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Sanford Katz Turns 90

Colleagues celebrate the beloved professor’s birthday with fond memories and anecdotes.

Sanford Katz at his retirement party in 2015. 

A few weeks ago, Phillip Weiner ’80 dropped by the BC Law Magazine office to ask if the publication might share the news that Darald & Juliet Libby Emeritus Professor Sanford Katz was turning ninety on December 23. “Professor Katz joined the law school in 1968, where he taught Contracts and Family Law for over forty years,” Weiner said. “He was internationally renowned in Family Law and published extensively in the field. At the Law School, he was always trying to help his students whether it was for guidance or employment matters.”

The magazine spread the word and memories, anecdotes, and birthday wishes for Katz soon began to pour into the publication’s inbox. One of Katz’s colleagues—and fellow nonagenarian—called to say that she had paid tribute to him in a recently released video titled “Black History at BC Law: Professor Ruth-Arlene Howe,” in which she recounted how much he had meant to her.

In the video, she described how, when she came to discuss taking classes at BC Law with then-Dean Richard Huber, he had suggested she take Contracts with Professor Katz. And that, she said, was the beginning of a more than forty-year relationship with him. Katz was her teacher initially and then her mentor. He introduced her to family law, became a family friend, and opened scholarly doors for her, all of which laid the foundation “of what promoted and moved me along,” she said, the gratitude obvious in her voice.

The stories that follow say much the same thing.

My first memory of Sanford Katz coincides with the start of my career as a legal academic. In the fall of 1986, I attended the AALS hiring conference at the Chicago O’Hare Airport Hyatt Regency.  I considered myself lucky to get a screening interview with Boston College Law School and vividly remember meeting Sanford.  I knew of his reputation as an outstanding leader in family law, but what came across most to me was his personal warmth and commitment to Boston College Law School.  I learned a lot that day about the Law School’s commitment to diversity and its importance to the local, state, and national bar.  I left the interview thinking that I had met a remarkable man, not knowing that I would soon have the privilege of becoming his colleague and friend for over three decades. —Alfred C. Yen, Professor of Law and Dean’s Distinguished Scholar 

At 90, Sanford is a towering intellect and prolific writer of family law—just publishing the third edition of both Family Law in America to rave reviews as well as the important treatise Domestic Relations in the United States (Clark/Katz). He was an early and longtime champion of the essential relevance of social work to law, as well as an advocate for comparative legal studies. Who can forget the delightful pull (literally) into his office in the late afternoon for excellent conversation, and a touch of gossip; the dedication to his former students and research assistants; his deep affection for the Jesuits and Boston College; his love for Oxford—and his abiding friendship with so many colleagues. —Mary Sarah Bilder, Founders Professor of Law

Sanford is a giant in the field of family law, and one of the pioneers that brought to the field of family law a new level of scholarly sophistication and acclaim. He’s had great influence in the development of family law scholarship in the US, England, and beyond. But Sanford shaped the field in other ways too, as an editor, as a president of the International Society of Family Law, as a chairperson of the ABA family law section, and more. He, and Ruth-Arlene Howe, made Boston College Law School one the best institutions to study and think about family law in the English-speaking countries. —Paulo Barrozo, John C. Ford Distinguished Scholar

Sanford was one of the very first faculty members I met when I was hired-on prior to coming aboard at BC Law School in the fall of 1970. What was most remarkable about him then—and through all the time I have known him since—is what a caring, supportive, and down-to-earth person he is. These are not qualities universally found among those of us in academia. And they are not qualities you would necessarily expect to see persist in someone who, like our friend Sanford, has established such a brilliant career for himself as a legal scholar and teacher, both at home in the US and abroad.

I had the benefit in both the old faculty office building and the new one of having my office located near Sanford’s. His was always a site of happy activity. There were always students and faculty moving in and out, whether working with him on one of his many projects for the ABA or just visiting to discuss some matter, sometimes scholarly, often not. It generated an atmosphere of warmth that carried down the hall to all of us. I feel so lucky to have spent those many law school years at Sanford’s side. —Charles “Buzzy” Baron, Emeritus Professor of Law

Sanford Katz has been my dear friend, mentor, and confidant for nearly 40 years (although I am not in the elite circle that gets to call him Sandy!). We have experienced much change together at BC Law during that time. But Sanford has remained a constant—beloved teacher to generations, internationally recognized scholar in his fields of family law and contracts, and a pillar of our community. I tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade him not to retire, threatening to lay down outside his office until he agreed to stay. His departure left a huge hollow in the school he has been devoted to for more than five decades.

In 1997 my family visited Sanford and his wife Joan at Oxford where Sanford was at All Souls, a most prestigious college (he reminded me on more than one occasion that T. S. Elliot was turned down). Sanford and Joan took us all to Blenheim Castle, homestead of Winston Churchill (a wartime hero, somewhat blemished, of Sanford and mine), and then to Churchill’s barely marked grave in a tiny church cemetery. My wife Andrea and I and the kids treasure that memory. A most Happy (Milestone) Birthday to my buddy, with great admiration and affection. —Mark S. Brodin, Professor and Michael & Helen Lee Distinguished Scholar

The very first law school class I walked into as a 1L was Sanford Katz’s Contracts class. I didn’t know what to expect, but was both relieved and heartened to see a law professor in front of Stuart 315 who was smiling and welcoming all of his new students. To my great relief, Sanford was a person who was the exact opposite of the curmudgeonly Contracts professor portrayed in the classic movie, “The Paper Chase.” Here was a person who was kind and, as we later learned, a person who took a deep interest in helping his students on their journey through law school and subsequently through their careers. 

Sanford was an excellent teacher. He masterfully combined the Socratic method, spinning out countless and often entertaining hypotheticals, with clear explanations of the law after we had struggled with the nuances of those hypotheticals. Through it all, he constantly displayed great humor and always treated students with respect and dignity. He was always careful to avoid embarrassing a student and would go to great lengths to rescue a student who had wandered down an incorrect road of analysis (such as I often did!) in a way that would make it appear that the correct analysis was one that the student would also have eventually reached.

As we learned contracts, we also learned that Sanford was a giant in the field of family law and the author of leading law review articles and treatises on that subject. We learned this, not from Sanford, himself, who was always humble, but from other sources, such as the ABA Section on Family law, which elected Sanford as their Chair. Through his scholarship, Sanford also helped countless children. His relentless focus on what was in the best interest of children in divorce, adoption, and foster care situations undoubtedly had a positive impact on the lives of millions of children.

Teachers can never predict what impact, if any, they will make. With Sanford Katz, we can be certain that he had an immensely powerful impact and helped make the world a better place. Thank you, Sanford and Happy Birthday! —James Repetti, William J. Kenealy, SJ, Professor

I have always regarded Sanford Katz as the symbol of senior faculty dignity and wisdom. This goes back a long way. In 1974, I had returned to Boston after clerking for [Supreme Court Justice] Warren Burger. I was just 30 years old and I had a young family to look after. I was working at a firm, but my dream was to be a law teacher. So, I started applying to law schools. Imagine my delight to be summoned to More Hall, BC Law’s then home on the main campus, for an interview. Dick Huber had recently been named as dean, but I was informed by fellow junior lawyers that the real powers at the Law School were Sanford and Mary Ann Glendon.

I put on one of my only suits, polished my shoes, and went to More Hall. Sure enough, there were Sanford and Mary Ann sitting in the faculty room representing the Appointments Committee. I was terrified, and have little recollection of what I said, but, years later, both Sanford and Mary Ann separately said that they had offered me the job. Wrong! I never did get the BC job, and began my teaching career a year later at Boston University. But it was so typical of Sanford’s generous spirit to save my pride and remember things differently. And I certainly can see the two of them, Sanford and Mary Ann, sitting there, the very epitome of faculty leadership. And, many years later, I regularly turned to them for that leadership. —J. Donald Monan, SJ, University Professor Daniel R. Coquillette

Photograph by Christopher Soldt, MTS, BC