Over thirty years ago, I arrived in Hyde Park to begin law school at the University of Chicago. I was 28 years old and had been married for five years. In those days, most students went directly from college to law school, so during orientation the small number of "older" students among our class of 120 quickly found one another.
One of those I met was Eugene Vaughan. Gene and I soon found we had something in common—prior to law school, we'd both worked as editors. Gene had edited textbooks, while I had worked as a magazine and book editor. We both expected that our writing skills would come in handy in the practice of law.
When classes began, I was delighted to find that Gene was in my Legal Research and Writing class, a small section of about twenty students. The course was designed to teach us how to research legal questions and produce memoranda and other documents typically required of lawyers. Each section was led by a recent graduate of the law school who had received a year-long Bigelow Fellowship. Our instructor, Sam Saracino, was no older than Gene or me, but he was clearly our superior when it came to understanding legal arcana. As for writing, however, Gene and I figured we might teach Sam a thing or two.
In those days of non-computerized legal information, legal research was an arduous and confusing affair and I found the law library something akin to a Dickensian Office of Circumlocution. During the first few weeks of the course, I wandered the stacks like a lost soul. I'd been an English major in college and my research skills were minimal. When I finally located all the information I needed for my first assignment, I felt the hard part was over. Writing the memo would be a breeze.
However, when my memo was returned, I was in for a shock—red ink all over the place. Apparently, Sam found my research impeccable but thought my writing needed help. Gene suffered an equal surprise—his writing hadn't passed legal muster, either. At least we could commiserate with one another and laugh about our own hubris. As the term went on, though, we realized that we really could transfer our writing skills to the legal arena. After mastering a few necessary legal expressions, we persevered in our view that a good legal memorandum is one that's written in simple, accessible language. Even Sam seemed to finally agree—the red ink appeared only rarely.
Gene and I continued a casual friendship during law school, then lost touch once we went our separate ways. My love of writing soon trumped my interest in law and, after a stint writing law book supplements, I turned my attention to poetry, fiction, and personal essays.
Earlier today, I learned that Gene passed away in January, at the young age of 61. His obituary mentioned that, after practicing law for a few years, Gene returned to his first love, editing, and once again became a textbook editor. I'm sad to hear of his passing, but somehow gratified to learn that, like me, the solitary but satisfying work of an editor/writer ultimately drew him back into its fold. I hope it gave him many years of fulfillment.