ND Law at 150 – Hold On To Your Hats

This spring Notre Dame celebrates its 150th year awarding law degrees. Let’s take a look at the members of the very first law class (attention U.S. News: you would not believe their GPAs and LSAT scores!), learn about their time on campus, and discover what happened to them after graduation. As usual, I have saved a bit of a surprise for the end.

The first law graduates were a true rarity on two levels: by attending college and by studying law.

Nationwide, the Class of 1871 was in the original “one percent,” because one hundred and fifty years ago 99% of college-age residents did not pursue higher education. If you attended college in 1871 then either you really wanted to learn, or your parents really wanted you out of the house. Or both. (Today more than half of 19-24 year olds enroll. Draw your own conclusions about changes in parental love over the past 150 years.)

Not only was higher education unusual, but for lawyers it was unnecessary. Very few practicing lawyers in 1871 had received any formal legal education. The norm was a form of apprenticeship (“reading the law” in a lawyer’s office), and it remained so for another two decades, when the ABA pressed states to include a law degree as a requirement of admission to the bar. 

Life on the Notre Dame Campus ca. 1871

The fact that the first class of law graduates was a select group of driven individuals is underscored by their choice to study at Notre Dame. The school was, to be charitable, remote. Students traveled by train to either Niles, Michigan or South Bend and could arrive on campus by “omnibus or private conveyance” just a couple hours later. Foreshadowing today’s marketing genius, the university touted its “secluded” and “retired” location as a positive benefit for the “inmates of the institution.” No distractions! No sin!

Even better: regular opportunities for confession after you sin!

The students operated in a tightly controlled environment. Paraphrasing from the 1870-71 Annual Catalogue:

  • Students will bathe regularly. Bathrooms – with running water – are available. During warm weather, however, all students will bathe twice each week in St. Joseph’s Lake.
  • Students may not leave campus without permission from the University President or Vice-President.
  • Students must write to their parents at least once each month. All correspondence may be opened and read by the President or Vice-President. (The President and Vice-President were apparently not busy.)
  • Students should be silent everywhere and at all times except during recreation (two separate rules govern the importance of silence.)
  • Tobacco use is “strictly forbidden” and intoxicating liquor is “absolutely prohibited.” If you have to ask about the difference between the two terms, then you are already in trouble. Silence!

“Distinguished” Faculty

Only two instructors are known to have taught law courses full-time to the Class of 1871 – Matthew F. Colovin and Peter J. Foote, each of whom has been profiled earlier (Descent Into Madness and Frolic and Detour editions of Story Time). They distinguished themselves alright.

A Small Graduating Class

Three students received law degrees during that first year:

Lucius J. Tong. He had served on the university faculty for several years and, after receiving his law degree, became the sole professor of law at Notre Dame and the Mayor of South Bend. Read more about him in the Frozen edition of Story Time.

Andrew J. Reilly The son of Irish immigrants, Andrew was born in Indiana and moved to Fort Dodge, Iowa as a young boy. He suffered from poor health and was required to withdraw from the university during the Fall 1870 semester. He was elected City Attorney of Fort Dodge a few months later anyway. There is no indication that he returned to his studies, but he was awarded a law degree with the Class of 1871. He died in 1874 and is buried in Fort Dodge.

James A. O’Reilly If you have ever played Monopoly then you have likely drawn a “Chance” card that directs you to “Take a Ride on the Reading.” O’Reilly’s story gives that phrase a whole new meaning.

A native of Reading, Pennsylvania (not far from Philadelphia), he was the son of Patrick O’Reilly, a prominent and wealthy contractor for the railroads. James was one of several O’Reilly children to attend Notre Dame, and he took to his studies with a genuine passion. He was selected to deliver a speech at commencement in 1868, which he offered in Greek. He was an early triple-Domer, earning Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Bachelor of Laws degrees before returning to Pennsylvania, where he was an active member of the Berks County bar.

As fate would have it, his most memorable moment occurred while he was on a train ride near Reading. The Reading Times of May 29, 1902 provided readers with the details:

[O’Reilly and a friend were] returning from Philadelphia … in the smoking car, when Mr. O’Reilly complained of the dense cigar smoke, and said he would return to one of the day coaches in the rear of the train. The train was nearing … a sharp curve. As Mr. O’Reilly started to go from one car to the other the train reached the curve and his hat was blown off. When he reached for his hat the momentum caused him to lose his balance and he was pitched off the platform and struck the embankment on his head, causing his death.

There is no word on whether O’Reilly collected $200, but he certainly did not pass “Go.”

The Rest of the Story

One other category of law students deserve mention during this 150th year celebration: those who enrolled but departed before receiving degrees. We know of at least two such individuals: James Finley (who went on to become the City Attorney in Pana, Illinois) and John Fleming. It is Fleming’s story that provides today’s fun surprise.

John Fleming of Burlington, Iowa was a student during the first semester that Notre Dame offered law courses (Spring 1869). He was a gifted and well-liked student. The university offered three prizes to law students; Fleming received all three. He chose not to return to school in the fall, however, and established himself as a civic-minded small-town banker in Iowa. If he ever returned to campus history does not record the fact.

But the Fleming family connection to Notre Dame did not end. John’s son, Philip, went to school “back East,” became an engineer, and later a college administrator in New York. Along the way he developed close relationships with officials at schools across the country, including a small Catholic school in the midwest. When one of his dearest friends at Notre Dame died in 1931, Philip Fleming was among the first to express his grief. The two men had traveled abroad together, shared countless hours in conversation, and were very close.

So when the funeral was held for Knute Rockne, Philip Fleming was among the honorary pallbearers. He was better known as “Major Fleming,” the athletic director at West Point.

Happy 150th, NDLS. Your ties to Notre Dame will extend in ways you cannot imagine. Celebrate responsibly.

But go ahead. Make some noise.

For sources and additional reading, see p. 2

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