Storied lawyer and philanthropist Joe Jamail addresses class of 2011
The Department of History celebrated its 10th commencement ceremony with a speech from the renowned Houston lawyer and philanthropist, Mr. Joseph D. Jamail, J.D. '53, B.A. History '50, on Friday at 6 p.m., May 20, 2011. He received a standing ovation.
Posted: June 1, 2011
Joe Jamail blows kiss to the audience after receiving a standing ovation for his speech
Josiah M. Daniel, III, holder of a history M.A. and an acquaintence of Jamail, introduced him to the graduates and audience of about 1,700 family and friends gathered to celebrate the momentous occasion in Bass Concert Hall. Daniel is the chair of the Department of History’s Visiting Committee and a partner in the international law firm Vinson & Elkins, LLP in its Dallas office.
Daniel described Jamail as “a passionate advocate for his clients—large or small.” He was born and raised in Houston, Texas and had worked in his parent’s grocery store—roots he has never forgotten.
Jamail started as a pre-med student at The University of Texas (UT) in 1942, but joined the Marines during WWII. After the war he returned to the university and earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1950, and then his law degree in '53 from UT’s Law School.
Graduate students who received their master's or doctor's degree (l-r): Maria Jose Afanador, Julia Gossard, Brian Mann, Julia Rahe, Samori Camara, Shennette Garrett-Scott
He earned recognition early on in his law career. But it was the jury verdict in 1985 in the Pennzoil v. Texaco case that put his face and name on the covers of newspapers and magazines across the nation. He won what is still the largest jury verdict in history—$11 billion.
With continued success, he and his late wife, Lee, became two of the most generous benefactors of higher education institutions in Texas and many other worthy causes. Jamail has been munificent in his support of UT’s Law School, School of Nursing, and its athletic departments.
He has also made important contributions to the Plan II Honors Program, an endowment that supports the UTeach Program in Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and the College of Communication as well as the Business School.
More recently the School of Undergraduate Studies has been a beneficiary of his philanthropy. Almost every area of the university has been a recipient of the Jamails’ generosity at some point in the last 30 years.
While introducing Jamail, Daniel chose a passage to read from his autobiography, Lawyer: My Trials and Jubilations, published in 2003:
I wasn’t much of a student, but I graded well in courses I liked such as history ... History is a subject that has always captivated me. During those years many of the professors who taught history at the University of Texas were legends in their prime. Walter Prescott Webb and J. Frank Dobie made the people and events leap from the texts and come alive in our minds. Those courses and the teachers who taught them have stayed with me to this day, and I am indebted to them for firing a passion in me that has never waned.
Charlie Crenshaw (champion golfer Ben's older brother) stands with his niece, Katherine, in front of Bass Concert Hall, which used to be a baseball field. In the early '70s Charlie played Varsity baseball for UT and could climb up the 20-foot limestone cliff, which is now only the small hill behind them, in three jumps giving the home team a huge advantage. Charlie finished his history degree and his niece her American Studies degree.
Mr. Joseph D. Jamail, the lawyer who is known today as the “King of Torts”, “The People’s Lawyer”, and recently named “Trial Lawyer of the Century” by California Trial Lawyers, Texas Monthly magazine and others, was welcomed to the podium with applause.
He has been a guest lecturer at his alma mater, UT’s Law School, as well as other top law schools across the country many times. But this evening, he addressed the Department of History’s 2011 graduating class of seniors and graduate students receiving their degrees.
Jamail credited the Law School for teaching him “how to be a lawyer, but it was history that taught me how to be a good lawyer,” he said and then added, “And I am!” The audience laughed and applauded.
He recounted how the legal system in the United States today “rests on a large body of philosophical, social and literary history.” Jamail emphasized that we are mere “trustees” of the legal system we not the “owners.”
He suggested that one of the things that we could do to improve society is to improve the teaching of liberal arts. We should encourage all students to take courses in the different subjects that liberal arts encompasses he said. The audience clapped and whooped at these words.
Jamail pointed out what other professions use to create things, like bridges, planes or ships. They eventually all disintegrate. “Homer never built of rock or steel, nor did Socrates, nor did Jesus, nor Moses. They built with more enduring stuff—ideas and inspirations—beauty and truth,” he said.
Joe Jamail discusses a finer point of the story with Professors David Oshinsky and H.W. Brands before the ceremony
He, then, revealed his deep appreciation for the study of history as he recounted the proceedings of a courtroom in England in August 1670. He said he believed this case “is the most significant legal case of the last thousand years.”
“History was the most important ingredient in establishing our freedoms,” Jamail emphasized.
“History tells us the story of William Penn and the jury system that protects us,” he added. “It is critical because it truly defined the rights of people and it was the landmark moment for freedom.” He continued with this 17th century story.
The worshipers who were led by Penn gathered to attend Sunday service when they found the door to their church in London barred from entry by King Charles II’s soldiers.
Undeterred, Penn preached to his followers outside the church. He was arrested and charged with treason as part of the monarchy’s suppression of religious dissent.
It was considerably easier to form a jury at this point in time. The constables commandeered 12 people at random from the streets to serve as jurists for the trail. The jurists decided that their leader or foreman would be Thomas Veer. He was elderly and had been gravely ill.
But Edward Bushell led the jurists in the jury room. Bushell was not a lawyer, but a student of history and he had read the Magna Carta, the English charter from 1215. The charter was intended to limit the monarch’s absolute rule
over his subjects and guarantee that men had the right to be tried in a court by their peers. In 1670, the “law of the land” still guaranteed that an accused man had the right to a jury trial.
Penn tried to plead he was not breaking any laws nor guilty of treason. Witnesses testified, the jury deliberated and time passed. The bailiff’s were sent back and forth by the judges from the courtroom to the jurists room numerous times demanding they come to the courtroom to deliver their verdict.
The king’s judges grew increasingly impatient, and they threatened the jury. “If the jury does not show respect for this court, you shall all be fined and denied your dinner. You will have your noses slit and tongues cut out,” Jamail reported. “I’ve never used that argument with a jury,” he added to uproarious laughter.
Finally Veer rose and delivered their verdict that Penn was guilty of speaking to a group of people but not of treason. The judges were enraged, completely incensed that the jury refused to deliver the verdict they expected from them.
The jurors were threatened again. Bushell continued to argue the rights assured by the Magna Carta and that as jurors they were morally obligated to uphold their oaths.
Eventually Veer collapsed on the courtroom floor and died after stating again the verdict of the jury “Not guilty.” Since the jury refused to give the judges the verdict they wanted, they were imprisoned.
A lawyer heard of the Penn case and made an appeal to the court. He won the release of the jurors, and from this case it was established that no juror could ever be imprisoned for his verdict.
History Honors Program students, Front Row (l-r): Nicole Craigen, Lauren Ayers, Justine Pak, Katherine M. Jordan; Second Row: Michael Torre, Erin Guillory, Matthew Hudson, Molly Odintz; Third Row: Blake Earle, Joel Dishman, Zachary Cuyler, Honors Director Dr. Judy Coffin, Jacob Sims, Hillary Rodriguez; Fourth Row: Trevor Templeton
Sixty-five years later, the young boy who had helped carry Veer from the courtroom in London during the Penn trial, Andrew Hamilton, had immigrated to the British colonies of North America and become a famous Philadelphia lawyer. He remembered this legal case when he prepared the defense of Peter Zenger’s right to publish a pamphlet that criticized the Crown of England.
He told the jury they had a moral obligation higher than the king’s judges. They agreed and Zenger was found innocent of treason. This was the legal case that paved the way for freedom of the press under the U.S. Constitution.
Jamail’s review of the trial of William Penn in England and the trial of Peter Zenger in New York revealed the importance of the study of history for anyone who values the freedoms of press, speech and religion; and how important it has been to Jamail.
Then the audience and the faculty rose to give Jamail a resounding standing ovation. As department Chair Tully stepped to the podium, the audience still standing and clapping, he turned to Jamail with his arm extended. Jamail seized the moment and blew the audience a kiss of his appreciation for their rapt attention and to display his sincere gratitude.
For a man who started out wanting to be a doctor, studied history and English literature, and then law, it is obvious this preeminent lawyer has utilized all his interests in his practice of law—being the best advocate for his client this country or the world has known.
After Jamail’s inspiring commencement address, Tully encouraged the audience to take note of the flyer in their programs that introduced the department’s new website Not Even Past. It was launched in January of this year, and he encouraged everyone to visit it for their continued or new Daily Hit of History.
Tully recognized students with high academic standing who had been invited to join the local Beta Alpha Chapter of the national honors organization, Phi Alpha Theta. And all students who had participated in study abroad programs, including the Normandy Scholar Program administered by the department, were asked to stand for a round of applause.
History Honors Program Director, Professor Judith Coffin, asked the honors students to stand and presentation of the winners of the best theses were announced:
Lauren Ayers was the winner of the Lewis L. Gould Best Thesis Prize for Excellence in U.S. History for her thesis, "Nature’s Mini-Metropolis: An Environmental History of a Southern Plains Town"; and,
Matthew Hudson was the winner of the John Ferguson-Claudio Segre Best Thesis Prize for Excellence in History for his thesis, "Fear and Loathing in Colonial India: Race, Class, Sex and Militarism."
Recently retired Professor Howard Miller, recipient of COLA's 2011 Pro Bene Meritis award, congratulates his former student, Lindsey Carmichael, on her graduation and being a Dean's Distinguished Graduate
Tully recognized two more students who were graduating with distinction from the department and College of Liberal Arts as Dean’s Distinguished Graduates: Lindsey A. Carmichael and Stephen C. Mercer. Carmichael was a double major in history and English. (Read Carmichael's feature story.) Stephen C. Mercer was a history major and completed the United States Marine Corps’ Enlisted Commission Education Program. (Read Mercer's feature story.)
Each graduate was introduced before walking across the stage to be congratulated by the chair of the department and given a certificate. The ceremony ended with everyone invited to participate in the singing of one of the nation’s best-known alma mater’s, “The Eyes of Texas.”
Undergraduate Anna Harris said she had frequently been asked, What are you going to do with a history degree? She thought Jamail answered that question perfectly, “Anything that you want.”
Graduate student Julia Rahe, who received her master’s degree this year while pursuing her doctorate, said “his insistence upon the importance of contextualizing the contemporary within the past was inspiring. Coming from someone outside of the profession, it renewed once again my faith in the path I have chosen.”
Joe Jamail's commencement speech (PDF, 119K)
Story and photos of Crenshaws, Honors Program students, Professor Miller with Carmichael by M.G. Moore
Photos of Joe Jamail with Chair Tully, graduate students, Jamail with Profs. Oshinsky and Brands by Marsha Miller, UT's photography supervisor