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Peter Donovan Loved a Good Argument—and His Students

The scary 'big man' with a heart of gold is remembered.

November 5, 2016 -- The 2016 Boston College Law School reunion at the Ritz Carlton. Photographed for Boston College by Caitlin Cunningham (  Photographs by Caitlin Cunningham

Professor Emeritus Peter Donovan ’60, a brilliant, tough-minded teddy bear of a guy whom students affectionately called “The Big Man,” passed away February 25. A Double Eagle, he taught at BC Law for thirty-six years until his retirement in 2002, winning the hearts and shaping the minds of hundreds of still-devoted students.

“Peter was an authentic. Not a phony facet to him,” said one of those students, Peter del Vecchio ’81, who helped organize a tribute to Donovan at the 2016 Reunion. “He presented a gruff exterior, but had nothing but pure love and respect for his students. He was also a lot of fun.”

Indeed, Donovan got a huge kick out of the roasting he received at the event from members of the Class of 1981. After the singing and storytelling, his admirers presented to him and his wife Eleanor a glass portrait of Donovan and a pair of signed bowling pins. “I want to thank his lovely wife Eleanor for sharing Peter with us,” del Vecchio said upon learning of his passing.

A specialist in products liability and antitrust law, Donovan was also a central figure in building BC Law’s oral advocacy programs, serving as faculty advisor for the two-time national champion moot court team and mentoring generations of students in competitions. He was coauthor of Massachusetts Corporation Law.

BC Law Professor Robert Bloom ’71, who was both a student and colleague of Donovan, remembered him as not only a great teacher but also as a lawyer’s lawyer. “His lawyering was absolutely the best; attorneys from all over would come to him for his lawyering,” Bloom said.

In 1989, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court took up the case of Harlow v. Massachusetts General Hospital, an appeal from what at the time was the largest medical malpractice verdict in the Commonwealth. Trial lawyer Fred Halstrom ’70, one of BC Law’s most distinguished graduates, reached out to his former professor Peter Donovan to handle the very challenging appeal brought by the hospital, focusing in large part on plaintiff’s closing argument, which invoked analogies to professional athlete salaries as a guide to the jury’s assessment of damages. Donovan asked faculty colleague Mark Brodin to assist him, who was flattered and honored by the request. Throughout the long strategy sessions on the appellate brief and argument, Brodin became more and more aware that he was in the presence of one of the great legal minds he had ever encountered.

The proof of this came when the SJC ruled that, while the argument by plaintiff’s counsel was “egregious and improper under long established, and well understood, principles,” reversal was not called for. Donovan had pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, yet again. Brodin has remained in awe of Donovan’s legal process ever since.

Donovan’s classrooms could be scary places. In his early years on the faculty, he was the only one teaching corporations. The class was so big that students had to sit on the windowsills because there weren’t enough seats.

Bloom remembers his corporations class, which he took in the second semester of his third year. “Professor Donovan would call on me every day (you’re not supposed to do that to a third year student,” Bloom said bemusedly). He called me ‘Radical.’ ‘Radical,’ he’d bellow, ‘what does your sense of justice and fair play dictate on this issue?’ and I’d have to answer and have to be prepared. I hated him. And then at my graduation, he told my mom what a wonderful guy I was, and she loved him and if my mom loved him, then, naturally, I had to too.”

Donovan, of course, knew exactly what he was doing. He had this to say about his torts class during an interview with BC Law Magazine in 2001: “I consider myself a teddy bear that people like to hug. I’d obviously hide that part of my personality because in their first year, I want students to work harder than they’ve ever worked before, and if they’re afraid of you, they tend to work harder. So, maybe I do intimidate them, but we also have a lot of humor in class.”

He cared greatly for his students and was fond of saying that there were only three reasons to teach: “students, students, students.”

Ann Palmieri ’81 said Donovan had a remarkable way of connecting with everyone. “He really did all he could for those that he knew needed his guidance and love and faith,” she noted. “I think of him as a giant Irishman with a giant brain and heart to match.”

Donovan’s contribution to BC Law that was closest to his heart was coaching moot court teams. “Working in the advocacy programs has been my most satisfying work at the Law School,” he said in 2001. “You work with the students one on one, you get to know them as individuals. It’s just a big, huge ego trip to see how hard they work and how well they perform from it.” His teams twice won national championships, were finalists twice, and chalked up an impressive list of regional championships and citations.

His love of oral advocacy was also personal. It was one of the things that turned around the young Donovan’s otherwise lackluster academic performance. A “C” student throughout high school and half of college, he got an inkling of his verbal powers of persuasion during his comprehensive oral exam in philosophy in which he turned the tables on his inquisitors by questioning the ambiguity of their questions, which earned him their respect.

In law school he sparred vigorously with Professor Richard S. Sullivan, which provided Donovan with another important insight. “I love to argue,” he realized. Thus challenged, he rose to third in his class his first year. The next two, he was first.

After graduating from BC Law, Donovan worked in the antitrust division of the US Department of Justice, and earned an LLM from Georgetown Law Center and another from Harvard Law School, where he’d been a Ford Foundation Fellow in Law Teaching. He began teaching at the Law School in 1966.

Peter Donovan’s memorial services are as follows: The wake will be held from 4-8 p.m. on Friday, March 3, at the Joyce Funeral Home, 245 Main St., Waltham. The Funeral Mass is on Saturday, March 4, at 11 a.m. in Trinity Chapel on the BC Law campus with a reception immediately following in Barat House.

Gifts in memory of Professor Donovan may be made to Boston College Law School in support of the oral advocacy programs that were so dear to his heart. Donations may be mailed to Christine Kelly, Director of Alumni Relations, Cadigan Alumni Center, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.  If you would like to make a gift by credit card, please contact Kelly at 617-552-4703.