On my first day of law school at Vanderbilt twelve and a half years ago, I innocently walked into a Con Law 1 class and ran head first into a Socratic meat grinder named Tom McCoy.
As many of you know, Tom has a tradition of making an example out of the first student he calls on in his first Con Law I class each year by rhetorically eviscerating them. He's since confided to me that these delightful displays are intended to "send a message" to the rest of the class. Anyway, after several minutes of my stumbling helplessly around the facts of Champion v. Ames, a Commerce Clause case, Tom glared at me pointedly and asked exactly where in the Constitution one would find the Commerce Clause. I surrendered immediately and unconditionally, admitting that I had no idea in the hope that he would just leave me alone.
His response was classic Tom McCoy: "That's OK, Mr. Lyman. We'll just wait while you find it."
I would venture to guess that quite a few former students have similar war stories to tell from their own classroom encounters with Tom. And yet I'm just as sure that, like me, you also have many more memories of cornering Tom after class or in his office to discuss concepts you were struggling to understand or just to chat about life in general. In time, we all grew to realize that Tom was pushing us so hard precisely because he cared so much about each of us personally. The easy approach the lazy approach the all too common approach would have been to walk in every day, lecture for a while, ask a few perfunctory questions and then scurry back to his office to continue working on the World's Greatest Law Review Article. Instead, for almost 40 years, Tom has prepared for every single class as if it were his first, rereading cases he already knows backward and forward, so that he will be at the top of his game, ready to challenge his students and motivate them to challenge him right back.
About three years after the Champion v. Ames incident, I found myself once again facing off with Professor McCoy. This time, however, the stakes were decidedly higher. The venue was Tom and Judy's house in Brentwood and, after two agonizing hours of pointless small talk (during which I want to point out that I was never offered a drink), I finally screwed up the courage to ask for Tom and Judy's lovely daughter Jenny's hand in marriage. I won't bore you with all of the hackneyed Paperchase story lines connected with how that came about, but the good news is that I had a lot more luck on the marital front than I did with the Commerce Clause.
As Tom's son-in-law for almost 10 years now, I've had the great fortune to witness from the sidelines his incredible devotion to his students. He talks about them over dinner. He talks about them at the beach. He talks about them when you're trying to watch a college basketball game on TV. And as much fear as he may strike into his students' hearts, all you need to do is read their class evaluations to see how much they love him. Year after year, decade after decade they repeat the same themes:
"The greatest teacher I've ever had."
"He pushed me beyond where I thought I could go intellectually."
"This is why I came to law school."
It's very hard to imagine Vanderbilt Law School without Tom McCoy. I'm glad that Dean Rubin has commissioned a portrait of Tom, and I take some comfort in the fact that future 1Ls will at least have to endure a two-dimensional McCoy scowl as they pass through the hallways. For extra effect, maybe we could wire it with sound to say things like "Have you considered asking the Admissions office for a refund?"
Tom, as you look back tonight over the years you've spent at Vanderbilt and the thousands of students you've taught, I hope that you have a real appreciation for just how many careers you've shaped, minds you've sharpened and lives you've touched. You've always been a great source of inspiration to me personally; I named my son after you. But talking with the many people I have over the last few months has given me a new appreciation for just how much of a difference one great teacher can make. It hardly seems worth saying that Vanderbilt will never be able to replace you. It is incumbent upon the rest, however, to honor the legacy that you leave behind by ensuring that teaching the direct, sustained and at times arduous interaction between student and professor remains at the heart of the Vanderbilt Law School experience. If we lose sight of this goal, we fail in our duty to prepare students for the practice of law in whatever form and we risk making the Law School something far worse than mediocre. We risk making it irrelevant.
And so we all wish you the best of luck as you head off to the beach on Little Gasparilla Island. But more importantly, we say thank you for all that you've given this institution and each of us over the last 39 years. You've enriched our lives and our community immeasurably and you've challenged us to become better lawyers, better citizens and better people.
Thank you, Tom.
Kevin Lyman delivered this tribute at a dinner honoring Tom McCoy last spring.