John Weistart ’68: Scholar, teacher, mentor, friend

A scholar of contracts and commercial transactions renowned as a sports law pioneer, Weistart retired after 51 years at Duke Law, revered for a powerful gift of connection.

John Wiestart

Professor John Weistart had to teach his final class at Duke Law — Commercial Transactions — online last May, due to the campus shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But that didn’t stop a crowd of faculty, students, and staff from barging in to offer their beloved colleague and teacher best wishes on his retirement after 51 years on the faculty.

In remarks offered during the community “Zoom-bomb,” Professor Paul Haagen lauded Weistart as a “grounded and innovative” scholar. In addition to writing path-breaking work on outputs in requirement contracts, Weistart “is among the very few scholars who can legitimately claim to have created an entirely new field of legal inquiry — sports and the law,” said Haagen. He also praised Weistart’s use of new technologies to help students fully engage with materials, a reference to his DVD series, “The Contracts Experience.”

“But to concentrate on John’s scholarship is to miss what is for me an even more special contribution to this community,” Haagen said. “Students, in their evaluations, regularly describe John as ‘wise.’ We should all aspire to that.” He called Weistart a “font of decency” on the faculty: “He has consistently, forcefully, and gently reminded us to call on the better angels of our natures as we make decisions on how to shape and support the next generation of lawyers, the future of the law, and the way we live our lives.”

Weistart gained renown as a scholar for works that include his seminal 1979 book, The Law of Sports, and won awards for his multimedia course materials. But, he said during his last class, having the opportunity to interact with students “and to hopefully have some impact on how they view the world,” was one of the things he values most about his long career at his alma mater. And according to students across several generations, he did exactly that, in class and out.

“Contracts class with Professor Weistart was the most spectacular education experience of my life, seeing how someone could lead a group of people to levels of thought and examination of words and concepts, and of fairness itself — to the point one would forget that one was breathing,” said James Smith ’86, now chief intellectual property counsel at Ecolab USA and the former chief administrative patent judge at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “I have never read anything or examined any situation the same way after that class. It was mind altering.”

“John demonstrated daily that what he most desired was to make good lawyers better people who might then go out and make the law and the legal profession better for everyone.”

Will Nifong ’00

“He also had an uncommon gift for connecting with students and sorting out what made them tick,” said Will Nifong ’00, now the World Languages Chair at Northside College Prep in Chicago. “John demonstrated daily that what he most desired was to make good lawyers better people who might then go out and make the law and the legal profession better for everyone. He seemed to have a knack for knowing what we needed as individuals, intellectually, professionally, and in some cases, emotionally.”

A lifetime at Duke Law

Weistart chose to study law at Duke after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1965 thanks to the efforts of Dean Elvin R. “Jack” Latty, who famously raised the Law School’s stature in legal academia by personally recruiting top students recommended by the leaders of colleges and universities across the country. Although Weistart was struck, on his arrival in Durham, by the “level of obvious segregation” that left a deep and lasting impression, Duke Law proved to be a good fit. He found Professor Paul Hardin III ’54, who went on to become chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of Southern Methodist University, among others, particularly influential.

“Paul was our teacher at a very young age and he came to the Law School out of practice,” Weistart said. “He was somebody who conveyed very clearly the notion that lawyers had public obligations — that it wasn’t simply about making money — and there was a commitment both to the profession and society. He was a wonderful teacher.”

After graduating in 1968, Weistart joined Sidley & Austin in Chicago, where the excellence of colleagues confirmed for him the importance of the practice of law. “It really does have a significant impact in our society,” he said. But the frigid Chicago winter soon made him yearn to return to the South, and he applied for a teaching position at UNC. There, an administrator who received his application redirected it to Duke Law, where the new dean, A. Kenneth Pye, was also hiring. Pye, Weistart said, ended up being “the biggest influence on my life,” first by launching his academic career and later by helping him find his focus as a scholar.

Weistart initially divided his time on faculty between teaching and editing the cross-disciplinary journal Law & Contemporary Problems. The latter job also entailed serving as editor of books published in 1972 and 1974 on topics still resonant today: the potential and pitfalls posed by community economic development for minority communities; and how to develop customs, rules, and policies that would effectively keep the day-to-day activities of police within the bounds of the law. After Weistart moved, within a few years, to teaching full time Pye, whose two terms as dean were separated by service as Duke University chancellor and counsel, both inspired and supported Weistart’s groundbreaking examination of sports as a field of legal scholarship and practice.

“As Duke’s lawyer, Ken was very much involved in legal issues that were just starting to percolate involving college sports,” Weistart said. “These included everything from agents making improper contacts with athletes to, in retrospect, the very first rudimentary broadcasting contracts that would produce revenue. And he arrived early at the realization that contracts with coaches would be unlike any other contract the university would enter into — it required a special view of contracting. So he was the inspiration for The Law of Sports book contract and helped develop ideas of what the book might cover.

“When I look at my career and ask which individual projects were most rewarding, I would put on the list the fact that the sports book put together a way of thinking about not only college sports, but also professional sports and the rights of players in both of those spheres, and then discipline of athletes, and injuries to athletes and spectators.” Weistart, whose co-author on the 1979 book was Cym Lowell ’72, is gratified that it still offers a frame of reference to help practitioners and scholars work through the nuances of different sports-related matters. And in ensuing years, he has found developments regarding the limited rights of players to be particularly engaging, he said.

Innovating with projects and pedagogy

Weistart’s renown in the field of sports law led to a number of external projects, including the 1986 PBS special “Fair Game,” on which he served as executive producer. Aired on more than 360 PBS affiliates across the country, the program featured discussions of issues of corruption and commercialization in college sports with such luminaries as Notre Dame basketball coach Richard “Digger” Phelps, University of Maryland President John Slaughter, legendary sports journalist Howard Cosell, Bill Friday, the former UNC chancellor who heavily influenced the institution’s athletic policy.

“It was pursuing new territory,” Weistart said. “There had been few, if any, general discussions on college campuses about the role of big-time college athletics, yet controversies and scandals involving colleges were very prominent at that time.” And beyond the success of “Fair Game” as a vehicle for facilitating an understanding of these issues, the project yielded lessons in video production that proved useful to Weistart in his subsequent direction, over 20 years, of the Contracts Video Project which produced The Contracts Experience, the first complete set of multimedia course materials to be used in law schools.

The project, on which Weistart collaborated with Girardeau Spann of Georgetown Law as well as Professor H. Jefferson Powell of Duke, arose partly out of his theory — long-since proven, he said — that video “makes a much greater impact on students in terms of recollection, recall, and attention” than solely reading appellate judicial opinions. The materials took students beyond the opinions, using actors to illustrate hypotheticals derived from the cases under consideration and to test the facts and underlying biases that may have influenced the decisions, and panel discussions and links to materials to deepen their understanding of the relevant issues. In this way, it facilitated Weistart’s broader pedagogical goal: To instill in young lawyers caution about any statement of facts that’s presented to them.

“There is a tendency for students to regard the presentation of facts in an appellate opinion as absolute truth,” he said. “But an appellate opinion is also an effort by a court to persuade, so the court may be very selective in what facts make it into the opinion. If you follow the case through complaint, through discovery, through trial, through the intermediate court of appeals, the final court of appeals, you see that a whole lot of very plausible and sometimes persuasive issues fall by the wayside. In training lawyers, you want to introduce them to how unstable and variable facts are.” The DVD format allowed him to illustrate for students how the outcome of a case can earlier turn, at the trial stage, on something as simple as the likeability to the jury of a key witness on the stand.

“I was so lucky to be part of a Contracts class that used The Contracts Experience,” said Jessica Rivera-Rudak ’09, now senior corporate attorney at Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc., in Houston. “The vignettes brought to life the complex contract principles we were learning. By seeing clear examples of the application of contracts law, I was able to more firmly grasp the concepts and apply them to real-life situations. In my practice as in-house counsel, I still use the lessons learned from The Contracts Experience on a daily basis.

Teacher, observer, mentor, friend

Introducing students to coherent doctrine that they could employ in practice as well as to the variability of facts made teaching something he looked forward to every day, Weistart said, especially the first-year students facing the unknown of contract law at the start of each semester. “They’re not going to like that uncertainty, but three-quarters of the way through, they will see that their role is to reduce imprecision and uncertainty and people are prepared to pay them well to take this mess of conflicting stories and different facts and provide a coherent presentation that a third-party decision-maker will find persuasive. That’s pretty exciting.”

Weistart not only challenged students’ thoughts on principles of law, “but our assumptions about the purpose of the law and what we, as aspiring lawyers, were meant to do with it,” said Nifong. “Indeed, the supreme value of John Weistart in Contracts was that we learned not only about the nuances of the law but also its shortcomings, where it fails to achieve what is arguably just or fair. John had a way of illuminating choices and priorities in both the creation and application of the law, and we, as his students, were compelled to wrestle with them. A man of lesser goodness and patience and, yes, wisdom could never have led us to such deep understanding.”

Weistart’s instruction extended to “hallway debates, days-long email discussions, and much more,” said Nifong, who now counts his former professor as a longtime friend. “John probably knew almost immediately that I was someone who would love the law, law school, and law review, but who would ultimately be wholly unsuited to the practice. He also had the good sense to know that I had to figure that out on my own. Of course, he was ever there to reassure, to guide, to comfort, and, in many instances, to empathize.” In Nifong’s third year, Weistart helped him weather family illness and loss. “He helped me hold it together, repeatedly restoring my focus and giving me perspective on what truly mattered. Isn’t that the epitome of mentorship? Supreme intellectual gifts joined in equal measure by compassion, dedication, and generosity of spirit?

“To this day nothing fills me with greater pleasure than to receive an email from John seeking my thoughts on a matter of legal or social policy or simply wanting to check in on life.”

Rivera-Rudak, who had Weistart for Contracts, her first law school course, as well as for Commercial Transactions, one of her last, recalled feeling “out-of-my league” at Duke Law at first as a first-generation college student from a small town and raised by immigrant parents. She said Weistart, a physically towering figure, seemed intimidating in class, but she found him completely approachable when she met him during office hours. “I felt that I could go to him for help, both with class materials and other concerns.” She is particularly grateful for his guidance through “never-ending troubles” with used cars.

Farrah Bara ’20, also a first-generation college student, worried she was feeling “muddled” in Contracts, even as she perceived her classmates had grown comfortable with the subject matter. “When cold-called, I would spew some of those muddled thoughts, and Professor Weistart, to my surprise, would respond ‘very good’ and then somehow make sense of what I had just said. He could see through my muddled thoughts even when I couldn’t,” said Bara, now an associate at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. He offered early and important assurance to her that “someone respected my understanding of the law,” and remained a source of encouragement throughout law school, Bara said.

Christopher McLaughlin ’96, a professor of public law and government at the UNC School of Government, said that Weistart has figured significantly into both his professional success and personal happiness — he and his wife, Lynn Leubuscher, met as 1Ls in Contracts. “When Lynn’s in-house counsel job at IBM brought us back to the Triangle in 2001, John hired me as a fellow to work on The Contracts Experience,” said McLaughlin. “Several years later, John’s mentoring helped me obtain my current faculty position at UNC. I will forever be indebted to John for sharing his friendship and wisdom with me over the past 25 years.”

“He is the whole package: teacher, mentor, thoughtful critic and careful observer.”

Porter Durham ’85

For Michael Dockterman ’78, the friendship he forged with Weistart during law school has deepened over the subsequent decades, and his professor’s mentorship continued. “In my early days in practice, I would call him occasionally as a sounding board or for advice on one of my cases — we did a lot of contract litigation,” said Dockterman, a partner and litigator at Steptoe in Chicago and longtime professor of Trial Practice at Duke Law. “When an Olympic hopeful was being prevented from competing in the Los Angeles games, John encouraged me to take the case. He said, ‘Nobody knows this law. You’re going to learn it.’ Three months later, I was arguing Olympic eligibility in front of the International Olympic Committee. I even got an order from a federal district court in Illinois enjoining the Los Angeles Olympics until the IOC gave us that hearing, and the IOC reinstated the young man’s eligibility. It was all because John had sparked this interest and was willing to keep talking me through it.”

Added Dockterman: “I still deeply value John’s insights and good counsel. I could not be more grateful for our friendship.”

Weistart also was always ready to help students in need, like Porter Durham ’85, who arrived at Duke Law newly married and struggling to find affordable housing and otherwise make ends meet. Weistart offered him an apartment near Duke’s East Campus and to help him with the rent, allowed him to “super” the building — and then taught him the job. “John is a very solid handyman and mechanic,” said Durham, managing partner and general counsel at Global Endowment Management, LP who chairs the Law School’s Board of Visitors. “I learned as much about boilers, sump pumps, and drain snakes when servicing that old house as I did in class about the UCC and state and federal banking regulations. And no matter how much I fumbled and failed and didn’t quite get it right, John was ever the teacher, patient, thoughtful and careful not to shatter my already fragile sense of self.” Long after his graduation, Weistart offered guidance as Durham transitioned out of law practice after being widowed.  

“His careful advice, his thoughtful stewardship of my career, meant so much, and always made a difference. He  made the time to talk, even when I know he didn’t have it, and he never failed to provide the honesty and candor that made the difference for me and I’m sure countless others, at pivotal moments. He is the whole package: teacher, mentor, thoughtful critic and careful observer,” said Durham.

Crafting innovative solutions to societal challenges

Beyond the confines of campus, Weistart has applied his legal acumen and commitment to community to a range of innovative projects with far-reaching impact. He is a co-founder of and served as lawyer for the Trinity Park Foundation, that in 1980 purchased a longtime vacant corner lot slated for development in Durham’s historic Trinity Park neighborhood to create and maintain a small urban park with a playground and greenspace.

In 2000, he and a fellow congregant at West Raleigh Presbyterian Church, Chris Simes, founded the nonprofit Wheels4Hope to address a crucial need among struggling families for reliable transportation. Working through a mission group at the church, they opened an all-volunteer garage to repair donated cars and place them with low-income people. The organization now operates facilities in the Triangle and Greensboro with a budget of more than $2 million per year, and has an affiliate in Asheville. ­­­­

Along with his wife, Denise Thorpe ’90, who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister and Doctor of Theology, Weistart founded, in 2007, a nonprofit that has their primary philanthropic passion in its name: The Foundation for Lithuania’s Children. Its primary work is in support of children who come from families in distress in Lithuania — the birthplace of Weistart’s paternal grandparents — living in state-owned children’s homes. In addition to dealing with policy issues relating to children’s rights, the foundation facilitates personal relationships and recognition of special events for individual children.

Read more: John Weistart and Denise Thorpe ’90: Advocating for Lithuania’s children

Since he and Thorpe first visited Lithuania in 2000 at the invitation of Lithuanian alumna Ruta Laukien JD/LLM/MBA ’01, when they forged close ties to the country and learned of the “phenomenon” of children ending up in state institutions, they have regularly returned. In addition to fundraising for organizations that work with children and supported them with legal advice on request, Weistart has taught both law and business students, and engaged with undergraduate institutions. With Lithuanian public policy now directed at transitioning children from state institutions into foster care, he is working on a series of policies to help ensure their well-being. (Read more about Weistart’s work on behalf of children in Lithuania.)

“The hospitality of Ruta and her family both connected me to my family history and opened up a new world of relationships and work that became a central joy in my life,” he said.

Now getting settled into retirement — although still subject to the unusual dictates of the pandemic shutdown — and focused on projects in Europe, far from his longtime professional home, Weistart is grateful for having had the opportunity to “spend an entire lifetime at a university.”

“I have had wonderful colleagues and the faculty has been the source of endless ideas and debates and creativity, and I have found that has informed my life in so many ways,” he said at his retirement send-off, noting his particular pleasure at learning from younger faculty as well as colleagues of many decades’ standing. “That has been a wonderful lifetime opportunity and something I will carry with me, hopefully, for a very long time.”

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Winter 2021
Volume 40 | No. 1