A Tribute to My Father, Professor Richard Wydick (1937-2016)

Those of you who knew my father well know that he was in many ways a great man, and more importantly, a very good man.  He was also an excellent legal scholar.  He graduated 2nd in his law class at Stanford, practicing law for six years in San Francisco, then receiving an academic appointment at King School of Law at the University of California at Davis, where he was Professor of Law for 33 years.  My father was a complex man of interesting contrasts:


He was proud, yet both privately and publicly very humble.

He valued achievement, but underplayed his own.

Christian, yet skeptic.

He was prudent in spending, but profligate in giving, especially to family.

He had an exceptionally keen mind, but was capable of racking up an impressive string of losses in cards to his 6-year-old granddaughter.  “Are you trying Granddaddy?”…”Yes I’m trying!”

He was an unapologetic critic of boorish behavior, but gracious to the disadvantaged.

He was a product of that tweener generation, too young to identify with the Great Generation that survived the depression and fought WWII, but too old to identify with baby boomer culture.  He left the army before Viet Nam, and was never really into the rock’n roll thing.

His outlook on things was a mix of west-coast progressivism and rural Colorado conservatism.  As his best friend and law school colleague Joel Dobris so aptly commented at his memorial last week, one couldn’t tell sometimes if he was a left-wing leader of a right-wing movement or a right-wing leader of a left-wing movement. It really was hard to tell.

Even though he grew up in a traditional household where his dad probably didn’t know how to cook an egg, my dad was a gourmet chef.  He loved cooking for people.  We always had a UC Davis student living with our family, and I’m sure one reason was that there would be more people to appreciate his cooking.  And for me it made coming home on the weekends a delicious foray into new explorations of California cuisine.

Both his thinking and his life were incredibly well organized.  He had this saying “If you don’t know what you’re doing, do it neatly.”  And he actually hung this saying on his office wall.  Yet his workbench at home was the messiest 10 square feet on our property growing up.  I literally never saw it tidy from childhood until leaving for college.

His own father was fairly emotionally removed, to put it in the most charitable light, yet Dad was father figure to many, especially to the students living with my mom and dad whose own fathers were absent or had always been so.  He always liked my friends, except one short-term girlfriend in college whom he thought was too giggly.

He had this rugged outdoorsman side, loved outdoors, horseback riding, fishing, and adventure, especially when we were kids.  My guess is that, at least in his younger days, he could have survived for months in the wilderness with his rifle, a pocket knife, and some twine.

But he was lousy at sports; actually I can’t think of a single sport at which he excelled.  He could not shoot a basket, he threw every kind of sports ball awkwardly and inaccurately, and probably hit a baseball equally well with his quarter-inch-thick glasses on or off.

On the golf course he posed grave physical danger to all players within a 200 yard radius of him, in any direction.  Indeed as I reflect on it, he seemed to have spent a good deal of his life avoiding any form of organized physical exercise. The line between sports and other outdoor activities essentially defined whether Dad was good at it or interested in it at all.  It was only when he became essentially incapacitated at the end of his life that he capitulated to watching TV sports.

Yet he came to just about all my baseball and soccer games.  And he often invited me to come out to the park behind our house to help me practice baseball, even though he would frequently miss the ball trying to hit me flies.

When I started pitching in high school, he offered to catch my pitches, but he wasn’t skilled at catching the ball in the web of the glove and instead caught many of my fastballs right in the palm of the mitt.  Because of this, his left hand would get all purple and swollen.  But it meant ten times as much because I knew he was doing it because he loved his kid and not because he was some has-been athlete trying to vicariously fulfill some unrealized sports dream through his son.  He had no need for that.

I’m not really sure why I became an economics major at UC Davis, but I’m sure it was at least partly because my dad was an economics major when he was an undergraduate at Williams College.

A lot of people have asked me if I became a university professor because my dad was one, and it is probably true.

I always thought in graduate school that I would work for the World Bank or something, but then I found out from friends who had graduated that working for the World Bank was somewhat like working for General Motors.  I didn’t want to work for something that was anything remotely like General Motors, so I began to explore the academic option.

About this time, I went to one of Dad’s classes and watched him teach.  He was a master of the classroom and used these crazy props in class to illustrate things like patents, competition, and collusion.  I scanned the room and his students were riveted.  He was pulling off a miracle, actually making anti-trust law interesting.

On backpacking trip, told him I was thinking about being a professor and he said “I think you’d find it to be a very rewarding life” and that was that.  It became a settled issue for me that that’s what I was going to be.

His major academic influence on me as an adult was with my writing.  Along with writing influential books on anti-trust law and evidence, he wrote this book Plain English for Lawyers that ended up being the best-selling law book of all time or something like that.  I heard that it has sold over a million copies, which is a lot for a law book, and apparently it keeps on selling.

My father was an excellent, pithy, crisp writer.  A writer’s writer.

He had another saying, which was more like a joke: “Eliminate redundant, repetitive, and superfluous words.”  The ideas of 20 word sentences could be formed more elegantly and precisely with 10 words.  He was one of the best at replacing five rambling words in a sentence with one precise word that conveyed exactly what you meant to say in the first place.

Early on, when I started experimenting with public writing, there wasn’t a manuscript I didn’t send his way.  They would come back massacred with his red pen.  He read every sentence of probably a couple dozen public articles and both of my books. I suspect he corrected at least a third of those sentences, or suggested ways to make them more crisp.  Thirty years of the wrath of his red pen has made me a decent writer.

For the last couple of years, Dad and I had a little two person book club where we would read a book together and share our thoughts.  We did some fiction, some non-fiction, some Christian books, some secular.  The last book we read together was New York Times columnist David Brooks’ latest, The Road to Character.  Each chapter is formed around a vignette on a different historical figure of high character.  He loved that book for its writing as well as its content.  A couple of months before he died, he read me his favorite passage of the book, from Brooks’ chapter the life of St. Augustine.  It is under the chapter subtitle, Agency:

“The basic formula of the world is that if you work hard, play by the rules, you can be the cause of your own good life.  Augustine came to conclude that this was incomplete…He came to conclude that the way to inner joy is not through agency and action, it’s through surrender and receptivity to God…God has already justified your existence.  You may have the feeling that you are on trial in this life, that you have to work and achieve and make your mark to earn a good verdict.  Some days you provide evidence for the defense that you are a worthwhile person.  Some days you provide evidence for the prosecution that you are not.  But in Christian thought, the trial is already over…because Jesus stood trial for you and took the condemnation that you deserve. God wants to give us a gift, and we want to buy it. We continually want to earn salvation and meaning through work and achievement. But these are actually won when you raise the white flag of surrender and allow grace to flood your soul.”

For all my father’s academic achievements and profound moral integrity, I found it interesting that at the end of his life he was drawn not as much to the examples of character that were so colorfully depicted by Brooks, but in the measure of God’s forgiveness when our character fails.

Rest in this grace, Dad. Rest in his grace.


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