Q. My brother and I are both huge sports history buffs, so we were surprised on a recent visit to the law school to see that there is a Walter Perry Johnson faculty chair (currently held by Bob Berring). How did that happen? –GR, Berkeley
A. Walter “The Big Train” Johnson was certainly one of the most important stars of early Major League Baseball, playing his entire career (1907-1927) with the Washington Senators. He has the distinction of being one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. So, how did this great pitcher’s name become linked to an endowed chair at Boalt Hall?
Ours is actually an earlier Walter Perry Johnson, a man who led a very different life, one overshadowed by a childhood tragedy. Johnson’s father was a sea captain who carried goods up and down the coast of California. When Walter was only six years old, his father was swept overboard on a voyage between Eureka and San Francisco. The body was never recovered. Walter’s mother was left a widow with three small children.
Johnson attended San Francisco’s Lowell High School, and then went east to Harvard (where he was graduated summa cum laude), and studied law at Columbia. He returned to San Francisco, and was admitted to the California bar in 1896. After a successful career in private practice, he was appointed a judge of the San Francisco Superior Court in 1921, a position he held until his retirement in 1938. During his years on the bench Judge Johnson gained a reputation for being particularly sympathetic to the needs of women — perhaps a legacy of observing his mother’s own struggle to raise her family after the death of her husband. At his retirement luncheon he made a special acknowledgment of the large delegation representing Queen’s Bench, the women’s bar association formed the year he became a judge.
When Justice Roger Traynor delivered the first Annual Walter Perry Johnson Lecture on Law and Public Affairs in 1961, he eulogized Johnson as “a quiet bachelor, with friendly temperament and modest reserve in admirable balance,” and modesty seems to have been Johnson’s most notable personal trait. His former law partner, Albert Rosenshine, when approached for suggestions for tributes that might be paid to the retiring judge at his celebratory luncheon, responded, “It is needless to say that ‘W.P.’ would not enjoy having it laid on too thick.”
After retiring from the bench in 1938, Walter Johnson returned to private practice, and continued to visit his office regularly until just days before his death at the age of eighty-five. A life-long bachelor, he left a large part of his estate to Boalt Hall, and in 1948 the Walter Perry Johnson Professorship of Law was established.
The two Walter Perry Johnsons, the jurist and the baseball player who had lived such very different lives, died only months apart.
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