A passion for teaching

Professor David Westfall ’50, as beloved by generations of students for his warmth and humor as he was respected for his legal acumen and teaching skills, died of cancer Dec. 7, surrounded by family. He was 78.

Westfall’s teaching career at the law school spanned 50 years and continued through October, when his decade-long illness became more serious.

“Professor Westfall was the instigation for the laughter and fun we had as a section,” said Karen Suber ’06. “He wanted us to realize that life is more than what’s in a book, and that came out through humor, some of it at his own expense.” Westfall, who attended many student-sponsored events, encouraged members of his sections to develop close ties with each other. “The friendships he planted the seeds for will last forever,” Suber added. “That’s the best gift any professor could give.”

“The most notable thing was how devoted he was to students,” said Dean Elena Kagan ’86, recalling her former professor as exceedingly generous. “He was always having events for students, inviting them to his house, advising them, entertaining them.”

When the new 1L section initiative was instituted in 2001 to foster more student-faculty contact, Westfall was among the first professors to volunteer. He hosted small dinners in his home for his students. Over Thanksgiving breaks, he invited students who were remaining on campus to dine with him at the Faculty Club.

“I think he just enjoyed life, and he enjoyed and respected people,” said Dawn Warner, program assistant for the first-year sections. “I never saw him without a suit or tie on, but he always had this big smile.”

Westfall, a native of Columbia, Mo., graduated in 1947 from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1950, he received an LL.B. from Harvard, where he was a member of the Harvard Law Review and received the Fay Diploma, awarded to the graduating student with the highest combined grade point average.

The Korean War broke out just as he was graduating from law school. Westfall joined the U.S. Army and was trained as an infantryman. He served his tour of duty in the Office of the Judge Advocate General in Washington, D.C., and then practiced with the Chicago firm of Bell, Boyd, Marshall & Lloyd from 1950 until he joined the Harvard Law faculty in 1955.

Westfall became a tenured professor of law in 1958. He began by teaching estate planning and then turned his focus to labor and family law. He was a member of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and was an assistant reporter to the American Law Institute from 1961 to 1966. Since 1991, he had served as a member of the ALI’s consultative group on the principles of the law of family dissolution. From 1964 to 1968, he was a consultant to the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Westfall was the author, co-author or editor of a number of scholarly publications including a volume on family law. The fourth edition of his casebook and supplement on “Estate Planning Law and Taxation” was published in 2001.

But teaching was his real passion, and he embraced it with renewed vigor over the past decade, says Visiting Professor Peter Murray ’67, a former student of Westfall’s who later became his close friend and colleague. “You don’t know how much of this was a sense of mortality and the fact he had the cancer or what it was, but he really invested in students in a much more intimate and meaningful way than most colleagues do and than he’d done before,” Murray said.

He also began traveling extensively and taught on cruise ships as well as in Germany, Spain, Japan and Chile. “More than once he said to me that his 70s were the best decade of his life,” Murray said. “He shows a tremendous example of how one can in one’s mature years still remain open to and embrace new opportunities and new challenges–and really go out and smell those flowers.”