blessing.

Ruth Ann Mandell, '84

Professor Koffler taught me about torts but really mostly about life. The fact patterns would include the endless consequences from a single act of negligence. Understanding the perhaps consciously unintended but nontheless extant consequences that flow from any given lack of concern have led me to be a better person.

He also had an inimitably fun and inspirational style of calling upon each of the students: requiring an answer with logic and appropriate court room demeanor. In most cases, he would call upon us based upon the color of an article of clothing: e.g, man in red or lady in blue. However, there was a special name in my case. He called me Mickey - since I continually chewed gum - he said- "like Mickey Mantle out in left field".

While being singled out and required to speak before the entire classroom was at first very difficult, it ultimately instilled the courage to stand up for what was right in the face of many bullying judges and adversaries, which, as a public defender for 20 years has proven a wonderful blessing.

I share in his physical loss and have often thought of Professor Koffler over the years, but know that his spirit continues on as a guardian angel for me and many others, making this world a better place.

Robert F. Montgomery '83

He was my favorite professor.

He named me "The Monument" because he would call on my fellow students according to how close they were sitting next to me. "One back and two over from the Monument." Soon there was a bombed out area all around me. That man taught me to think and to question things just when I believed I was right. He will remain with me forever.

D. Gregory Valenza '92

Just a quick note about this sad news. I was lucky to have had Professor Koffler for torts. His eccentric-Socratic style was a big plus, keeping the students engaged and on their toes. His teachings have helped me in practice, not something one can say about all classroom instruction. My deepest sympathies to Professor Koffler's family.