Master Teacher and Scholar: Hitting the 300-Yard Drive
Willamette roots run deep and strong in Rich Hagedorn’s JD’73 life. It’s no wonder he’s one of the few Willamette College of Law graduates to become a tenured professor at the law school — and one of the most beloved and celebrated teacher/scholars in the school’s history.
Hagedorn, who has taught law since 1975, has taught at Willamette since 1984. He’s taught an estimated 3,000 students, arguably more than any other Willamette law professor. Over the years, he’s been honored with numerous awards, including Willamette’s Teacher of the Year, the United Methodist Teaching Award and Professor of the Year at the University of Oregon. Most recently, his excellence in teaching and scholarship was recognized with his appointment as the Rosalind Van Winkle Melton Professor of Law.
Willamette Law was a natural choice for Hagedorn. His parents, both native Oregonians, had attended Willamette in the 1930s. A black and white photo of Hagedorn’s father playing baseball for the Bearcats sits proudly on a file cabinet in the professor’s office. Although neither of his parents graduated, he says “they loved Willamette” and encouraged him to attend. His sister and brother-in-law both attended Willamette in the 1960s.
Hagedorn points to a “dedicated faculty” during his Willamette law school years. He reels off the names of Willamette greats like Henry “Bill” Bailey, John Paulus, Ted Butler, Courtney Arthur, Carlton Snow, Jack Mylan, Ross Runkle, Dallas Isom, Don Turner and Claudia Burton, among others, as teachers and scholars who challenged and inspired him.
When Hagedorn graduated from Willamette in 1973, he wanted to be a small-town lawyer. He’d been raised in Albany, Ore., and was certain he’d fit right in as an attorney in a modest-size firm on Main Street. He joined the long-established firm of Weatherford, Thompson, Horton and Jordan in Albany, representing a number of different types of clients, including banks. However, it wasn’t long before the day-to-day drudgery of practicing law began to chafe.
“When you practice law, you learn what the expression ‘the devil is in the details’ means,” he said. “There is a great deal of administrative, almost clerical detail that I don’t care for.”
He also missed the “broader and somewhat theoretical perspective on the law” he’d enjoyed during his days as a law student at Willamette. He decided to pursue a job teaching law. At the recruitment conference for new law school professors held annually in Chicago (now in Washington, D.C.), he interviewed with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which was looking for someone to teach commercial law. They liked Hagedorn’s banking background and hired him.
Hagedorn moved his wife and family to Kansas City and began teaching. He thrived in his new job. “I knew right away that writing and teaching law was for me,” he said. “I loved it.”
What he didn’t love quite as much was the heat and humidity of Kansas City. “Kansas City is very nice, but my wife and I got homesick for the Northwest really quickly.”
After two years, serendipity smiled on the Hagedorns and their growing family. Gonzaga University School of Law School in Spokane, Wash., had an opening. He jumped at the chance to return to the Northwest.
Hagedorn taught at Gonzaga for five years. He was one of their most popular professors. The law school student body voted him the Most Outstanding Teacher Award in 1979-80. While he loved the students and the faculty at Gonzaga, Spokane wasn’t home. When an opportunity came in the fall of 1982 to teach as a visiting professor at the University of Oregon, he packed up his family and returned to his beloved Willamette Valley. He was named U of O’s Professor of the Year, unprecedented for a visiting professor.
Two years later, a similar visiting opportunity arose at Willamette and he returned to his alma mater. At last, he was where he belonged. “Willamette has always fit for me,” he said. “It’s well-regarded by the legal community, especially here in the Northwest. I like its small law school atmosphere. The students and faculty here are truly a community.”
In 1988, Willamette had to make a decision about whether or not to hire Hagedorn full time as a tenure-track professor. It’s almost unheard of for law schools to hire their own graduates. “We don’t like to do it,” said College of Law Dean Symeon C. Symeonides. “It’s considered inbreeding. You have to be really extraordinary both as a teacher and as a scholar like Rich Hagedorn is for that to happen.”
When Willamette hesitated, dozens of colleagues as well as current and former students rallied and sent persuasive and heartfelt letters urging the school to hire Hagedorn. One alumni even threatened to pull his financial support and sever all ties with the school. “Professor Hagedorn was unquestionably one of the finest professors I had during my college years, both in undergraduate and law school ... if Professor Hagedorn is not retained by the law school in a teaching position, I will discontinue all my support for the University.”
Hagedorn’s widespread popularity as a teacher certainly isn’t because he teaches the glamour courses. He teaches difficult, technical classes like contracts, payment systems and secured transactions. He makes what might otherwise be deadly dry material, clear, interesting and even fun. One law student wrote, “Hagedorn renders the amorphous opacity of commercial law transparent. He is a true gem.”
As students will attest, Hagedorn is not above telling a corny joke or using a pun to get his point across. “Humor is attention getting,” he said. “I have classes of 100 to 130 students. Often my students have no background in the material I’m teaching. I have to make it sexy and interesting. I do whatever I have to do, including using absolute silliness, to get their attention and create a personal connection with them.”
While Hagedorn uses a certain amount of levity, he’s serious about students being prepared. “Students in law school are preparing to represent people in their legal affairs. That’s important. I tell my students to walk into my classroom with the same level of seriousness and preparation that they’d walk into a courtroom with. They need to be prepared to present cases, discuss problems and ask and respond to questions.”
To get across difficult principles, Hagedorn uses a teaching style he adapted and embellished upon from his former Willamette law professor Jack Mylan. He begins each segment of material with a lecture highlighting issues and principles. Then he uses a modified Socratic method to review cases. He concludes the segment with another lecture to give students the “big picture” and help them see how the material fits into the rest of the course. Finally, he has students apply what they’ve learned to a hypothetical fact pattern, which they must work through to solution.
One of his students commented about his unique teaching style: “Professor Hagedorn presents class material in a logical, organized manner. Concepts seem to flow and build upon one another. Because of his teaching style, I have never felt overwhelmed even though he covers a lot of material. His enthusiasm makes it difficult for his students not to become excited as well.”
Another wrote, “Professor Hagedorn is what every law student wants in a professor. Someone who expects you to know the material and does what it takes to make sure that expectation is fulfilled.”
He’s also an effective teacher because he adapts his teaching style to fit different learning styles. “Everybody’s different. If I have a class of 120 students, I have 120 different individuals. I try to use different teaching techniques that will reach different students.”
Perhaps most importantly, Hagedorn insists that his students learn to “think like lawyers.” He insists that every student develop the ability to identify the issues involved in a problem and then be able to resolve the issue or problem.
“Law school is not just a memorization game,” he said. “You need to be able to apply the rules and principles we’re learning. I teach them to analyze the problem on the macro level — identifying the issues — and on the micro level — resolving those issues.”
When Hagedorn isn’t teaching, he’s a prolific scholar. His book, The Law of Debtors and Creditors, which he co-authored in 1986, still sells well. He co-authors one supplement a year for this book. He’s the co-author (with his former Willamette teacher Henry “Bill” Bailey) of Brady on Checks, an authoritative two-volume work that’s used by both the legal community and by banking institutions. He and Bailey co-author three Brady supplements per year, reporting and analyzing the 120 or so legal cases that impact the checking laws.
To assist students, Hagedorn co-authored two editions of a study guide entitled Secured Transactions in a Nutshell. He’s also the author of the book, The Law of Promissory Notes.
The writing, he says, keeps him on the cutting edge of his field. “Scholarship informs teaching,” he said. “The law is constantly changing, which allows me to always be adding new material to my courses.”
After nearly 30 years teaching law, how does Hagedorn keep it fresh for himself? “I don’t want to sound corny, but I love teaching so it’s easy to stay fresh. If I could hit a 300-yard drive every time I played golf, it would never get old to me. That’s what I try to do in my classroom. I don’t always hit the 300-yard drive, but I sure try.”