He chose law -- in classroom over courtroom

Retirement: Esteemed law professor John Ester is leaving his University of Maryland post, and he's taking his goofy musical instruments, cheap cardboard fans and secondhand Golden Books with him.

May 12, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

On the shelves of the office of this man who has taught generations of attorneys and judges and legislators at the University of Maryland Law School, in the place where you expect to find books with titles like Contracts and Torts, you find instead the Berenstain Bears and Little Orphan Annie.

"Oh, these," says John Ester, a twinkle in his eye and a chuckle in his voice, pulling out one of his hundreds of thin paperback Golden Books, most purchased for 10 cents each at the now- defunct Goodwill bookstore on Charles Street.

They are going into boxes now, along with the coffee travel mugs, the cardboard fans, the toothpick holders, the sheet music, the hand bells, the murder mysteries, the toy musical instruments, the Abraham Lincoln portrait, the brass fire hose nozzle and all the other detritus of four decades of molding legal minds and collecting the clearly quirky and apparently worthless.

John Ester is retiring, having counted among his students such leaders as Judges Frederic N. Smalkin and Kathleen O'Ferrall Friedman and Reps. Benjamin L. Cardin and Elijah E. Cummings. He is giving his last tort exam today. When he has finished grading it early next month, he will be a professor emeritus -- entitled to another office where he can store most of his collections, but no longer teaching those who would be lawyers.

"Oh, yes, I'm going to miss it," says Ester, 63, who arrived in Baltimore from the University of Illinois law school in 1960.

He talks not of losing his influence on the state's legal profession, but of those moments when a class comes alive, when everyone is talking and arguing and questioning and learning.

"That's very rewarding because you know you've piqued their curiosity and interest," he says. "One human being cannot teach another human being anything. What you can do is try to make the subject matter interesting. They learn the material they want to. What teaching is all about is making them want to learn the material."

Many veteran teachers gravitate toward older students, but Ester prefers the raw material of first-year rookies.

"You can see them change in a way you don't see with third-year students," he says. "It's a little more rewarding. A lot of the first year of law school is spent learning how to be a law student."

That can be an intimidating process, but Ester has his ways of easing the transition. About 15 years ago, the school eliminated bells to begin and end classes. Ester started bringing his own, ringing them loudly at the start of his lectures.

That evolved into a variety of low-rent musical instruments, and in the past few years an Ester class might begin with a kazoo or push-button harmonica rendition of "Reveille" or "Amazing Grace."

"Over the years, dozens of student evaluations from first-year students have mentioned that they can't be frightened of an old guy up at the lectern starting class with some goofy musical instrument," he says.

"And then maybe they find out where my office is and come by for a visit, and we sit down and talk for a while," he says. "It's all part of their education."

And what an office it is. Ester wasn't eligible for one typical retirement gift -- a recliner -- because he's already had one at his desk for more than a decade.

"I figure I spend 45 or 50 hours a week in here, so I should make it as much like home as possible," he says.

Behind the door is his fan collection. "I'm really surprised that only one came from a funeral home," he says, showing off the dozen or so cardboard cutouts from volunteer fire departments, church groups and such.

"I have one rule: I don't pay more than $1. I had to pass up a Shirley Temple fan. That was one that could have been a real collectible, but they wanted $8 for it."

The murder mysteries -- Ellery Queen is already in boxes, but Ngaio Marsh is still on the shelf -- are favorite reading. The Golden Books started when he heard that the wife of a dean collected the cardboard-bound versions. He decided to specialize in the paperbacks.

Atop the shelves is a lineup of a dozen or so coffee travel mugs, just the tip of that plastic iceberg -- most of the drawers in the filing cabinets you might believe hold legal documents actually are filled with such mugs. Ester has hundreds of them, and usually brought to class one that was somehow linked to the case under discussion that day.

Among the actual files in the cabinet is one full of articles, notes, letters, brochures and such that attack and support Ester's contention that the state of North Dakota does not exist -- just the type of assertion that gets first-year law students constructing arguments, the foundation of their legal education.

The Lincoln portrait, perhaps a symbol of the esteem he holds for our greatest president? No, it was going to be thrown out and he rescued it. The long fire hose nozzle on the window sill was purchased at a store in the Adirondacks.

"It was $10. There's more than $10 worth of brass in this," he says with authority.

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