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Thanks to Boalt

Q. While cleaning out a storage space in the law school we ran across a heavy metal plaque dedicated to Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt. What can you tell us about it? --L.F., Berkeley

 A. This is a true History Detective moment! You have unearthed a long-lost and singularly poignant artifact of the Boalt Hall story.  The plaque was created as a memorial to Mrs. Boalt immediately after her death in 1917, and once hung in the reading room of the old Boalt Hall. It is particularly significant because it was given not by the law school or by wealthy alums, but by the law students themselves, who dug into their own pockets and — as the inscription reveals — poured out their hearts.  

Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt was the most important early benefactor of the law school.  Her gift of $100,000 in 1906 in memory of her husband, John Henry Boalt, allowed for the construction of the first Boalt Hall, and she later endowed two professorships. The Boalts had no personal connection with the University of California, and while Mrs. Boalt is mentioned in newspaper clippings and memoirs as having been present at the dedication of the Boalt Memorial Hall of Law, it has always been unclear how much contact she had with the school and with the law students once the building opened.  This plaque now uncovers that story.

We have known that the plaque existed at one point in the school’s history. In May of 1917 correspondence ping-ponged back and forth between dean William Carey Jones and architect John Galen Howard debating the proper placement of a bronze “tablet” in honor of Mrs. Boalt.  The gentlemen had difficulty agreeing on the proper aesthetic placement (a protruding thermostat in the reading room presented particular problems).  Howard regretted that the plaque was “not more artistic and monumental in character and more worthy of its purpose and the sentiments expressed.” The law students perhaps couldn’t afford anything more architecturally impressive, but the words they chose for the inscription could not have been more heartfelt:

We, the students of the School of Jurisprudence of the University of California deplore the loss of friend and benefactor in the death of Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt.  Builder of this hall, we feel that the essence of her spirit, quiet, serene, unostentatious, pervades its precincts.  We pledge our purpose to make the genius of her gift perennial by ever exhibiting in our law school a tone of simplicity, of high-mindedness, of unobtrusive but persistent endeavor for the best.  We pledge our own efforts and those of our successors to keep this temple of law clean and pure and beautiful through the years, that it may remain a fitting emblem of her personality....

And it is our grateful task to set down our deep sense of obligation to both Mr. and Mrs. Boalt, and to express the hope that, through the work of the School of Jurisprudence and the life lived in Boalt Hall of Law and perpetuated outside, there shall during all the years to come be manifest in the community a force and influence that shall tend to realize the desires and aspirations of the two persons to whose memory we today pay our deep respect and dedicate our earnest efforts.

As the Law School celebrates its centennial this fall, perhaps this would be a good time to restore and re-install this testament of what Mrs. Boalt once meant to the law students of the school she so generously endowed.

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