The Professor Who Lit the Spark

January 19, 2012

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The Professor Who Lit the Spark

Photo: Stanford Quad 1916

The teenager who would become Sandra Day O’Connor was competent in many ways when her parents dropped her off for school in Palo Alto in 1946. Having grown up on the Lazy B Ranch, a 250-square-mile expanse of desert cattle range, she knew how to rope a steer, brand a calf and tame a bobcat. (She kept one as a pet.) But such pursuits had not left much time for considering the more abstract questions that animate the undergraduate mind.

One day during her freshman year, O’Connor was invited by classmate Mary Beth Growdon to an upcoming Sunday evening gathering at Growdon’s uncle’s home. The uncle was law professor Harry Rathbun, ’16, Engr. ’20, JD ’29, who began teaching business law at Stanford in 1929. But his true passion was a personal spiritual quest, shared with his Mexican-born wife, Emilia. The Rathbuns were followers of Henry Burton Sharman, a University of Chicago scientist and theologian who believed in applying the techniques of scientific inquiry to the Gospels, selecting those aspects of the story most likely to have occurred and then modifying one’s life based on their lessons.

Each Sunday evening, the Rathbuns welcomed students into the living room of their bungalow on Kellogg Avenue in Palo Alto to discuss ethics and psychology and religion. Sometimes, Harry Rathbun would play a selection from his vast classical music collection, and students would lie on the floor and listen, surrounded by Harry’s books and oil portraits of Emilia’s Mexican ancestors.

Looked back on from the early 21st century, these “seminars,” as the professor called them, seem quaintly bohemian. But for some Stanford students at the time, the experience of talking about big questions with Harry Rathbun was life-altering. “I hung on his every word,” a former student, Myron J. Stolaroff, wrote in a 1994 memoir, published on the Internet. “Harry convinced me of the enormity of human potential, of the necessity to wake up and take charge of our evolution, that we had a hallowed destiny, and that we could reach it by taking charge of our personal growth. I was thrilled by the picture he painted.”

In the case of Sandra Day, Rathbun’s impact would be a new self-confident sense that she had been put on Earth to make an impact in the lives of others. “She was mesmerized,” Growdon recalls. O’Connor subsequently signed up for Rathbun’s undergraduate course, which was famous for the final lecture Rathbun delivered each term, on the theme “Who are we? Where are we going?”

“[He] was the first person ever to speak in my presence of how an individual could make a difference; how a single caring person can effectively help determine the course of events,” O’Connor said in a May 2003 interview. “I had not heard that before, really, and he put it forward in such a persuasive way that I think most of us came to believe it might be true, and to take seriously the notion that we could make a difference.”

Rathbun believed his empowering message should be directed to women as well as men. “If the world’s crisis is to be met successfully,” he once wrote, “the need is that woman shall be given, and shall take, her proper place. That place male domination has heretofore denied her.”

In 1950, Rathbun was included in a Life magazine feature honoring the nation’s best teachers. He retired in 1959, and died in 1987.

Throughout her time on the Supreme Court, O’Connor has often told audiences that Rathbun inspired her to study the law, and she has maintained a cordial relationship with his family. “He knew about her recognition of him,” says Rathbun’s son Richard. “She told me, ‘Your father had a tremendous influence on me.’ ”

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