From his first years on Bowdoin’s campus debating with peers and professors, to his last debating with friends and students, Professor George Isaacson ’70 moved and inspired people around him one socratic seminar at a time. Isaacson died on August 19, 2023, at the age of 74. Known for his kindness, humility and friendship, Isaacson is remembered by the community for his tenacity at debates, wealth of legal expertise and devotion to both his family, both biological and Bowdoin. He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Margaret, and their three children.
A Bowdoin student and debater, Bowdoin professor and Bowdoin father, Isaacson was, by all definitions of the term, a Bowdoin man. Isaacson graduated from the College in 1970 with a major in government on the pre-law track. He then went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Once Isaacson graduated, he returned to his home state of Maine, where he would work for the next fifty years of his life in his practice, Brann & Isaacson. Through his work as a lawyer, Isaacson represented a host of high-profile clients and took two cases all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
One person Isaacson inspired was his Bowdoin debate partner, Bowdoin trustee Jeff Emerson ’70. Both class of 1970, Emerson and Isaacson were friends for over fifty years, peers and lifelong debate partners.
“George was an outstanding debater. And that relationship for the two of us continued for 50 years. From the time we graduated in 1970, until the time that George recently died, he would introduce an argument, he would ask me my opinion,” Emerson said. “Sometimes he would take a position that he didn’t necessarily believe in just for the intellectual value of being able to debate the issue. That was the kind of guy he was, so I always looked up to George.”
Isaacson was described by those close to him as a triple threat: a lawyer in private practice who argued twice before the Supreme Court of the United States, a professor of constitutional law for fifty years and a family man.
“I’ve known many lawyers in my private life and in my business life, many of whom, when they’re successful, get a swollen head and become so egotistical that you can’t help but notice. That was never true of George. George, from the time we were students, until the time he died, was a fundamentally grounded man. And he was grounded in his beliefs, in his religion and most especially in his family. He was absolutely a family man, first and foremost. And I think that grounding kept George from ever becoming conceited about his achievements, or egotistical among other people, or even competitive,” Emerson said.
Despite his many achievements in the field of law, to his students, he was simply known as a great professor.
One of these students was Gwen Gleason ’25. Gleason took Isaacson’s constitutional law course in fall 2022 and was planning on taking his course this semester.
“He was really a phenomenal professor. That was my first law class at Bowdoin, and I was really scared to take it. I think a lot of kids in that class were [scared] and he made it very approachable, but rigorous at the same time,” Gleason said.
Gleason recalled once going to the library with her class to look at recordings of the Supreme Court. The librarian slyly pulled up the recording of Isaacson’s case.
“Nobody in the class even knew. It was just kind of shocking, and he just sort of blushed and was very coy about it,” Gleason said. “By the end of the semester, we all understood that he was a really renowned lawyer. And he sort of casually mentioned things like, ‘oh, yeah, I’m going in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Court next week….’ But it was sort of this thing where he’d never bragged about it.”
Jeff Emerson got the chance to see this investment in the socratic method and in his students firsthand in 2020 when Isaacson invited him into his constitutional law course to share his knowledge on the Affordable Care Act. Emerson fondly remembers experiencing the way his friend taught constitutional law and how the discussions in his class mirrored those Emerson had with Isaacson.
Colleague and neighbor, Professor of Government and Legal Studies Paul Franco, echoed this reminiscence of Isaacson’s debate style in an email to the Orient.
“George rarely engaged in banter; rather, he preferred to have substantive conversations about important issues. He always had an original take on the subject at hand; he disdained conventional opinion,” Franco said.
Isaacson’s office hours, despite being unique, were well-attended. Isaacson and his wife, Margaret, lived and raised their family just yards from campus, where he would hold office hours with his students by fireside.
“Bowdoin students often would go to their home to learn. So the dividing line, which sometimes exists—maybe often exists—between faculty and students did not exist for George Isaacson. He involved students in aspects of his personal life,” Emerson said.
Noah Saperstein ’25, a Government and Legal Studies major who also took constitutional law in fall 2022, remembers his office hours fondly.
“He was the only professor I’ve ever had who invited me into their house for office hours. I remember my first time at his house, talking to him for an hour and a half about politics and law. I think of him as one of the people who pushed me to pursue a career in law after Bowdoin,” Saperstein said.
Isaacson took this personal touch with him to all of his professional endeavors. Professor of Social Sciences Jean Yarbrough was one of several Bowdoin colleagues who also proudly called Isaacson a close friend.
“George was one of the very first people I met when I first came to Bowdoin. In fact, he was at the very first dinner party that I ever gave, along with my late husband,” Yarbrough said. “He was a great addition to the department.… It’s a great, great loss to the government department and to the College.”
Isaacson’s addition to the campus community fully embodied Bowdoin’s institutional values, according to those close to Isaacson.
“George absolutely personified the Bowdoin Offer of the College: to be at home in all lands at all times, to carry knowledge around in your pocket, the keys to the kingdom in your pocket. That absolutely was George. And at the same time, George was always very conscious of the moral and ethical issues involved in life, whether that was legal life, or life generally, and he was very good at those conversations,” Emerson said.
Isaacson was known to call Emerson up to discuss issues of the College, big or small.
“We would revert back to our debate partner days and argue the issue intellectually, but he was always arguing it from the standpoint of moral and ethical considerations. That, I think, is a very distinguishing characteristic,” Emerson said.
A third-generation and lifelong Mainer, Isaacson attended Edward Little High School in Auburn where he first fell in love with debate.
“[Isaacson] really did think Maine was the best place in the world to live. He often said that it provided the opportunity for people to be big fishes in a small pond—and George lived that.” Yarbrough said.
Isaacson’s funeral was held in the Bowdoin Chapel at 10 a.m. on August 23. The chapel was filled, as was the overflow room. An additional 400 individuals streamed the service. The next day, the family hosted a more intimate shiva in his family’s home.
Isaacson’s Jewish faith was a strong pillar in his life.
“George was the personification of tikkun olam (repairing the world),” Emerson said.
Nikki Harris and Sam Pausman contributed to this report.