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Tour de Force: Tulane Law honors legendary professor's 50th

February 07, 2020 2:45 PM
Alina Hernandez ahernandez4@tulane.edu

Tulane Law Dean David Meyer announced the “Tour de Force” -- a series of events around the world to honor and celebrate 50 years of Professor Robert Force's impact on the law school. (Photo credit Tracie Morris Schaefer)


UPDATE: We have cancelled the Tour de Force due to evolving conditions with COVID-19. We will keep our community informed when it is safe to reschedule alumni and other events.


Like clockwork, every Friday night, family tradition at Bob and Ruth Force’s house dictated a nice family meal, followed by an ice cream run to the Carrollton Avenue Baskin Robbins with their two toddler boys.

After ice cream -- maybe 8 or 9 p.m. –that’s when Professor Force and family would go and round up his surrogate children – his exhausted, hungry, overworked students at Tulane Law School.

“I would find them in the library, or in classrooms working, and I would just say, ‘Ok, it’s late. You’ve studied enough. Come back to my house.’ ” said Force. “And we would open a bottle of wine, eat some cheese, put on music and just talk. And they became like family.”

And that’s the key that unlocks the Tulane legend that is Robert Force, iconic law professor, visionary behind Tulane’s world-renowned maritime law program, devoted husband and father of two boys and, notably, stand-in family for hundreds of law students over the decades.

In the classroom, in the halls of Tulane, in and out of his home and professional life, those he taught and mentored over his 50 years at Tulane, are his family and his legacy.

“We had no family in New Orleans. They had no family here. We just became family to each other,” Force said.

“He welcomed us, helped us find jobs, and always, always was open and approachable,” said Mike Butterworth (L’89), who arrived in New Orleans in 1986 after Force recruited him into the maritime law program. “And I can honestly say that I love him. We’ve been through a lot. He and Ruth (Force) were our shoulders to cry on and just amazing people.”

Force’s herculean contributions have not gone unnoticed personally or professionally. He is beloved by his former students, considered a titan as a maritime law scholar. Ever modest about his accomplishments, he rarely mentions the president of Panama personally honored him as a member of the Order of Balboa, and a renowned maritime law book has chapters honoring his work. For years, he was a code reporter on the committee that drafted evidence rules that were codified in The Louisiana Code of Evidence.

“Everyone in the maritime law field knows and respects Bob Force’s opinions. No one’s views have greater weight than his,” said Prof. Martin Davies, who followed Force as Director of the Tulane’s Maritime Law Center. “His is the most influential voice in our field, by a long way.”

It is fitting, then, that as Force celebrates his 50th year at Tulane, Law Dean David Meyer appropriately (and with Force-esque humor) announced the “Tour de Force” -- a series of events around the world to honor and celebrate the Force legacy with alumni and former students.

So far, his Panamanian “family” will be first to celebrate. Panama is the first stop of the Tour, Feb. 27. Other cities include the New Orleans kick-off event on March 13, Los Angeles on April 22, San Francisco on April 23. More are planned, so stay tuned.

Join the Tour de Force! Register here.

The far-flung contributions that Force has made to law are weighty – the U.S. Supreme Court cited his scholarly work just last spring in deciding a maritime case – but his contributions closer to home at the law school are immeasurable.

Force arrived at Tulane in 1969, having spent the first year after graduating from Temple Law School doing research in Australia as a Fulbright Scholar.

“I was very interested in the forensic sciences,” said Force, rather breezily, considering that the legal research he did in those early years was on what would become a major evidentiary tool: The breathalyzer.

A year later, he landed a Ford Fellowship at New York University where he met a professor named Joseph Sweeney, and the two became friendly.  Years later, Sweeney would change Force’s life – and Tulane Law School – with an invitation to join the faculty.

By then, Force had been married for several years to Ruth Morris, whom he had met while both were clerking for judges in Philadelphia. She was by every account the single biggest influence on his life. 

Ruth – in the turbulent late 1950s and early 60s, had been one of only four women in her University of Pennsylvania Law School class, and had graduated cum laude. At a time when most women didn’t have careers, Ruth had clerked for a federal judge and become the first female attorney hired by the IRS Estate Gift and Tax Division in Philadelphia.

Force worked briefly for a law firm practicing labor law in Philadelphia before the couple decided to move to Indianapolis. He taught law at Indiana University-Indianapolis, while serving as general counsel for the ACLU of Indiana. Meanwhile, Ruth was facing numerous barriers transplanting her pioneering legal career in 1960s’ Indianapolis.

Enter Joseph Sweeney, who in 1968 accepted the deanship of Tulane Law School. He reached out to his one-time NYU student Bob Force about teaching at Tulane.

“I recall he asked me if I was irrevocably wedded to Indiana,” said Force. Fortunately for Tulane, the answer was a resounding “no.”

And, as with most decisions that the Forces made, Ruth’s career was front and center, too. The couple hoped she could find work in New Orleans, a city that felt alive with change. Ruth not only found work, she clerked for Chief Judge Frederick Heebe (L’49) of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, known for his courageous civil rights decisions dismantling segregation and other forms of discrimination.  From there, Ruth continued an illustrious career as an Assistant U.S Attorney, Civil Division, until she retired in 2005.

Bob Force joined Tulane’s faculty in 1969 – the year of the moon landing, and at the height of the Civil Rights movement. He taught criminal law, constitutional criminal procedure and civil rights law. The latter was deeply important to him, he said. Only a year before Force’s arrival, Tulane Law graduated its first African-American student, Michael Starks. More women were entering law school, and Janice Foster (L’70), the law school’s second African-American graduate, was then a 3L.

“I felt an obligation to teach civil rights courses in a law school, in America, in the Deep South,” he said.

He was, almost instantly, a popular professor.

“He was extremely student-oriented. He got to know us,” said Robin Giarrusso (NC’74, L’77), now in her 32nd year as a Judge on the Orleans Parish Civil District Court.  “He was a wonderful teacher, and he understood that women were a new thing in law school. He went out of his way to make all of us, including the few female faculty members that we had, comfortable. He was a guy who got it.”

This also was the time when the Forces changed one student’s life forever. Since their arrival at Tulane, Isabel Rodriguez (L’75), then a history major at Loyola University, had been a steady babysitter for Ruth and Bob’s two young sons, Seth and Joshua. By the time she finished her undergrad, Rodriguez, a Cuban immigrant who came to the U.S. through the Peter Pan program, had lost both her parents and found herself without a clear career path, or how to finance it.

“So Bob said to me, ‘Have you thought about going to law school?’ ” said Rodriguez, whose father had been an attorney. “He gave me a check and said, ‘Take the LSAT’ and he spoke to the admissions office and, my application fee – waived. And I got in.”

But the Forces’ kindness didn’t end there. Rodriguez had little financing to attend law school, so they offered her their home for three years, with one condition.

“She was not an au pair. She was not a babysitter. She was a law student,” said Force.

“And they asked me not to get a job while I was in law school,” Rodriguez said, her affection for the family evident. “Who does that? What people would do this for someone who was not a member of the family? It was life-changing.”

Rodriguez not only excelled in law school, she went on to have a long career as in-house counsel in Sears Roebuck’s international law division. She’s also “family” to the Forces, and vice versa. Bob Force is her son’s godfather.

“It’s a perfect job for Bob,” said Rodriguez.

Force by then had been a criminal law professor for years, and his expertise attracted an appointment as a Special Master overseeing federally mandated changes at the Orleans Parish Prison. By the time his appointment in the landmark litigation ended, he was the go-to national expert advising others on how to oversee complex correctional institutions.

Yet, it also was during that time that Force turned the focus of his work as a scholar from criminal law to maritime law. “After serving as a special master, I just saw problems [of criminal justice] persisting. Things – even today – haven’t changed.”

He had an interest in admiralty law – having encountered maritime cases while clerking for a federal judge. He began teaching a few maritime law courses at Tulane.

In 1977, when Dean Sweeney stepped down as Dean, Force was tapped to become Interim Dean.

Sitting now, decades later, in his Weinmann Hall office, surrounded by books with titles like “The Law of the Seaman” and “Benedict on Admiralty,” Force produces the minutes of a faculty meeting from Sept. 23, 1977. As Dean Force, he proposed to the faculty the creation of an academic concentration in admiralty law.

“The proposal passed unanimously,” said Force, smiling, just before he hits his punchline. “And then, nothing happened.”

Five years later, in 1982, as he was walking to the law school on a day that his car was broken, Dean Paul Verkuil pulled over to offer Force a ride.

“And he asked, ‘So, what’s this maritime program idea of yours?’ Next thing I know, Paul and others had raised $1 million for a Maritime Law Center at Tulane.”

The “others” included attorneys John Sims of Phelps Dunbar and Bob Acomb of Jones Walker, both Tulane adjunct professors at the time; John and Virginia Weinmann who initiated a $50,000 challenge to raise the million needed for the program; and the family of the late Niels Johnsen, who later established the chair in maritime law currently held by Force.

Bob Force became the founding director of the Tulane Maritime Law Center, formally established in 1986.

It fell to him to set courses, find funding, recruit students and grow the program. By word of mouth, and tapping into the nation’s maritime academies and Tulane alumni, the program grew.

Butterworth remembers the passion with which Force taught.  Despite complex reading material, Force made it approachable. He was tough, and the “Force 500” – were legendary among his students. Those were the last several hundred pages he expected you to read on your own, which always produced one “plum” question on exams, Butterworth recalled.

“We’d complain about the material and he’d tell us ‘For God’s sake, you’re reading about pirates and pirate treasure! This is great stuff!’ ” Butterworth said.  “And I thought all professors were like this. I didn’t realize I was being taught by Superman.”

Force traveled to Panama countless times to persuade students to continue their legal studies in maritime at Tulane, and consulted with what would become the Panama Maritime Court, firmly establishing Tulane as an authority on maritime issues. He recruited students in China, guest lecturing at Wuhan and Dalian Maritime universities, among others.  

Back home, his house was full. He and Ruth hosted the law students regularly for the high Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving and end-of year gatherings – the Chinese, the Americans, the Germans, the Panamanians, and many others, together.  “And we treasured those times so much,” said Butterworth.

His sons Seth (now a physician and professor in the Emory Medical School) and Josh (an attorney and Tulane Law adjunct professor) grew up with law students, some of whom today refer to them as “like our cousins,” as one would in New Orleans.

Indeed, those early years were exciting, busy, times, said Force. The promise of a law program centered on the maritime law, in a coastal state, in a vibrant city, was palpable. The late Marian Mayer Berkett (L’37) would eventually suggest to her friend Beryl Whiteman Stiles to endow the Harry F. Stiles Scholarship in the name of her late husband, a Tulane alumnus, to support maritime law students.

Force recruited the highly regarded Canadian professor William Tetley, who regularly taught short courses at Tulane Law, and created the annual Tetley Lecture. Tetley himself would eventually endow the lecture, which each spring brings some of the most influential maritime scholars and policy-makers to Tulane.

“It’s impossible to overstate the role that Professor Force has played personally – through dint of his vision, hard work, and powerful intellect – in building Tulane Law School into a worldwide juggernaut in admiralty law,” said law Dean David Meyer.  “We are all greatly in his debt.”

Force over the years has authored dozens of articles, books and chapters in maritime law. He has co-authored two landmark texts, “The Law of Seamen” and “The Law of Maritime Personal Injuries,” both now in their fifth edition. He also prepared a monograph on “Admiralty and Maritime Law” for federal judges at the invitation of the Federal Judicial Center. And his international work includes helping to write the maritime codes for Panama and China. The Seamen’s Church Institute in 2001 named Force a maritime law legend. The President of Panama in 2002 designated him a member of the Order de Vasco Nunez de Balboa. And a book, “Jurisdiction and Forum Selection Clauses in International Maritime Law,” contains a series of essays honoring Force. He received the Louisiana Bar Foundation’s 2014 Distinguished Professor Award. In 2016, he was inducted into the Tulane Law Hall of Fame.

His friends, family and former students created the Robert Force Scholarship, for students in maritime law, in his honor.

Interested in giving to the Force Scholarship? Click here.

And perhaps this is what that Force values most: His family, by blood and friendship.

“This is one of the reasons I went into teaching,” said Force. “It’s immortality. They carry on in my footsteps and others will carry on in theirs. The impact of your law articles only lasts so long, but it’s your impact on people that will last forever.”