White graduated at the top of the
Penn Law School class of 1898, neck-and-neck with Owen J. Roberts,
who would become a Supreme Court justice and later dean of the Law
School itself. White was one of those rare people who everyone simply
knew would make a difference. A scholar and intellect who
worked 16 hours a day at his studies, he also tutored his classmates,
edited the student-run American Law Register, and gave lessons
to students in prep schools around the city to support himself,
his mother and his sisters following his fathers early death.
A handsome, square-faced man who parted his hair
in the center, White sported the neat mustache common to the time.
A classmate, George Nitzsche, described him in a way that recalls
the White Rabbit in Alices Adventures in Wonderland:
"Whites watch was a great friend to him. It was worn
from continual taking in and out of his pocket. He timed everything
to the minute, and when talking to you would nervously finger his
watch and, pulling it out suddenly, would bid you good-bye and rush
Remember that watch. Directly or indirectly,
it became a focus of four violent deaths.
The Law Schools young dean, William Draper
Lewis, took on both White and Roberts as lecturers. Roberts quickly
became known as the departments finest teacher, but White
was entrusted, at the ripe age of 28, with organizing both the nascent
postgraduate program at the Law School and an interdisciplinary
Ph.D. program with the philosophy department in the College.
These projects would require him to teach courses
in elementary Roman law and Spanish-American civil codes. Lewis
asked White what would be required in the way of preparation for
such courses. White replied with a minutely detailed 10-page letter
(included in the faculty minutes) which suggested a five-month scholarly
tour of South America: "It would obviously be folly to attempt
to give a course of lectures on social, economic, political,
and public-administrative-legal conditions in Spanish America,
without having oneself beheld those conditions."
Amazingly for a cash-strapped department, the
dean and the faculty proposed the trip for trustee approval. For
unexplained reasonsmostly likely costWhite never went
to South America. However, on leave from June 1899 to February 1900,
he studied Roman law at the University of Paris. By the time he
returned in 1900, the Law Schools grand new home at 34th and
Chestnut Streetsthe largest building in the world devoted
exclusively to legal educationhad opened to greet him.
I first ran across Roy White while paging through
the bound volumes of the Law Schools meeting minutes to research
a history of the school for its 150th anniversary in the year 2000.
I was delighted by his warm, witty and thorough reports on the French
legal system (as well as the French misapprehension that all legal
education in America took place at Harvard). His wealth of detail
is leavened by a jaunty, self-deprecatory wit: "I hope you
will not think me like the German colonial officials, who are said
to elaborate such minute reports of what they do that they never
have time to do anything."
Then, in the minutes for May 1900, I read with
a shock that Roy White was dead. Scrambling ahead, I found a note
that he "was killed." How could this be? A hundred aged
clippings pasted in two scrapbooks soon gave me the sad, horrifying