Farewell, Professor Stefan Riesenfeld
Posted February 24, 1999
Riesenfeld was a recognized authority in numerous legal specialties including international law, comparative law, property law, creditors' remedies and bankruptcy, administrative law and legal history. During a career that spanned more than 60 years, Riesenfeld wrote or edited 32 books.
He also served as an academic legal advisor in the Panama Canal treaty negotiations, the recognition of Taiwan and the Iran hostage case. While in his 70s he represented the nation in three major cases before the International Court of Justice.
As civilian legal advisor with the U.S. Office of the High Commissioner in the mid '40s, he helped prepare the West German constitution. He also wrote the statute for Hawaii's workers' compensation regulations and helped develop human rights litigation in the United States.
"He was a very patriotic U.S. citizen," said Richard Buxbaum, professor of law and Riesenfeld's long-time colleague. "He was thankful for his admission to the U.S. and proud of being able to serve this country."
Born in Breslau, Germany, Riesenfeld moved to Italy in 1932 to escape the political climate in his native country. He came to Berkeley from the University of Milan in 1935 to earn a law degree and work as a research associate. In 1940 he became a U.S. citizen.
When he arrived at Berkeley, Riesenfeld had two European law degrees and spoke French, German and Italian. Though he only learned English while attending law school, Riesenfeld graduated from Boalt Hall right on time and near the top of his class.
Since 1935, Riesenfeld had spent only 14 years away from Berkeley -- 11 of them teaching and studying at Harvard and the University of Minnesota and three in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Riesenfeld joined the Berkeley faculty in 1952. Although he officially retired in 1976, he continued to teach courses at Boalt Hall. On the day before his death, despite his illness, Riesenfeld finished grading blue books for a course on bankruptcy law he taught last semester.
"He was probably one of the best known of our faculty," said Boalt Hall Dean Herma Hill Kay. "To many people, especially in Europe, he personified the law school."
In the classroom, Riesenfeld gave all his lectures without notes and was famous for blurting out at his students statements like, "You have mashed potatoes for brains," or "I can explain it to you, but I can't understand it for you." This harsh but humorous style, along with the amount of content he packed into each class session, attracted hundreds of students to his lectures each semester for 46 years.
"Because of his distinctive European accent and his genius, Riesenfeld was someone who made a very special impression on his students," said Kay.
"I have never known a teacher who, like Steve Riesenfeld, could be as tough a classroom instructor as any 'Paper Chase' caricature and yet, not only afterwards, but in the same setting, retain the affection and admiration of the students he was challenging," said Buxbaum. "Riesenfeld stories not only are the spark of most reunions; they are the glue that bonds 70-year-olds and 25-year-olds together."
Riesenfeld is survived by his wife, Phyllis Thorgrimson Riesenfeld, of Berkeley; two sons, Peter Riesenfeld of Rhode Island and Stefan Riesenfeld of London; and two grandsons.
Boalt Hall is planning a memorial event to be held in March.