Last Thursday, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional and International Law and Government Richard Ernest Morgan ’59 died of metastatic lung cancer at the age of 77. A distinguished professor who taught at his alma mater for 45 years, Morgan was buried yesterday in Pine Grove Cemetery—where many former faculty members, including Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and several College presidents, are also buried.
According to fellow Bowdoin faculty members, constitutional scholars from around the country and four decades worth of students, Morgan was a caring and dedicated scholar with a range of passions outside the classroom that added to his impressive life.
A Teacher at Heart
Many liberal arts colleges do not have a permanent constitutional scholar on campus, and the most famous professors in the field are almost all faculty at prominent law schools—not undergraduate institutions.
“He was primarily interested in teaching to undergraduates,” said Michael Ulhmann, a constitutional law professor at the Claremont Graduate School who knew Morgan for over two decades. “That’s a rare thing in someone who’s marvelously competent at Con Law. I’m sure he was tempted by large schools…but he deliberately decided to return to his own school because he liked the idea of a liberal education in the old sense.”
Morgan was well published, writing numerous scholarly texts and hundreds of essays and articles about constitutional law for various journals and think tanks throughout his career. For professors like Uhlmann, Morgan was a trendsetter in the study of the Supreme Court, despite the relative anonymity that came with working at a small college in Maine.
“[Morgan] made me rethink a lot of things dealing with the First Amendment and the role of courts,” Uhlmann said. “[He] was, you might say, an originalist before that term became popular. That’s a pertinent and interesting point of view that really deserves to be heard and [Morgan] was among the very first in his own quiet way to do that. And his First Amendment views have really become the new orthodoxy, if I can put it that way, among a lot of very smart Con Law scholars. He had a very useful impact on people who follow these things closely, but not in a world of larger fame.”
Professor James Stoner, a constitutional law professor at Louisiana State University who Morgan befriended in the mid 1990s, echoed Uhlmann’s sentiments about Morgan’s role in their field.
“He could see a major case coming well before it was ever picked up in the press,” Stoner said. “He knew constitutional law so well that he had a whole feel for what the Court was doing and, mind you, that’s not because he thought the Court was doing the right things, but he still had a real sense of what direction they were heading in.”
Morgan was as appreciated by his students as he was by his colleagues. Many of his students, like Mitch Zulkie ’91, who studied law after Bowdoin and now works for the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, alluded to Morgan’s unique ability to question their assumptions in a scholarly and thought-provoking manner.
“He’s not the type of guy who gives you clear answers,” Zuklie said. “He forces you to think through probing questions. He trains people to ask those kinds of probing questions. When you ask, ‘Should I do X or Y?’ he never really says X or Y. He leads you to your own conclusion. But undoubtedly you were much the wiser for the questions he asked.”
Another of Morgan's former students, Ed Lee ’74, went on to become the Mayor of San Francisco, Calif. in 2011.
“We mourn the passing of Professor Dick Morgan, whose legacy lives on through the generations of students he had taught at Bowdoin, inspiring many—including myself—in a career of law and government," the mayor said in a statement to the Orient. “As Bowdoin's only constitutional law professor, Professor Morgan taught his students to think critically, thoughtfully and passionately about the law and the pursuit of justice for all. I am proud to have called him a teacher, a mentor and a friend.”
Students also greatly valued his narrative approach to constitutional law—a subject that has the reputation of being dense, repetitive and dry.
“He had this way of taking case law and bringing it to life,” said Steve Robinson ’11. “Every class was like an episode of ‘Law and Order.’ It didn’t matter if this was a murder that happened in 1886—he had a way of narrating it and bringing it to life with his Sean Connery voice. The entire class would be in a trance and wanted to know what happened next.”
Morgan’s reputation as an outstanding constitutional law professor earned him deep respect and admiration from his colleagues.
“I can remember when I visited campus interviewing, I went out to dinner with him and [Gary M. Pendy Professor of Social Sciences Jean] Yarbrough and enjoyed that conversation greatly—it was one of the highlights of my job interview here,” said Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz, current chair of the department. “To teach his courses the way he did and have students to the very end who admired his approach to teaching—I would love to have anything close to that kind of experience.”
Morgan was also well known at Bowdoin for being one of the few conservatives on a predominantly liberal-minded campus—something he was always aware of in class and in the community.
One of his long-time colleagues in the government department, Professor of Government Paul Franco, remarked that one of the qualities he admired most in Morgan was his ability to balance his own political leanings with a scholarly approach to his studies.
“Shortly after the election of George Bush in 2000—the famous Bush v. Gore contest—he and I and Jean [Yarbrough] were invited to a dinner with students, and...one of them addressed Morgan and said. ‘Professor, what do you think of the Bush v. Gore case?’ And he said, ‘Well, as a Republican, I couldn’t have been more delighted by the decision in Bush v. Gore. But as a constitutional scholar, I say I found the decision highly questionable.’”
An Old-School Gentleman
Many of the people who knew Morgan best stressed his unique position on campus, both literally and figuratively. Roosting in his office atop Hubbard Hall, he dressed like the picture of an esteemed college professor, had a well-known love for fine scotch whiskey and exercised a dry wit that so many around him treasured.
“I remember the first time I ever met him,” said Jordan Goldberg ’14, one of many students who grew close to Morgan during his time at the College. “I was waiting outside the honors talks freshman year…and [Morgan] came out first and I had never met him before, and he put his hand on my shoulder and he looked at the offerings of desserts and coffee and said, ‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.’”
“I remember the first time that I walked into his ‘man cave’ out in Harpswell,” said Robinson, who occasionally helped Morgan and Yarbrough with tasks at their home. “I was helping him to carry his canoes or something…and after I got done taking care of the canoes, he handed me a $20 bill, and I said, ‘Oh no, I can’t take that,’ and he said, ‘No, you have to do it, otherwise the College will think this is slavery.’”
Morgan also led an active life in the Maine woods. An avid hunter, canoer, fly fisherman and bird watcher, he was never stopped from pursuing his love for the great outdoors.
“His outdoorsmanship is as deep a part of his scholarship in a way,” said Uhlmann. “I don’t know that he was any prouder of what he did intellectually than his work as an outdoorsman and as a Maine Guide.”
Morgan was also known for steering clear of technology like email. Lynne Atkinson ’81, government department coordinator, had the unofficial position of Morgan’s online voice—helping students get in touch with him and pointing them up the spiral staircase to his office.
“When I went to meetings with other coordinators, where we were having training sessions on how to do this or there was some newfangled thing we were going to learn, I was always the one that had to raise my hand and say, ‘But what if you have a faculty member who doesn’t use a computer?’” Atkinson said. “I never really heard anyone else ask that.”
Many described Morgan’s deep love for the College, which he carried with him for all 49 years he spent on this campus. He had been declining in health for the past few years and had begun preparing two final courses to teach before his retirement at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year. After being diagnosed with cancer, Morgan visited one of his former students, President Barry Mills ’72, to discuss his future plans.
“[Morgan] was doing what he liked to do until he wasn’t able to do it anymore,” said Mills. “And when he sat [in my office] five weeks ago, he really thought he could finish the semester and really wanted to plow through the semester with his students despite the fact that he knew he had some therapy to do.”
Morgan brought his constitutional law textbooks to his consultations in Boston, Mass., preparing his lectures as if nothing was wrong. And in his last days, which he spent in a hospital bed, his love for Bowdoin still shone bright.
“I visited [Morgan] at the hospital… within a couple of days of him actually passing away,” said Franco. “He was in his hospital room, and not in great shape... He found it difficult to actually speak very much. I was making conversation, describing how I was very impressed by working on this presidential search committee with the love of Bowdoin that the Bowdoin Trustees have. And I turned to [Morgan] and said, ‘Dick, I think of you as one of these super Polar Bears.’ He was kind of staring and then suddenly, he made a huge growling noise to acknowledge his Polar Bear-ness.”
—Sam Miller and Kate Witteman contributed to this report.
Editor's Note: The article was updated to include a statement from the Mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee '74.