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Remembering Catharine Wells

Beloved BC Law professor and legal philosopher has died.

Professor Catharine Wells 

Boston College Law School Professor Catharine Wells, a nationally recognized expert on Pragmatism and its relationship to American legal theory, passed away on March 7.

“The loss of Catharine is a terrible shock for all of us,” said Interim Dean Diane Ring. “She made significant contributions to both this law school and to legal scholarship, but more than that, she was a cherished colleague and friend over the many years we have worked together. I will miss her sharp mind, quick wit, and enthusiasm. My thoughts are with her family and friends during this difficult time.”

Comments related to Wells’s recent book, Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Willing Servant to an Unknown God, provide a glimpse into her intellectual interests and capacity. One critic, for example, described the work as “elegantly written and filled with sparkling insight about the inner life of one of America’s greatest judges.”

Wells’s legal journey headed early toward academic inquiry. She received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, her law degree magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, and her MA and PhD in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. She went on to teach at the University of Southern California, Stanford University, the University of Arizona, and the University of Utah. At BC Law, as the Law School Fund Research Scholar, she taught and wrote in various areas, including Pragmatic Legal Theory, Feminist Jurisprudence, and Civil Rights Theory. She also taught American philosophy in BC’s College of Arts and Sciences. 

In addition to her book, Wells authored academic articles published in Harvard Law Review, the Michigan Law ReviewUniversity of Southern California Law Review, and the Northwestern Law Journal. Her topics varied. For example, her 2017 article in Texas Hispanic Law Journal, “Microaggressions: What They Are and Why They Matter,” was a review of recent work on “microaggressions and explanation of their significance in the exclusion of minorities from participation in dominantly white communities.”

Wells was also a leader. She served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at BC Law, and as chair of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Torts and Compensation Systems, and the Section on Teaching Methods. She organized numerous symposia, including one on Neo-Pragmatism in American Law, which was published in the USC Law Review. She was also a member of the American Law Institute. Her resume included a period as Assistant Attorney General and Director of the Division of Public Charities for the state of Massachusetts.

Further insights into Wells come from other critics of her book. One wrote, “Professor Wells skillfully and knowledgeably portrays Holmes, his life, and the influences upon him, in their complex entirety. She takes us through Civil War combat into science, religion, philosophy, and law. Weaving them together, Holmes is renewed as a compelling standard for the continuing challenge to our national intelligence and purpose.” Another commentator noted: “This innovative study places Holmes within the transcendentalist, pragmatist tradition and thereby unlocks his unique identity and contribution to American law. (Read an interview with Wells about her book that appeared in The Anglo-American Lawyer Magazine and is shared here with permission).

Musing on those observations, one might also say that in her own right Wells set a compelling intellectual standard for her students at BC Law and was herself a unique contributor to American law.

Visiting hours will be held from 4pm-7pm on Friday, March 11, 2022 at Eaton & Mackay Funeral Home, 465 Centre St., Newton, MA 02458. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that tribute gifts be made to Southern Poverty Law Center, Spelman College, or a charity inspired by a personal relationship with Catharine. The family may be notified of your gift by emailing Burial services will be held privately.

Remembrances from Friends and Colleagues

I, like many others I imagine, did not walk into my first day of law school feeling excited or prepared. I was fretting about a sick family member, I had just gone through one of those young-adult breakups that makes everything else in your life feel unstable, and I had the deep, unshakable feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake deciding to pursue a JD.  As particularly cruel icing on the cake, my ancient pitbull Puggles had died the week before, adding a dollop of grief to my uncertainty and rudderlessness. Catharine Wells was my torts professor. I don’t remember much from that first class, but I do remember how she ended it. “Law school is going to be scary and stressful at times, and I really encourage all of you to make time for the things that bring you joy. I have a new labradoodle puppy, and if anyone would like to come take her for walks, please let me know.”

I approached her after class and stumbled awkwardly through trying to explain how I was feeling and how walking a puppy might be just what I needed. I remember vividly how her face changed from gentle friendliness to barely-suppressed mirth after she asked my name. “Wait, Lucy Walker?  My dog’s name is Lucy, and you want to be Lucy’s Walker?”  

By the end of 1L year, Catharine and I were having lunches where we talked about dogs… and also Russian literature? My 2L year, my own recently-adopted dog started spending a few days per week with Lucy (the dog) at Catharine’s house, and Catharine spent a generous amount of her time helping me struggle through parsing the what felt like Greek that was my corporations class. By my last year at BC, my partner Brian and I were having dinners at Catharine’s, and she took on an independent study with me that somehow gave me law school credit for reading and writing about Toni Morrison and Charles Dickens.

Catharine was a great friend to me over the years. Every Thanksgiving, when we came back to Boston to see Brian’s family, I came back to Newton to see Catharine.  Our conversations always picked up right where they left off, and Lucy leapt into my lap as though no time had passed. I have vivid memories of Catharine dancing at my wedding and intimidating the crap out of my new law firm boss who had clearly struck up a conversation with no idea what he had gotten himself into. The last time I saw her was that last Thanksgiving before covid, when my then 9 month-old daughter climbed happily into Catharine’s lap, just as comfortable with her as I was.

My life is forever enriched by Catharine’s touch, and I am eternally grateful for all the time and help she gifted me.
Lucy Walker

When Catharine joined BC Law School she brought a new level of critical perspectives to our community. She focused on the impact of micro aggressions before it became a well known term. Her very presence enriched our intellectual life. She will be deeply missed by all.
Judy McMorrow

Catherine really helped so many students, particularly some who were really struggling, and I know how much pleasure she received from finishing her Oliver Wendell Holmes book and getting to see the great reviews.  
Mary Bilder

The only consolation for her untimely passing is that she was able to see her capstone work, the Holmes biography, in print. 
Mark Brodin

Catharine had a brilliant mind and a heart as big as Chicago. I cannot believe she is gone.
Ingrid Hillinger

Catharine was a strong and independent colleague, invested in fixing American injustice in a myriad of ways. Her pragmatist feminism was inspiring to many and will continue to inspire, well into the future. 
Katie Young

Catharine was among the faculty’s most vocal advocates for diversity and inclusion. Her legacy will not be just her scholarly works, but also her dedication to having this law school live up to its highest ideals. Those of us who remain will have to speak up in her stead.
Kent Greenfield

Catharine will be missed!  In addition to her brilliance and warmth, Catharine had a funny and irreverent side, which she quietly shared.  She was a low key sort of connector, remarkably humble given her accomplishments.  You could always rely on her for warmth, thoughtful encouragement and a sympathetic ear.  What a terrific blend of qualities. 
Fran Sherman

Catherine and I taught our first-year students in section 3. The students were fortunate to learn torts from her. May her memory be a blessing. 
Bob Bloom

Catharine was an incredibly bright and kind person. I first met Catherine when she was the Director of Public Charities in the Mass. AG’s office and I was an associate at Ropes & Gray. Catharine was probably the brightest lawyer I have ever worked with–she had an amazing analytic mind. But, at the same time, she was always kind and gentle. Despite the fact that her great intellect would easily enable her to outwit any adversary, she was always careful not to embarrass anyone and was always generous with her praise. 

Catharine graduated summa cum laude from Wellesley College, magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and held a PhD in philosophy from Berkeley. She was fascinated with the relationship between the theory of pragmatism and the practice of law. In particular, she took a great interest in how pragmatism and the law shaped the human experience. This lifelong interest culminated in her book with Cambridge University Press, Oliver Wendell Holmes, A Willing Servant to an Unknown God, which was a masterpiece. Her other scholarship has also withstood the test of time. Her article, Microaggression in the Context of Academic Communities, for example, which was published in 2013, was featured just this past January, 2022, in the very popular TaxProf Blog.

Catharine was a true pioneer. She was the first woman on the faculty at USC Law School. She once confided in me that the experience there was often difficult. But, yet, Catharine was always kind and helpful. Tom Griffith, a retired tax professor on the USC faculty, once told me that Catharine always had amazing insights and contributions to scholars in all areas of the law and that she was particularly helpful to him in his tax scholarship.  We were very fortunate when we were able to persuade Catharine to leave USC and join us at BC.

One humorous story about Catharine: Catharine loved to drive convertible cars and would always invite me on one of the first warm days in the spring semester to join her for lunch. She always wanted to dine off campus, so that we could enjoy the nice weather driving there in her convertible with the top down. I always looked forward to these invitations with a bit of apprehension. Being a passenger in Catharine’s convertible was comparable to driving in the Le Mans raceway. No car accelerated faster or stopped quicker than Catharine’s convertible! I always strapped the seatbelt tightly when I got into Catharine’s car and I always said a quiet prayer of thanks when we returned safely to the campus parking lot!

I will miss you, dear friend.
Jim Repetti

Catharine was not only a brilliant scholar working at the highest level of legal theory, she was also a dedicated and successful 1L teacher. She embodied the truth that teaching and scholarship are mutually beneficial.
Cathleen Kaveny

Catherine was a dedicated teacher, scholar and mentor both to law students and junior colleagues. Her office was often filled with students, and I know she spent countless hours helping students master the material and find their paths in law school and beyond. She will be greatly missed by the BC Law community. 
Natalya Shnitser

We will remember Catharine with appreciation for her keen mind, and with continuing thanks for her perceptive exploration of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ multiple dimensions — her lasting gift to those of us who had only known Justice Holmes as the eminent but enigmatic judicial seer. 
Zyg Plater

When I joined the BC law faculty in 2014, Catharine Wells reached out to welcome me and we struck up a friendship.    Every few months we would get together and now, looking back, I realize what a gift it was to know her. 

In public, Catharine was learned and brilliant, a scholar’s scholar.  Her devotion to her students was palpable.  But she had other wonderful qualities that revealed themselves over time.  Catharine was a free spirit compared to me, who is detail-oriented, shall we say.  During Covid, for instance, she followed all the health precautions, but never let them stand in the way of a good meal with a friend.  Her comme ci, comme ça approach to life opened my eyes to better ways of putting life’s annoyances into perspective.  And I survived several hair-raising drives in her convertible with Catharine at the wheel, in fine racing form.  Still, she was serious about serious things – be they politics or social injustice – and she was one of the most ardent advocates of diversity.  She was enormous fun, but more than that, she was principled and wise.  And she cherished no one more than her beloved daughter, Erica.

Last summer, Catharine had me over for Chinese take-out on her patio.  It was a hot, lazy summer night and our dogs chased each other in her backyard.  She asked me what I was working on and I let drop that I had at least one more book in me.  To which she said,  “What do you mean, you have one more book?  I have FOUR.”  Then, she methodically laid out her plans for her quartet of new book projects, each in passionate detail.  She was enraptured by the subjects and so was I.  For her leave this semester, she was brimming with plans:  for her book projects, for travel, for completing her basement pool.  And wouldn’t you know it, she jumped right in, completing the first of the four books in January and her basement pool too. 

With so much life to live, Catharine’s death comes as a grievous loss.  Still, whenever I think of her, I remember how, when she was recounting something amusing, laughter would bubble up from her throat, her eyes would grow wide with wonder, and she would break into that dazzling smile. Rest in peace, dear friend.
Patricia A. McCoy

During the period of time when Catharine was teaching law at USC, she had a very unfortunate and violent experience at a stoplight while driving to work one day. While her (ubiquitous) convertible was idling, a strange man on the street had pried out a small but heavy metal manhole cover and threw it through her passenger side window. He reached through the hole he smashed, grabbed her purse from the seat where it lay, and quickly ran off. Catharine was fond of telling this story and exclaiming, “The joke was on him, though, because that was not my purse. It was in fact a bag of feminist literature and I hope he read it!”

Catharine kept that manhole cover for years, and it strikes me now how very like her this was. She confronted this act of violence with her characteristic fortitude and quick wit, and kept the object of violence itself close to her. It was as if to say that neither this, nor any other act taken against her, would break her. This is the Catharine Wells we all knew and loved, and we will not again see another like her. But we can use this as a parable of sorts for all of our own future brushes with adversity to inform our own strength. And we will.
A family member

Shortly after Vince Rougeau became the Dean, Catherine organized a dinner at her home and invited as many people as she could across the faculty.  She wanted to make Vince feel at home and introduce him to the sense of community that long has characterized the Law School, while doing something very concrete to enliven and strengthen those communal bonds.  It was a lovely evening, full of conversation, a lively sense of camaraderie and palpable friendship.  It more than achieved what Catherine had set out to do, and I have thought of that evening, with gratitude, many times since.  It embodied what makes B.C. Law a special institution.  It also demonstrated exactly the sort of person and colleague Catherine was and exemplifies why she will be so sorely missed.
Thomas Kohler