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by Jennifer Baldino Bonett
In 1935, the U.S. government passed the Wagner Act, the landmark law protecting the rights of organized labor. That same year, the man who would become “Mr. Labor Law” left his family farm in Montana with a suitcase and $70 in his pocket and headed for the University of Illinois. There, Clyde W. Summers, a wouldbe preacher, found his true calling.
As an undergraduate studying accounting, Summers began his academic career. “When I graduated,” he says, “I realized I didn’t like accounting all that much.” Summers then studied law at Illinois and, as a newly minted J.D., began his teaching career in 1942. As for the preacher’s life: “I started teaching because teaching didn’t prevent one from preaching,” he says. “In a classroom, you had a conscripted audience. You didn’t have to pass a collection plate. So it had all the advantages.”
Today, with four academic degrees, scores of distinguished fellowships, professorships, and lectureships, and 150 publications to his name, Clyde Summers marks his 60th year of teaching. Now the Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law, he has spent nearly half his professional career at Penn Law. Technically a professor emeritus, Summers, who is 83, says he never uses the term: “Emeritus means you’re retired, and I’m not.”
On a Tuesday in January, Summers has returned from his first-year class on labor law to his office, which is paneled with brimming bookshelves and features the political cartoons and black-and-white photography of his two sons. (Summers and his wife of 55 years, Evelyn, also have two daughters.) An email to a colleague blinking on his computer screen, Summers talks about his current research interests in public employee bargaining, arbitration, and issues of privacy, health and safety in employment law. When a student drops by to chat, he welcomes her warmly. As she exits, Summers leans back in his chair, hands folded under his chin, and talks about what he enjoys most about the law.
“Teaching,” he says in the plainspoken way that recalls his Midwestern roots. Why teaching? “Students,” he says. “I simply like the intellectual interchange, but I think probably that it is that I am a ham. I like an audience and I like performing. . . . one is always on one’s toes. It’s a genuine intellectual stimulation.
“I can have a bad headache,” says Summers who enjoys good health and walks two miles to and from work almost daily. “I go into class and teach for an hour, and I don’t have headache. Maybe it’s adrenaline. All I know is: It’s fun.”
Summers on Summers