Former professor Dallas Isom, 72, dies

Dallas Isom, a thin, chain-smoking law professor whose obsession with World War II military strategy led him to write a book about the Battle of Midway, died Oct. 3. He was 72 and lived in Salem.

Isom, described by his colleagues as a brilliant professor, taught civil procedure at the College of Law from 1968 until he retired in 1998. He was emeritus professor at the time of his death.

"Professor Isom served Willamette and its students long and well," said current Dean Symeon Symeonides. "We honor his service in the same way he honored this school."

Isom's teaching style, said visiting professor Ross Runkel, was "incredibly intelligent, unbelievably energetic, creative. It would be a show to watch."

Isom, Runkel said, paced back and forth. He'd twirl his pencil. Other professors explained legal principles in bookish, obtuse ways; he used real-life examples.

When describing the concept of personal jurisdiction, Isom referred to the "two beer rule" -  if you come into a state long enough to have only one beer, that state's courts would not have jurisdiction over you; if you stayed long enough to have two beers, you'd be subject to the jurisdiction of that state's courts.

"Dad was a great storyteller," said Isom's son, Matthew, a teacher at South Salem High School. "He just loved to have theories that are atypical. He liked unconventional historical interpretations."

World War II military strategy fascinated him, and he staged elaborate battlefield re-enactments at his house. Isom's father Orville served as a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II; Dallas was a communications technician in the Navy from 1958 to 1962. Always interested in European history, Dallas said he got interested in the Pacific after reading the memoirs of his father, who died in 1990.

After Isom retired, he wrote a 408-page book called "Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Battle of Midway," published by Indiana University Press. The product of 10 years of research, the book attempts to explain why the Japanese lost the pivotal Battle of the Midway. Isom, who didn't speak Japanese, analyzed Japanese records, literature of the battle - much of which had never been translated into English -- and interviewed more than two dozen Japanese battle veterans. He concluded that the main officers involved were competent but their high-level blunders did them in.

"The subject has entered the realm of legend - even epic saga - and much of what has been written on the battle in America is jingoistic and condescending toward the Japanese," he wrote in the introduction. "What was now needed, I believe, was the kind of objective, detached analysis of the Japanese side of the battle that a crusty old law professor was peculiarly equipped to provide."

Isom graduated from the University of Utah Law School with highest honors and taught at Stanford University's law school for a year before arriving at Willamette. His students said he loved teaching civil procedure and could recite the entire history of English Common Law, showing how it evolved to the law practiced in the United States today.

"He turned that foreign territory into comfortable hunting grounds," said attorney Dan Gatti, JD '73. "He was one of the finest profs I had."

Isom is survived by sons Matthew and Thomas and 10 grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Nov. 6 in Room 201 of the Law School.

Those wishing to give a donation in Isom's name may write a check c/o Willamette University College of Law and send it to Mike Bennett, WU College of Law, 245 Winter St., Salem, OR 97301. Or contact Mike Bennett at 503-370-6761.